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Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 18 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

August 30, 2020 20 comments

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1938) French title: Adieu à Berlin. Translated by Ludmila Savitsky

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was published in 1938. It is composed of six pieces set in pre-WWII Berlin. They are in chronological order and feature characters that overlap from one piece to the other. The narrator is named after the author, but he claims in the foreword that there’s nothing to read into it and that “’Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”. I’ll call him the Narrator, to avoid any confusion between the writer and his literary doppelganger.

Goodbye to Berlin opens with A Berlin Diary – Autumn 1930 and ends with A Berlin Diary – Winter 1932-3. A contemporary reader immediately knows that the Narrator will picture Berlin during crucial years, the ones when the Nazis took power. Between these two bookends, we’ll spend some time with Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers and spend the summer 1931 On Ruegen Island with the Narrator.

We get to meet with Berliners in one of those boarding houses that were so frequent in those times. Frl. Schroeder rents rooms in her flat to survive and the Narrator lives there while he supports himself by giving English lessons. He stays there the whole time, except when, broke, he moves in with the Nowaks, a working-class family. While I didn’t care much about Sally Bowles, I was interested in the Nowaks. It gives a good picture of the struggling working class of the city. The part about the Landauers, a Jewish family who owns a famous department store in Berlin, was engaging too. (For the record, the store already has an inhouse nursery to watch the children while their mothers are shopping.)

Isherwood doesn’t write an openly political novel but his description of life in Berlin is a vivid picture of a city that slowly shift from free and impoverished to ruled and controlled by the Nazis. With light touches, the reader feels things change around the Narrator. His students’ type changes: at first, we see him giving lessons to bored upper-class housewives and in the last winter, he teaches English to Germans who want to leave their country and work in the USA.

Unemployment is going up. Bobby, another of Frl. Schroeder’s boarders goes from occasionally working to unemployed. The Nowaks live in a squalid attic, one that regulations declare unfit for accommodation but do they have a choice? Banks go bankrupt, factories close, the price of food goes up. There’s no clear focus on this, details here and there alert the reader and it’s up to them to put the pieces together to have a clear picture.

The more the book progresses, the more the presence of the Nazis and S.A. men makes itself known. It starts with flags and militants. It ends with beatings on the streets, arrests, book burning and Hitler taking power. The night life goes from wild and free to interrupted by police raid in cafés and cabarets. The attacks against the Jews progress, get more and more violent until it is pure persecution.

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to any new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fürher’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

The Narrator is in a unique position. He lives in Berlin and shares the population’s way-of-life. He’s protected by the safety bubble of his British nationality but at the same time, he’s not there as a newspaper correspondent. He belongs to the Berliner people and is an outsider.

Goodbye to Berlin is the Narrator’s farewell to a city he spent time in and had to leave due to the political circumstances. It’s also his adieu to a certain Berlin, the fun one where he sowed his wild oats. His book is disquieting, especially in the times we’re living. What would I do, if I were in Frl. Schroeder’s shoes? Do we, common people, see dictators coming before it’s too late?

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

Address Unknown by K. Kressman Taylor – Brilliant

October 21, 2019 20 comments

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. (1939) French title: Inconnu à cette adresse. Translator : No mentioned. (Grrr…)

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor is a slim epistolary novella. It is the correspondence between two friends, Max and Martin who are art traders and own a gallery together in America. They start writing to each other when Martin moves back to Germany with his wife in 1932.

Max is Jewish and their relationship gets strained when the Nazis take power in Germany. They slowly grow apart as Martin is swept over by the dictatorship in his country.

In a few exchange of letters from 1932 to 1934, Kathrine Kressman Taylor shows how things drift away, one small event after the other and how someone slowly turns his back to who he was as the politics around him indoctrinate him.

She demonstrates how a lethal ideology takes over the mind of a normal man, how he can be led to the unthinkable and how hard it is for a friend to witness this transformation.

This is a powerful read, wrapped up in a seemingly innocent correspondence but it says it all. Step by step, that’s how ordinary people got sucked into the horror. It was published in 1939. It was a warning to the world.

Highly recommended, especially to adolescents.

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon – All Along the Watchtower.

September 26, 2019 10 comments

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon (1933) Original French title: L’homme de Londres.

L’homme de Londres by Georges Simenon was our Book Club choice for September. It is translated into English under the title Newhaven-Dieppe.

Louis Maloin works the night shift at the coastal train station in Dieppe, France. He’s a switchman, in charge of all the trains that liaise the actual Dieppe railway station and the ferry harbor. When the book opens, we’re with Maloin in his watchtower over the harbor and the ferry from Newhaven is about to disembark its passengers and goods. The arrival of passengers is organized in such a way that they cannot escape custom before going on land.

Maloin is looking out the window, observing the passengers who arrive. He has a privileged view on the ferries and trains that come in and out of the harbor.

He notices two men disembarking from the ferry. One of them, a man in a grey suit, swiftly gets around the line to customs with a suitcase in hand. Nobody had seen him but Maloin. The man goes to stand with the people who are on the quay, as if he were waiting for a passenger instead of having just stepped out of the ferry. Maloin is intrigued, wondering what kind of contraband the man carries in his suitcase. He doesn’t say anything, he too would try to avoid customs if he could.

Later that night, he sees the two men again and the one in the grey suit pushes the other into the sea while attempting to keep the suitcase. He fails. The other one falls into the water, drowns, taking the suitcase away with him.

Maloin witnesses everything and instead of going to the police, he dives into the harbor and fishes the suitcase. Back in the safety of his glass tower, he opens it and finds the equivalent of 540 000 francs in British pounds. He decides to keep the money and hide it in his closet in the tower.

The man in the grey suits stays in Dieppe. He and Maloin see each other in town. They both know about the suitcase and don’t act on it. The Englishman doesn’t confront Maloin and the latter almost wishes that he did.

Maloin doesn’t know what to do about the money but he never really thinks that he witnessed a murder, that this is ill-acquired money and that he should contact the authorities.

The hesitation of the two men will be fatal. Indeed, it leaves enough time for Inspector Molisson from Scotland Yard to arrive in Dieppe. He starts digging around. He knows the thief in the grey suit and he’s after the money. His presence will set the rest of the events into motion.

Newhaven-Dieppe can be easily read in one sitting. It’s one of the romans durs and Maloin is a strange character. Maloin’s motivations are hard to pinpoint. We never understand why he made that impulse decision to pick up the suitcase and not report the murder.

He’s married with two children and he has a stable job with the railroad company. We’re in 1933, the times are difficult and the family struggles to make ends meet. Is it because his wife comes from a wealthier family and because his brother-in-law looks down on him? Is it the shame he feels that his daughter Henriette has to work as a servant at the local butcher because her family needs the money?

Maloin doesn’t know himself why he acts that way. Simenon seems to tell us that we never know ourselves completely. The ending of the book and Maloin reminded me of Meursault, in L’Etranger by Albert Camus, although it was written decades later.

This is a very atmospheric novel. It is set in Dieppe, in winter. Simenon excels in the description of the foggy shores, the little town with its shops. The sea, the tides influence people’s lives. We see a bit of the life in the seaside town in winter, when the hotels and the casino are closed for the season. Only the locals are there, and the only strangers in town are the occasional salesmen and business men who come through Dieppe. Simenon describes the streets, the lights, the cafés and the local life with the fishermen and people picking up seafood at the shore. I didn’t know that trains rode like tramways between the main station and the ferries embankment in order to make a connection between ferries and rail. It worked for goods and passengers.

Simenon’s style is fluid and easy to read. I noticed that he used English words like banknotes, policemen and meeting instead of billet de banque, policiers or réunion when he was referring to something British. The French readership of the 1930s would have been less exposed to the English language than nowadays. How was this perceived?

I also picked a slightly misogynistic vibe. Poor Madame Maloin only gets a first name in the last minute, when Maloin finally acknowledges her as his equal. Otherwise, she’s just a wife, she has no other identity. I suppose it goes with the times.

Newhaven-Dieppe is a cleverly crafted novella about a man who acts out of character, doesn’t know why and wrecks his life. Noir is the color.

Highly recommended.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 21 comments

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (1934) French title: Vos jours sont comptés. Translated from the Hungarian by Jean-Luc Moreau.

For December, our Book Club had picked They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, the first volume of his famous Transylvanian Trilogy. Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a liberal Hungarian nobleman from Transylvania involved in politics. He was part of the high society in Budapest and in Transylvania. His Transylvanian Trilogy pictures Hungary before WWI and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Joseph Roth describes this decline on the Austrian side in The Radetzky March, Bánffy shows the other side of the coin in Hungary.

They Were Counted is a great picture of the high society in Budapest. We follow two cousins, Bálint Abády and László Gyerőffy. We’re in 1904 and they’re both in their twenties. Bálint went to university in Vienna and spent a few years in Foreign Affairs abroad. He has just been elected at the Hungarian Parliament. Bálint is now ready to take part in the country’s political future and to take the reins of his estate. László lost his parents when he was young and was raised by relatives. He’s a talented pianist but could not go to music school as he would have liked. He feels that he doesn’t belong to any family, that he’s barely tolerated in high society and it’s a big chip on his shoulder. He’s secretly in love with one of his cousin, Klára Kollonich. His future is uncertain because he would love to be a musician and he doesn’t have the fortune to stay idle and just go to music school.

The century is young, they’re at the beginning of their adult life and they have to choose their path.

Bánffi describes the life in Hungarian high society, a life made of balls, hunting parties in the country. It’s the classic life of European nobility at the turning of the century. According to the atmosphere and the mores, Budapest sounded closer to Paris than to London though.

Bánffi also portrays the complicated political issues that Bálint has to face in Parliament. I suppose that everything is accurate as Bánffi was part of this world. I have to confess I got lost in the intricacies of Hungarian politics. I got the big picture though: they were always in opposition with Vienna, they were not over the missed opportunity of the 1848 revolution and they were fighting futile battles instead of concentrating on real issues to improve their fellow citizen’s living conditions. In mirror to Roth’s Radetzky March, we see a Hungarian nobility who fails to see the real challenges of a changing world and a country hindered by old-fashioned politicians unable to renew themselves. The situation in Transylvania is even more complicated as the Hungarians and the Romanians have to live together and don’t speak the same language. I understood that the Romanians were oppressed by the Hungarians who had the actual power. (Power lent by the Austrian emperor.)

I suspect that of the two main characters, Bálint is the closest to Bánffy himself. He’s open-minded and a progressist. Now that he’s a deputy and that he’s back home on his land, he wants to modernize his country. Bálint’s father died when he was young and during his illness, he left a set of directives to help his wife manage their estate and keep it intact for their son. Now that he’s old enough to manage it, Bálint is determined to improve the economy on his land. He visits with his steward and tries to implement new methods. His naïve enthusiasm bumps into the established order. His men don’t dare to speak their mind in front of him and say yes to everything. They have also implemented a system made of corruption and violence and they don’t want the master to shatter it through misplaced modernism. The conservatism that kills the country is not the prerogative of the noble leading class.

László is more like a Balzacian hero. He goes to Budapest firmly decided to live modestly on his income and study music now that he’s the master of himself and can afford this choice. This lasts a few weeks until he’s sucked into a whirlwind of parties as the new season starts in Budapest. These social events are opportunities to see Klára and it pushes him to attend as many balls and soirées as possible. This high life costs a lot of money though and puts him in a difficult financial position. He’s also too charming for his own good and craves acceptance from this world. With this personality, he was set to be snatched by this life and drown in it.

Both Bálint and László have a complicated love life. Bálint found out too late that he was in love with Adrienne Milóth, someone he could have married. They had a real friendship, made of deep conversations and complicity. But at the time, Bálint was blinded by his affair with a married woman and when he came back from abroad, Adrienne was married to the oaf Pál Uzdy. It’s not a love marriage, Adrienne only wanted to be independent from her parents. On László’s side, we have the classic love for someone he can’t marry because Klára’s parents would not approve of it. Her mother has other plans for her daughters and they all involve climbing the social ladder through prestigious marriages. Nothing new here compared to 19thC literature.

However, Bánffi goes further than putting his heroes in desperate situations. He also shows how stifling their world was for women. They have no freedom at all. They go from their parents’ rule to their husbands’ one. They have no opportunity to have a career and he doesn’t picture the equivalent of literary salons in Budapest. Surely there were some. Bánffy draws a sad picture of the men of his class. They objectify women, they are predatory and wooing means hunting. Even the polished and respectful Bálint acts this way around Adrienne. And at the same time, we see women who cheat on their husbands, select a new lover and weave a well-thought trap to get them. All in all, the relationships between men and women didn’t seem very healthy to me. It’s violent under the politeness. And again, we are in a society that discards half of their brains because these brains belong to females.

They Were Counted is a fabulous picture of Hungary and Transylvania at the time. Bánffy wrote it in 1934 after the war and the collapse of the empire. He’s very lucid about the nobility’s failure to handle changes. This world was dying and WWI only accelerated its agony.

The original title of Bánffy’s masterpiece is Erdélyi Tőtenét – Megszámláltattál. Sometimes I like to check the original title of a book and see if the French title is the direct translation of the original or if it’s something different for the French public. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to Google Translate to see the translation in French and in English. Same result in both languages, the title means Transylvanian torture with anxiety. It gives another vision to the book, doesn’t it?

They Were Counted ends with a double cliffhanger. With 750 pages, it’s a long book and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read the two volumes left. On the one hand, I want to know what will become of Bálint and László. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to start another 600 pages book right now. Still on the fence on this. If you’ve read it, how are the two other volumes?

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 23 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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