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Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

June 30, 2021 12 comments

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

May 16, 2021 28 comments

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

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

April 17, 2021 19 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspidistra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And somewhere else.

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

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

April 14, 2021 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example:

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

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

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

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

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

March 3, 2021 16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but Nigel teases back, like here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

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

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

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

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

September 20, 2020 19 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.

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