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The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 32 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 26 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

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.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

April 7, 2019 40 comments

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – Interesting but difficult to read

February 27, 2019 20 comments

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1952). French title: La Conversion.

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. James Baldwin. Go Tel lt on the Mountain.

Too late for what?

Welcome to Harlem, 1935 and meet John Grimes, the teenage son of a Seventh Day Adventist substitute preacher, Gabriel. We’re on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and he’s confused.

The first part of Baldwin’s debut novel focuses on John, his home and his family. In appearance, nobody remembers his birthday, not even his mother. We’re in a poor apartment and his mother Elizabeth has trouble dealing with John’s young brother Roy and his little sister Ruth. Roy is a troublemaker, daring in a way John would never dream to be.

Gabriel’s shadow hovers over the family. He might be a man of God but he’s no angel. John hates him fiercely because he’s a preacher and violent man. His mother Elizabeth is under his yoke, somehow feeling unworthy of her husband. Gabriel has a daywork during the week and preaches during the weekend but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. We see that John lives in an unhealthy atmosphere.

For his birthday, John escapes to Manhattan and watches the white man’s world. And he wants to be part of it. This means escaping Harlem and his fate. John is also slowing understanding that he’s gay. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1952, homosexuality is not openly discussed. But the hints are there for the reader to see. John is only starting to understand his sexuality and he has a crush on Elisha, the preacher’s son.

And he watched Elisha, who was a young man in the Lord; who, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, had been given power over death and Hell. The Lord had lifted him up, and turned him around, and set his feet on the shining way. What were the thoughts of Elisha when night came, and he was alone where no eye could see, and no tongue to bear witness, save only the trumpetlike tongue of God? Were his thoughts, his bed, his body foul? What were his dreams?

John knows deep down that he’s attracted to men but, in his world, it’s too big for words. John is gay, he’s tempted by the outside world, he’s intelligent and he hates his father. Why would he want to be a preacher like his father? Instinctively, he wants more for himself and cannot deny his sexual orientation. Who he is isn’t compatible with a preacher’s life.

Too late for what? Too late to be a straight religious black man in Harlem.

But he’s fourteen and not ready to give up on other people’s expectations. His conversion is his goal, something expected from his family but also something that could bring him closer to Elisha, the preacher’s son. He has doubts that he tries to conquer but they keep creeping up his mind:

And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shore of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight and he, a witness.

He wants to be saved. Badly.

The second part of the book is a Sunday morning service in Gabriel’s church. The whole family is there, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the children and Florence, Gabriel’s sister. Baldwin takes us in Elizabeth’s, Gabriel’s and Florence’s thoughts. They mull over their past and the reader sees their personal journey and John’s origins.

Gabriel used to drink and sleep around before he was saved. Florence was pious and stayed at home, taking care of their mother and spending time with her best friend, Deborah. Gabriel was still wasting his life away when Florence left for New York, to leave her hopeless brother behind and try to have a better life in the North. Deborah was sadly well-known in their town because she had been raped by a group of white men. She’s also very pious and Gabriel later marries her. After Deborah’s death, Gabriel comes to New York too and marries Elizabeth, John’s mother. He met her through Florence. Two despairs don’t make a hope, as they will soon discover it.

They have the past of common black people in the South and John belongs to the first generation that hasn’t known the South and has lived in New York his whole life. In a way, they’re like emigrants, the parents coming from another country, another past and the children belonging to their present, to this new territory they moved to. For the adults, it’s time to look back on their past and think about it:

But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective, to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.

The dedication of Go Tell It on the Mountain is For my mother and my father. John looks like a young James Baldwin. Bright. Gay. Stepson of a preacher who married his mother when she was pregnant with him. Born in Harlem. Destined to explore the world. This novel was published in 1952, when Baldwin was living in Paris. Perhaps the geographical and emotional distance helped him write it.

For me, as interesting as it was, it was a very difficult read because of all the religious aspects. They put me off. The grand spectacle of the Sunday service was tedious to read. I was happy to read about the characters’ past, but all the religious parts bored me to death. I don’t know if they were necessary. Maybe they were, especially for foreign readers like me. Church services with events like this

The silence in the church ended when Brother Elisha, kneeling near the piano, cried out and fell backward under the power of the Lord.

as a regular occurrence is not part of my cultural background. At all. Living in Paris, Baldwin probably knew that some of his readers would need details. The Sunday service is supposed to be a powerful scene but I watched it from afar, thinking they were crazy to put themselves into such a state of mind for religion. In the end, we don’t really know where Baldwin stands, as far as religion is concerned. What does he really think about these ceremonies?

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a complicated read for me, one I can’t say I enjoyed. I expected more family confrontations and less sentences with God, Lord, the prophets and the saints in them. However, I think it’s an important book to read to understand Baldwin’s work.

Other billets about Baldwin’s work: Going to Meet the Man. A must read.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 12 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 10 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (1950) French title: La chasse aux canards. Translated into French from the Dutch (Belgium) by Elly Overziers et Jean Raine.

I’m terribly late with my billets and here I am in June, writing about a novel I read back in January. I am overworked and I don’t have enough time to keep up with everything but let’s be honest, as far as this billet is concerned, I was dragging my feet.

The Duck Hunt is the bleakest story I’ve read this year, it’s even worse than Caribou Island. We’re in the early 1920s in the Dutch speaking countryside of Belgium. The Metsiers live in an isolated farm. Here’s the picture: the father was killed during a duck hunt, the mother has an affair with Peter, the farm hand; Yannie, the mildly-retarded son is head over heels in love with his…sister Ana and the said daughter and sister just broke things off with another farmer, the Fat Smelders. Then Ana meets Jim Braddock, a black American soldier stationed in her village. That’s the cheery setting of The Duck Hunt.

Hugo Claus alternates short chapters, all one-person narratives. We see the events through everyone’s eyes: Peter, Ma, Ana, Yannie, Jim Braddock and even Jules, another villager. The American soldier is the only one who’s called by his full name, probably because he’s the stranger and the foreigner.

Although I admire Claus’s craft –he manages to pack a lot in a short 137 pages – I can’t say I enjoyed or even like The Duck Hunt. I have trouble liking books set in grim villages where unhealthy relationships are born from too much isolation and too much proximity. It gives an unpleasant vibe of consanguinity mixed with crass ignorance. It made me shudder and I wasn’t keen on finishing it and I’ve been procrastinating the billet ever since, reluctant to go back to this disagreeable atmosphere. It’s like The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I really disliked.

It’s obviously a good piece of literature but it’s not what I like to read. After reading this and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I bought The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald because I was in desperate need of a feel-good novel. I’ve just read it and the billet will hopefully come soon.

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 23 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 16 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

Sicily2

Run River by Joan Didion

November 23, 2014 31 comments

Run River by Joan Didion. 1963. French title: Une saison de nuits.

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

It’s August 1959, it is the first paragraph of Run River and I was hooked. I wanted to know about Everett and Lily and about this shot. She remains quiet, as if she expected it, as if she were in her own world, where the outside world hardly penetrates. I saw Lily as the woman on the painting Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)

Hopper_MORNING_SUN

What happened? Everett shot Ryder Channing by the river, where Channing was to meet his lover, Lily. From the very first chapter we know this murder happens, we know why but what we don’t know is how Everett and Lily are going to react to it. Is Everett going to tell the police it was intentional or are they going to disguise it into an accident? Will Lily help Everett? Will Everett want to be helped?

After that, the novel goes back in time from 1938 and dissects Everett and Lily’s marriage. It is set in Northern California, in a ranch on the Sacramento River, near Sacramento. Everett McClellan has inherited the ranch from his family who comes from the first pioneers in California. We are near Sacramento, it means that the ranch is on the land which belonged to Sutter less than a century ago. So Everett’s great-grandparents were probably part of the locusts I mentioned in my billet about Sutter’s Gold by Cendrars.

Lily Knight comes from the same background. As her father repeatedly points out You come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it. He owns and runs a ranch in the same area, mostly growing fruits. Mr Knight was involved in politics and was even candidate to be the governor of California.

Didion_Run_RiverEverett is freshly graduated from Stanford when he meets Lily again. She’s his little sister Martha’s friend. She’s barely 18 and home after a year at Berkeley. She didn’t like her experience at university and she’s happy to be home, in safe territory. Everett realizes she’s all grown up and they start a relationship. Although he hardly knows how to express his feelings, we gather that he’s crazy in love with her and insists upon marrying as soon as possible. It is as if he wanted to secure her as his before she had a chance to meet someone else and leave him. She’s not sure to love him but prefers to go with the flow than take action. I think that there are two decisions in life that don’t need much thinking: getting married and having a child. No thinking is needed because the decision should be obvious. If the answer is not obviously “yes”, then it’s “no”. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him but after all, he represents the kind of man she should marry. That opens a wide and clear path to a disastrous marriage. Lily and Everett have common values and they both enjoy life on the ranch. Everett can’t imagine doing anything else than growing hops and Lily always pictured herself in that environment, so they do have this in common. However, they have little to say to each other and fail to communicate and create the deep connection that keeps a marriage alive despite the ups and downs.

Except when she was in trouble (when her father died, or when she was pregnant with Knight), she could think of little to say to Everett: she was not, nor was he, a teller of anecdotes or gossip, and sometimes weeks passed without their having what could be called, in even the crudest sense, a conversation. Usually in bed she pretended she was someone else, a stranger, and she supposed tat Everett did too; when she did not pretend she was someone else, she pretended that Everett was.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? It feels like she has given up on him. Everett is there physically and he loves her deeply but he doesn’t manage to reach out to her.

Martha turned off the light again. “Everett thinks the sun rises and sets with you. You should realize that.”

“I realize it.”

“I mean you should realize how simple Everett is.”

Everett may be simple, the problem is that Lily isn’t. On her side, she’s not grounded enough to live well with someone as simple as that. She’s not the perfect rancher’s wife. She’s not much interested in wifely duties even if she plays her role. But that’s a role for her, not her real identity.

Joan Didion describes Lily as a representative of a generation of women who don’t have careers but went to university. She goes straight from her father to her husband, from daughter to wife and mother. She never gets time to be a woman, except maybe during that short time at university. But for Lily, that time was wasted. She’s shy, she comes from a sheltered environment and she’s not ready to integrate into student life. She gets married and doesn’t know who she is and what she wants in life. It doesn’t help their relationship. She’s not a very likeable character, in my opinion. The story is told from her point of view and I would have liked to have Everett’s side of the story. I’m left wondering how things were for him. Since he’s not communicative, even Lily can only speculate. They fail each other but are never able to talk about it openly.

Martha is a disturbing element their marriage. Lily and Everett live on the McClellan ranch, with Mr McClellan senior and Martha until her untimely death. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) Lily and Everett have known each other forever and they both love Martha dearly but I couldn’t help thinking Everett and she had almost an incestuous relationship:

“You might marry Everett,” Martha McClellan had suggested to Lily, once when they were both children, “if I decide not to.” “You aren’t allowed to marry your own brother” Lily had said.

You could think of it as a coincidence but I don’t think that all little girls profess that they’d want to marry their older brother. This passage also shows that Lily and Everett ending up married was a given in their microcosm.

Martha is a bit unbalanced. She’s prone to fits and melancholy. She acts out and has a love-and-hate relationship with Ryder Channing, the man Everett will kill years later. He’s not a rancher, more someone in business, always seeking a new venture. To people from their milieu, he’s not a suitable husband and Martha knows it. She pretends not to be in love with him because she always imagined herself as the wife of a rich rancher. And that he’s not. Her untimely death leaves her ghost hanging over Lily and Everett’s marriage. Lily always knew that deep down her friend never thought her worthy of marrying her brother. Everett has a hard time dealing with his grief. Martha’s shadow is always lurking in the shadows of their lives.

Apart from Lily and Everett’s individual story, Run River is also fantastic analysis of the culture and roots of the Sacramento area. Everett and Lily are the last representatives of the pioneer’s spirit. Ryder Channing represents the new California.

Like Clark McCormack, Channing conveyed the distinct impression that he could live by his wits alone. They were both free agents, adventurers who turned whatever came their way to some advantage; both pleasant, knowledgeable, and in some final way incomprehensible to Everett.

Becoming a rich rancher is not Channing’s idea of success. Like Sutter, the McClellans are rooted on their ranch and have a hard time imagining that their life could change. Martha couldn’t let go of her dream to marry a rancher to marry a man like Channing. They like the old ways and they look down on the Channings around them. Their parents tried to infuse them with the pioneer’s spirit but failed. Everett has no other ambition than to grow hops. Lily can’t grab what she wants out of life, she doesn’t even know what she wants.

Didion was born in Sacramento, she comes from that culture and she observes a turning point in her environment. Lily and Everett’s story is seen as the epilogue of the pioneer’s experience in California. I’ve also read a collection of her essays, L’Amérique and to me she’s the writer of this other California, the rural one, where the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath were headed. I read it not so long after Steinbeck’s novel and I was surprised to read that in 1938 the Okies were still pitching tents at the far end of the ranch, near the main highway south. When did it stop? When did all these people find a job and have a decent home? Of course she describes the landscapes, the city and life near the river. For example, she mentions the intense heat very often. It dictates people’s schedule in the summer, disrupts sleep and impacts their everyday life.

Didion’s style is stunning and sharp. She’s not into overgrown sentences but more into clinical description of events and feelings. Her characters are human but she’s not too complacent with them. Subtle touches of her literary paintbrush create a palpable microcosm. Her style reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. I love Hopper. On his paintings, the details of the scene are precise. The characters look away from us. They’re in their world and they seem a little sad. The scenes leave me a bit unsettled, wondering if something terrible is hovering over these people’s life or speculating about what’s going on in their mind. The subjects are often pensive, physically present but retreated in their thoughts. They don’t give away what they think or who they are. The light on the paintings enforces this impression. We only see the scene as the painter wants us to see it. We only see Lily and Everett’s life as Didion wants us to see it. Hopper and Didion both picture America from the 1920s to the 1950s and it probably explains why I had images of Hopper’s paintings in mind, even if Hopper’s scenes are set on the East coast. See Lily and Everett together in Room in New York (1932)

EDWARD HOPPER

As you have probably guessed by now, this is an excellent novel. It’s a page turner, a subtle description of a relationship and a parallel analysis of a part of California’s history. Didion is rather critical about this novel but I think she should be proud of it. Great news: Run River is her debut novel and it’s not considered to be her best! I can’t wait to read something else by her. I have The Year of Magical Thinking at home and I dread to read it because I know it’s well written and I expect it to be engaging, emotionally.

I leave you with a last quote, one that made me think:

Maybe the most difficult, the most important thing anyone would do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 13 comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.



Romain Gary Literature Month: wrap-up

June 3, 2014 18 comments

I wanted to publish this a little bit earlier but work got in the way. May is over now and so is Romain Gary Literature Month. It’s time to wrap things up and give you the list of the Romain Gary billets I’m aware of. If there are some more, please let me know.

Gary_CentenaireCaroline published a billet about a collection of short stories and unfortunately, she wasn’t thrilled by them. Gary is better with novels; it seems to me his prose blooms better in longer works. Passage à l’Est re-read Education Européenne and the novel was up to her memories. It’s a good one to read. Gary wrote it while he was roasting in Africa and it’s set in the cold and snowy winter of a Poland at war. Guy wasn’t enthralled by Your Ticket is No Longer Valid. It is not one I’d recommend for a Gary beginner unless you’re also a Philip Roth fan. I hope Guy will still want to try another one. Vishy loved Promise at Dawn and he’s willing to read The Roots of Heaven and White Dog. Déborah read Le Vin des morts. This is an early novel that had never been published. It’s been released for Gary’s centenary and now I need to read it too. I’m curious about it and Gary fans seem to like it. James Henderson re-read The Roots of Heaven and wrote an excellent review of Gary’s first Goncourt. And I read White Dog, the English version of Chien Blanc. My billet is here; it’s really excellent and I highly recommend it. (the book, not the billet)

Thanks to all of you for participating, reading or re-reading my favourite author. I will add links to you blogposts on my new page Reading Romain Gary. For late bloomers or late participants, let me know if you write something about him and I’ll add it to the page.

Meanwhile in France, his centenary was well celebrated. The great news besides Le Vin des morts is that Romain Gary’s work will be published in the edition La Pléiade. For non-French readers, La Pléiade is a luxurious edition of literature. It’s an honour for a writer to have his books in this collection. It is named after the famous group of French Renaissance poets. Gary would be proud to be edited in this collection, I think. For book publishing, it’s like royalty. Gary’s publisher Gallimard edited special bookmarks for the occasion and I’m glad my favourite independent bookstore gave me a set. Finally, bookstores celebrated the event, like here in Divonne-les-Bains:

 librairie_Gary

If you want to know more about Gary’s celebration in France, have a look at Delphine’s blog Romain Gary & moi.

I hope other readers will discover him, just like one of my friends recently did. She’s on her way to read them all.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

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