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Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 28 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

October 2, 2016 10 comments

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. (1978) Original French title: La gross femme d’à côté est enceinte.

Michel Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942. He’s one of the most famous writers in Québec, well-known for his plays and novels. The Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal is a series of six novels set in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood in Montreal. The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the first volume of this series.

Everything in this novel happens on May 2nd, 1942. Spring is back, the sun is out and it’s the first warm day of the season. A forty-two years old woman is pregnant and stuck in an apartment of this popular neighborhood of Montreal. She’s never named but the family around her is. An extended family shares this apartment. The matriarch is Victoire, 75, a formidable dame who frightens or disgusts her grand-children. She has three children: Edouard, 35, single; Albertine, married to Paul and who has two children, Thérèse (11) and Marcel (4) and Gabriel, married to the pregnant woman and father of Richard (11) and Philippe (8). Six adults and four children live together. Paul is away at war on Great-Britain’s side. A fifth child is on the way.

Tremblay describes the life of the family from several points of view, the adults, the children. It goes outside the apartment, in the neighborhood and the reader discovers different people who have interactions with this family. Three old ladies knitting sweaters are ghosts acting as guardian angels for the inhabitants. Tremblay transforms the reader into an omniscient fly. He takes us everywhere and makes us witness of everyday life scenes. He shows snapshots of life in Montreal at the time. He gives us access to the characters’ innermost thoughts, one of them being a cat. Dialogues are written in typical Canadian French and the reader can hear the accent. All the characters are linked to each other, one way or the other. We follow the threads of the connections and fly from one household to the other, from one present to the other with backward glances at the past.

Not everything is joyful. Not everything is friendly. There’s a feeling of joyous mayhem in the house, of noisy meals, of adults making efforts to get along. Victoire dominates her son Edouard, who seems almost castrated by her presence. Albertine is worried about Paul and not overly fond of her role as a mother. She’s a bit jealous of the obvious tenderness between Gabriel and his wife. The children are more or less left on their own. Adults rely on Thérèse to watch Marcel. They form a group with its own rules and allegiances. Thérèse is on the threshold of adolescence and starts talking back to her mother. And the fat pregnant woman loves her husband very much, really wants that last baby and entertains herself with books.

Tremblay pictures the prostitutes who live around the block, the other pregnat women and the stories behind their pregnancies, the shopkeeper Marie-Sylvia and her cat Duplessis. This is a blue collar neighborhood, the one Tremblay grew up in.

WWII is in the back ground. Paul has been mobilized. Gabriel is at home because his wife is pregnant and the rumor mill works overtime: did he knock his wife up to avoid going to war? I didn’t know WWII had impacted Canada that much, with men at war and ration coupons. Tremblay relays a bit of rebellion against the thought of fighting for Great-Britain’s benefit. People don’t feel like this war is theirs too.

Through the descriptions, the reader grasps the workings of the society of the time. Old Tante Ti Lou used to live in Ottawa just a few decades after it was founded and is full of spicy stories about it. Victor Hugo was censored. The women from Plateau Mont-Royal never go to the English-speaking parts of the city. At the Parc Lafontaine, where Thérèse takes the children for the day, it is forbidden for boys over six years old to go on the playgrounds with girls. The authorities considered that swings and other games could show the girls’ panties and that it was improper for boys over six to see them, even if they were family. This rule is a problem for our group of children: Richard and Philip can’t go and play with Thérèse and Marcel.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is a wonderful introduction to popular French Canadian language. Spoken language is transcribed on paper and it makes the picture even more vivid. It transports the reader back in time. It adds an indispensable soundtrack to accompany the images Tremblay creates. I checked out the first pages of the English translation and I’m afraid the accent is gone. To imagine what it sounds like, think of Thomas Hardy’s rendition of peasant speech: words cut-off, local expressions, popular dialogues.

Tremblay’s novel is full of nostalgia but not sad. It is a way to keep this neighborhood alive and give it immortality through literature. It is a faithful and good natured homage to small people. You imagine women meeting at the grocery stores, gossiping and calling each other from one flat to the other. You picture children playing on the streets with running noses and banged up knees. Tremblay winks at us and takes us for a ride in his childhood neighborhood. It’s like visiting Newark with Roth or listening to Renaud sing Les dimanches à la con. A fantastic trip down memory lane. I loved this book so much that I have already bought the second volume, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

August 7, 2016 24 comments

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.

fitzgerald_bookshopThe Bookshop was our Book Club choice for July, along with Rendezvous in Venice, so my billet is a bit late but I didn’t manage to write it before going on holiday. 

Although it was published in 1978, The Bookshop starts in 1959 and is set in Hardborough, a small seaside town in East Suffolk. Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who intends to open a bookshop. Hardborough is still a very rural town who needs the basics…

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Florence’s idea comes as a surprise to her fellow villagers. She decided to purchase the Old House, a building that has been empty for years and that nobody really wanted. It has a second building that she intends to use as a warehouse.

From the beginning, Florence is against a wall of people who’d rather she abandoned her project. Her opponents are quite vocal albeit polite in surface. After all, you’re in the kingdom of the legendary English sense of understatement. (The word in Hardborough for ‘mad’ was ‘not quite right’, just as ‘very ill’ was ‘moderate’.)

Some think her enterprise is inappropriate for a woman :

 ‘You live by yourself, don’t you? You’ve just moved into the Old House all by yourself? Haven’t you ever thought of marrying again?’

This reminded me of the director of a crèche I met when I was looking for a daycare solution for my daughter. Since the fare depends on your earnings, she had all the documents about our financial situation and she asked me “Given what your husband makes, why don’t you just stay at home?” Hello, flash news, working is not all about the money. And like me, Florence, who used to work before her marriage, liked having a job, colleagues and being out of her house. So she’s rightfully irritated by this suggestion.

Other inhabitants are blunter, like Milo who has a job at the BBC in London:

Milo looked at her more closely. ‘Are you sure you’re well advised to undertake the running of a business?’ he asked.

Mrs Violet Gamart, the Mrs Verdurin of Hardborough, invites Florence to a party with the sole purpose of convincing her to drop her project and let her buy the Old Place to create an art centre. In appearance, she’s in favour of a bookshop but not in the Old Place.

The only genuine support she gets is from the elusive Mr Brundish. He’s like royalty in Hardborough and his opinion matters especially since he doesn’t socialise with anyone. Mrs Gamart would love to have him in her circle of acquaintances but she never managed to get an invitation. Mr Brundish’s open support to Florence only stirs up Violet’s jealousy and her determination to stop this bookshop.

Quaint little Hardborough should be named a viper’s nest. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the village also behaves like a compact social body who will do whatever it takes to expurgate a foreign body that would try to settle. And Florence Green is seen as one of those foreign bodies.

Florence brushes away the warnings and proceeds with her business venture. She’s convinced that things will settle down. Green is the colour of this book: Florence is too green with village politics and with the running of a business. The passages where Florence tries to understand the ins and outs of a general ledger are hilarious. Florence is also a little lost with purchases for the shop. And Violet is green with envy because of Mr Brundish’s attention to Florence.

Will the bookshop and Florence find their place in Hardborough? How will the power games unfold?

I enjoyed Florence’s story and appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald skills at describing the little jibes and the atmosphere of the small close-knit village. She has her way with words like here:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

Isn’t that wonderful?

However, I had trouble connecting with Florence. I found her a bit too nice and a bit spineless. Or perhaps she puts so much trust in human nature that it borders plain naïveté.

What I didn’t like at all was the poltergeist/rapper thing. (Poltergeists are called “rappers” in Hardborough ) We learn at the beginning that they say the Old House is haunted. I thought it would remain a rumour, something to discourage Florence from buying the place. But no. It’s mentioned throughout the book and I don’t see the point. Why was this device needed in the story at all? I’m not too fond of ghost stories and since I couldn’t understand the use of the ghost here, it rather put me off.

But this is a small detail that shouldn’t deter readers from trying The Bookshop. It’s only on me, not a flaw of the novella.

For another review of The Booshop, go here and read Jacqui’s excellent take on it.

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

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

July 18, 2015 13 comments

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. (1976) French title: Jours de combat. Translated by Marianne Millon.

This is my second contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II was present at the book festival Quais du Polar. I have a signed copy of Jours de Combat and now I wished I had read one of his books before meeting him. I have tons of questions for him. Days of Combat is the first volume of the series featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I’m afraid it’s OOP in English but other volumes of the series are available.

Taibo_combatWe’re in Mexico and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has just left his wife and his job to get a PI license and start his own investigation business. He shares offices with a plumber, Gilberto Gómez Letras. He’s still questioning the financial viability of this adventure but he was tired of his old life. He worked as a foreman in a factory before he left his tidy life behind. The catalyst of the change is the series of murders committed by a serial killer who leaves messages as the Cervo. (At least, that’s how it’s translated into French, “brain” with a spelling mistake. I supposed it could become “brayne” in English)

In a city where the police are corrupt and useless, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to chase this strangler. Three threads are fascinating to follow in this first opus of the series. First, we get acquainted with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his life, his thoughts and his family. Then of course, we follow the investigation and the unusual PI methods that belong to Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. And last, he takes us all over Mexico, to the point that the city becomes something fundamental in the novel.

Our main character, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne comes from mixed origins. His father is Basque and his mother is Irish. He was born around 1944 and is freshly divorced from Claudia. The divorce is was difficult. He has a sister, Elisa who’s coming home after spending several years in Canada and a brother, Carlos, who’s an active unionist. The siblings are reunited in this novel and start to get each other again. Belascoarán Shayne also meets the girl with the ponytail who will obviously become a recurring character in the series.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is a detective who relies on psychology and understanding of the killer’s motivations. If I had to compare him to another famous investigator, I’d choose Commissaire Adamsberg, the policeman in crime fiction books by Fred Vargas. In Days of Combat, instead of looking for material clues, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to bait the killer by participating to a TV show on famous stranglers in crime history. It’s a game like Jeopardy. If he answers the questions correctly, he keeps playing and wins a prize. He’s not there for the prize, though. He’s there to tease the strangler, to tempt him to get out of the woods and above all, let him know he’s on his trail.

I won’t tell more about the murders and the investigation. I said earlier that Mexico plays an important part in the novel. Following Belascoarán Shayne all around Mexico gives us an idea of the city. The novel is atmospheric and the strong impression is enforced by the author’s gift for descriptions.

Le soleil tapait là-haut et l’idée romantique que le soleil l’accompagnerait toute la journée l’abandonna peu à peu, peut-être malgré lui. La ville était une flaque d’asphalte dans laquelle nous transpirions tous. The sun was hitting hard over there and the romantic idea that the sun would accompany him his all day long left him progressively, perhaps in spite of himself. The city was a pool of asphalt in which we were all sweating.

But Mexico is a hard city to live in. The police are inefficient and violence is part of everyday life.

La ville se nourrit de charogne. Comme un vautour, comme une hyène, comme l’urubu si mexicain qui se repaît des morts pour la patrie. Et la ville avait faim. Aussi les faits divers dégoulinèrent-ils une nouvelle fois de sang, ce jeudi-là : un accident entre un autocar de ligne et le train de Cuernavaca qui avait fait seize morts, un homme criblé de balles par sa femme « pour qu’il n’emmène plus jamais son copain voir les putes », une vieille femme poignardée pour trois cents pesos à la sortie du métro, la répression d’une grève dans la colonia Escandón, dont le bilan se soldait par deux ouvriers blessés par balle et une femme d’un quartier proche intoxiquée par les gaz. The city feeds itself on corpses. Like a vulture, like a hyena, like the so-Mexican urubu that feeds on people who died for their country. And the city was hungry. Therefore the news trickled down with blood that Thursday. An accident between a coach and the train to Cuernavaca with a death toll of sixteen people. A man riddled with bullets by his wife “so that he will never again bring his friend to the whores”. An old woman stabbed for three hundred pesos at the metro exit. The repression of a strike in the colonia Escandón, whose casualties were two workers hit by bullets and a woman in the neighbourhood, intoxicated by fumes.

Mexico sounds like a bloodthirsty ogre intent on devouring its children. At the same time, Paco Ignacio Taibo II shows its liveliness, the streets, the restaurants, the people.

Days of Combat is a novel with a strong sense of place people with unusual characters. After reading it, I want to know more about Belascoarán Shayne, what will happen to him and his family. But I also want to know more about the Mexico he pictures. Political criticism seeps through the lines, which always interests me. It’s crime fiction that aims to be more than a quick read about an investigation. And it succeeds. Highly recommended.

PS: Guy has reviewed several books of the series:

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 25 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

Catsplay

February 15, 2015 13 comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

June 12, 2014 10 comments

No Beast So Fierce (1973) by Edward Bunker. (1933-2005) French title: Aucune bête aussi féroce.

BunkerNo Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker is the second Humbook Guy gave me last Christmas. Born in 1933 in Hollywood, Edward Bunker had a rocky childhood and spent his youth in foster homes and reform schools. He was involved in criminal activities, mostly scheming robberies and extorting funds from pimps. He was caught several times, acquired quite a reputation and had spent 18 years in prison when he wrote his first novel No Beast So Fierce. I don’t usually linger on authors’ biographies when I write a billet but Bunker’s life experiences nourished his writing and the story of this novel.

When the book opens, Max Dembo is released on parole after eight years behind bars. The first part of the novel describes his first weeks of freedom. The second and third parts are about his subsequent offence. I don’t want to say a lot about the plot and the characters because it’s difficult to do so without spoilers. Max’s and Bunker’s childhood and adolescence have a lot in common. The difference between the two is that Bunker had a helping hand in the person of Mrs Wallis. Like Bunker, Max had a broken home, was in foster care and in reform school. He had to fend for himself when he was very young and he grew up like weed, without direction.

Bunker’s style is luminous, precise. It combines description of the action, glimpses of the environment and time in Max’s inner mind. No Beast So Fierce lets common people into the mind of a criminal. The criminal world raised Max. He grew up with a set of values given by the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, con artists and thieves.

I’d never had qualms about killing. My system of values came from the jungle of reform school and prison. I’d never heard anyone denounce killing on moral grounds. Violence was deemed by some to be “uncool” or “stupid”, but never evil or wrong.

He’s angry at society and while he’s determined to remain on the safest side of law when he goes out of prison, he quickly falls back into his old habit. He’s out of prison on parole and there’s no safety net.

I RODE off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. A uniformed guard drove me to the depot and waited until I was on board.

Then he’s left to meet with his parole officer. Earlier this year, I read On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. I couldn’t help but compare the social net that awaited the two characters. In Japan, Kikutani has a social worker taking care of him and showing him around to adjust to the city. He’s led to a temporary room until he lands on his feet and couldn’t have been out of prison without a job. Society makes sure that material conditions are good enough to give the ex-convict a chance to a successful rehabilitation.

Here, in California, the social net isn’t very solid. Max’s parole officer is totally oblivious of the canyon lying between his values and Max’s. He fails to convince him to go and live in a halfway house until he gets on his feet. They can’t find a communication channel and his rigid mental posture leads Max into refusing the little help he proposes.

“Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers, and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls. I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.”

His righteous parole officer can’t bend. Max will only bent a little. Well, you know what happens for the oak and the reed in the fable by Lafontaine. The reed bending adapts to the weather conditions, the oak is uprooted.

So Max is left to his own devices and must follow parole conditions:

There was a copy of the parole agreement I’d signed, and its conditions. They were standard—maintain suitable employment (what’s “suitable”?), make no address change and drive no automobile without written permission, no drinking, make no contract, borrow no money, avoid ex-felons and persons of ill repute, and heed the advice and counsel of the parole officer. Failure to comply with any condition was grounds for return to prison without notice or hearing.

It’s kind of hard to live in Los Angeles without a car; the city is not built for pedestrians and the underground is totally underdeveloped. He’s not allowed to drive a car and anyway, he’s not allowed to borrow money to buy one. He doesn’t have a job and by law, he has to tell his employer about his ex-convict status. He’s not directed to companies that are used to hiring ex-convicts (it is the case in the Yoshimura); he has to find a job by himself, say he’s just been out of prison and hope that his employer won’t mind hiring a thief on parole. Like these jobs are easy to find. What chances does he stand when he has no money and needs to pay for a hotel and food at least? And since Max has no family, no girlfriend, he turns to the only network he knows: the criminal network. The lack of empathy and communication skills of his only contact with the legal world can only lead to failure. He doesn’t stay on the right path for long and soon goes back to his old world. There, he knows the rules, he knows who he can trust and he has friends.

Being in Max’s head is not always comfortable. Being in Kikutani’s head was uncomfortable because I could feel he was unbalanced. Max is not unbalanced. He’s enraged against the society that mistreated him since childhood and he doesn’t want to follow its rules. He loves his freedom and lives by the only code he knows: the thief’s code. At times I felt compassion for him and at others I thought he was a lost cause. That said, I was very interested in his way of comprehending the world. It humbles you and shows that righteous condemnation will not ensure the rehabilitation of criminals. Incidentally, I talked about this book to a friend who’s a lawyer and discovered that in France, prisoners can’t be on parole; the system doesn’t exist and I wasn’t aware of that.

Among Max’s friends and help system are ex-convicts or wives of accomplices in crime. Max finds shelter in their homes, bringing a whiff of the underworld with him. He gives them money to help them raise their children. I felt sorry for them. They are victims of their social environment. The children grow up poor, with an absent father and a mother struggling to make ends meet. Shady characters crash at their house and they are in an unstable environment. What is their chance to have a better life? Who can show them another way to live? How can their parents’ fate not repeat with them?

No Beast So Fierce is an honest book. Bunker shows Max’s anger, pictures what the system made of him, pities him but doesn’t deny his responsibility in his actions. He never says that Max is a victim who doesn’t have a choice. He shows how his life story leads him to the choices he makes. Max is never hiding behind phony excuses to justify his actions.

It’s disgusting to behave stupidly, but doubly so while knowing it’s stupid in advance.

He made poor decisions and he went into crime with his eyes open. He also mentions the thrill it gives him (A tremor almost sexual passed through me as I anticipated the coming robbery.) and the rebel in him doesn’t want to bend. He’s a fascinating character but not one I’d want to be friend with.

I know it doesn’t show in this billet because I wanted to avoid spoilers but No Beast So Fierce is also a high-paced novel. The first part sets the décor and characters. The second part increases the pace and starts the action. The third part races to the denouement and it’s gripping. Quentin Tarantino loved No Beast So Fierce and hired Bunker to play Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs. I think I know why.

Many, many, many thanks to Guy for picking this book for me. I’d never heard of it and it’s a fantastic read.

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.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary: the end

April 30, 2014 12 comments

Gary_LecturesThis is our last Wednesday with Romain Gary. Gary loved women and was a womaniser. Being successful with the ladies was a proof of a good education by his mother’s book. A man had to be charming. He wrote wonderful pages about love, attraction and relationships in many of his books. For our last week, I picked a quote from Les clowns lyriques about perfume:

Le parfum à peine perceptible, à peine esquissé, est comme un murmure prometteur du corps ; lorsqu’il insiste trop, il ne parle plus que de lui-même, ne livre plus que son propre nom. A perfume that is barely perceptible, barely hinted at is like a promising murmur of a body; when it is too persistent, it no longer speaks about anything except itself, it reveals nothing but its own name. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

Isn’t that entirely true? I’m sensitive to smells and scents and I hate to have my personal space invaded by a strong perfume. Like in offices, lifts, train carriages or other closed spaces. Some cologne scream “I’m cheap” and I always think that nothing would be better than this too-much. Some perfume scream “Look at me” and I’m not sure they bring the looks they meant to capture. I associate perfumes with the people who wear them and I wouldn’t want my husband to use the same cologne as my father. Some perfumes remind me of teachers because a classroom is exactly the kind of place where you smell perfumes, which reminds me there’s a funny scene in Straight Man by Richard Russo where the main character acts crazy after a colleague’s heady perfume meddled with his sanity.

But perfumes are also familiar scents, bringing comfort because they belong to someone you love.

I hope this series of billets encouraged you to read Romain Gary. See you tomorrow with the official opening of Romain Gary Literature Month.

I can’t resist: a last quote for the day!

[C’était] un de ces bouquets de fleurs qui partent toujours à la recherche d’un cœur et ne trouvent qu’un vase.Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable. [It was] one of those flower bouquets that always reach out for a heart and only find a vase.In Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part thirteen

April 9, 2014 6 comments

Les Enchanteurs 1973. (The Enchanters).

Gary_LecturesI’m not sure this one has been translated into English and to be honest, this is not my favourite Gary. A lot of readers love it but I’m not drawn to magical realism. The narrator of Les Enchanteurs, Fosco Zaga is an old man. He’s more than two hundreds year old and he cannot die until someone else loves a man or a woman as deeply as he loves Teresina. He talks about her because if he stops, she’ll really die. The book is set in Russia when Catherine the Great was ruling the country. Fosco Zaga grew up in a family of enchanters and of travelling entertainers of Italian origins and he resurrects Russia in the 18th century with his memories. Fosco is a dreamer, an illusionist that bathes in dreams:

Je vais vous avouer qu’il m’arrive souvent de donner une préférence au rêve, ne laissant jamais à sa rivale la Réalité plus de cinquante pour cent des bénéfices, ce qui explique peut-être ma longévité, dont tant de gens s’étonnent, car ne vivant vraiment qu’à moitié, il est normal que ma ration de vie s’en trouve doublée. I must admit that I’m often in favour of dreams, only giving away to their rival Reality barely fifty per cent of the profits, which might explain my longevity. It surprises a lot of people but as I only half-live, it is quite normal that my life ration be doubled. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

That’s Gary’s logic.

We only have three Wednesdays left before May which will be Romain Gary Literature Month. Several of you were interested in participating back in January, I hope you’ll still be there and willing to celebrate this wonderful writer with me.

Let’s read Romain Gary!

Gary_Enchanteurs

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part ten

March 19, 2014 2 comments

Gary_LecturesFor newcomers, we’ll be celebrating Romain Gary’s centenary in May and there will be a Romain Gary reading month at Book Around the Corner. Every Wednesday, I share with you one or two quotes from a book by Romain Gary. This week, it’ll be from Clair de femme (1977), a poignant novel.

Michel whose wife just died bumps into another broken soul, Yannick. They will spend the night together, talking, healing. Clair de femme is a hymn to love and to the strength we have in us to recover from hardship. Sounds corny but it’s Gary, and it’s not. There could be an easy love relationship between Michel and Yannick (a woman) but Gary doesn’t go for the obvious. Hollywood stories aren’t his line of work. It’s sad but not bleak, because there’s always this touch of hope, Gary’s trademark.

Il ne faut pas se fier aux cheveux blancs, à la maturité, à l’expérience, à tout ce qu’on a appris, à tous les coups qu’on a pris sur la gueule, à ce que murmurent les feuilles d’automne, à ce que la vie fait de nous quand elle essaie vraiment. Ça reste intact, c’est toujours là et ça continue à vivre. You can’t rely on white hair, maturity, experience, on all you’ve learnt, on all the times you’ve been punched in the face, on what the autumn leaves murmur or on what life does to us when it really gets at it. It stays intact, it’s still there and you keep on living. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

In this quote, we find one of Gary’s line of thoughts. Hope and youth stay intact in us when we get older. Despite what we’ve been through, “it” stays intact. “It” is your spunk, your hope for a better future, your appetite for life, your capacity to fall in love and in a way, the illusions about life that you had when you were younger. It refers to the spark of youth that never dies in us, even when our body betrays us and gives away our age.

Here is another quote from Clair de femme:

Les vérités ne sont pas toutes habitables. Souvent il n’y a pas de chauffage et on y crève de froid. Le néant ne m’intéresse pas, précisément parce qu’il existe. Truths are not always liveable. Often there’s no central heating and it’s freezing cold. I’m not interested in nothingness, precisely because it exists. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

I think it’s true. Looking at things objectively can be really cold and a lot less comfortable than entertaining dreams or half-truths. Self-delusion is more comfortable than blunt lucidity. Gary is affected by acute lucidity and he deals with it by tempering the North wind it brings on his life by the South wind of humour.

I’ll leave you with news about the celebration of Gary’s centenary in France gathered by Delphine, from Romain Gary et moi. For once, I wished I lived in Paris.

PS: Clair de femme has been made into a film, directed by Costa-Gavras.

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