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

April 17, 2021 19 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspidistra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And somewhere else.

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

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

April 14, 2021 26 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example:

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

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

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

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

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

December 26, 2020 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re doomed, guys.

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

Three novellas by Turgenev

November 29, 2020 20 comments

Three novellas by Ivan Turgenev

My November reading didn’t go according to plan, I didn’t have the energy to read Concrete by Bernhard or The Confusion of Young Törless by Musil. I’m still at this uncomfortable stage where reading glasses are too much and small prints are too difficult to read at night. And my copies of Concrete and The Confusion of Young Törless are in small prints, not to mention the fact that Bernhard decided to forego paragraphs. The pages of his book look like concrete walls of words. No participation in German Lit Month this year, then.

I’m doing better with Novellas in November. I even managed to post this in the right week!

I did manage to read three novellas by Ivan Turgenev, all included in one book. The first one is An Unhappy Girl (1869) translated by Constance Garnett, whose French title is L’abandonnée. It is translated by Louis Viardot, who knew the author but no Russian. You can find the English translation here on Project Gutenberg. I browsed through it, lots of French sentences in some passages. They were not in italic in my copy, as it’s customary to signal French words or sentences in the original.

The narrator of the story is Piotr Gavrilovitch and he was 18 in 1835 when he got acquainted with Suzanne Ivanovna through his friend Fustov. She was living with her stepfather and his family and Fustov was courting her. Her fate is sad as she was the illegitimate daughter of a country aristocrat who took care of her but never acknowledged her as his daughter, even privately. When he died, she became a pawn in her step-father’s game to wealth.

The second story is Yakov Pasynkov. (1855), whose French title is Jacques Passinkov. It’s translated by Xavier Marmier, a name I’d never heard of but according to Wikipedia, what a man!

In this story, three young men are in love with the same young lady, Sophie Zlotnitski and the story is told by one of them, years later. It is the sad story of unrequited love and secret love never revealed.

The last story is Andreï Kolosov (1844), translated into French by Ernest Jaubert, another translator I didn’t know of.

The narrator, Nicolas Alexandrovitch goes to the country with his friend Andrei Kolosov. They go to the Semenitch household, because Kolosov is courting their daughter Varia. The narrator is a sort of wingman, he has to entertain Varia’s father while his friend spends time with the young girl. But things don’t go as planned in this scenario…

The three stories have common points, they’re about love and friendship.

Suzanne spent her life in the pursuit of love, her father’s, Michel’s and Fustov’s. Love may be fickle and petter out. It can be a blaze and die down after the conquest is done. It can be a slow, constant and hidden fire. It can be worth dying for. In all cases, the girls’ happiness depends on the boys’ behavior. They are recipients of young love, bask in it only to have it pulled under their feet by a father, a jealous brother or an inconstant lover who falls out of love. Women seem to have deeper feelings than men, according to Turgenev.

The stories all feature young men in their youth and their friendship with comrades. Gavrilovitch and Fustov are good friends, like the narrator and Pasynkov or Nicolas Alexandrovitch and Kolosov. As such, they assist their friend in their attempt at wooing a girl. They are sorts of chaperones, allowing their friends to spend time with their lady. In each case, it backfires and the friend’s meddling make things worse. This friendship has different texture in each story. It’s skin deep between Gavrilovitch and Fustov. The narrator looks up to Pasynkov as a better version of himself and it’s almost a bromance between N. Alexandrovitch and Kolosov.

Flaubert considered Turgenev’s stories were masterpieces. I’m not a literary critic and read only for pleasure. I sure admired them but didn’t enjoy myself that much reading them. I can’t pinpoint why, though.

PS: When writing in English about Russian books read in French translation, names are a hurdle. They’re not spelled the same way in English and in French. For example, Piotr Gavrilovitch is Pierre Gavrilovitch in the French translation. I’ll never understand why they translate first names. Another example: Pasynkov is Passinkov in French.

West of Rome by John Fante – two novellas

November 15, 2020 4 comments

West of Rome by John Fante (1986) French version in two books Mon chien Stupide et L’Orgie. Both translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Life is quite busy at the moment and I’m late: the TBW pile keeps increasing, mostly because I’m too tired after work to open my personal computer and face a screen again. Let’s not talk about all the interesting blog reviews that sit in my inbox, unread. Sorry, fellow book bloggers.

West of Rome by John Fante was our Book Club read for…ahem…September. (see before)

The good news about being so late is that I can now cheekily add it to my November in Novellas reading since West of Rome is actually composed of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy.

For French readers who’d read this in translation, it’s published in two different books, Mon chien stupide and L’Orgie. Both are translated by Brice Matthieussent.

John Fante died in 1983, these two novellas were published posthumously.

West of Rome

In West of Rome, we’re in Point Dune, California, not far from Santa Barbara, end of the 1960s, early 1970s. The Vietnam war is not over, it gives us a timeframe. Henry writes scenarios for Hollywood and he’s currently unemployed. Henry is 55, he’s been married to Harriet for twenty-five years, they have four children, Dominic, Tina, Denny and Jamie. The youngest one is Jamie and he’s 19.

But she was very good, my Harriet, she had stuck it out with me for twenty-five years and given me three sons and a daughter, any one of whom, or indeed all four, I would have gladly exchanged for a new Porsche, or even an MG GT ’70.

This is Henry for you. He’s offensive the way Post Office by Bukowski is offensive. (Bukowski rediscovered Fante and was instrumental to the republishing of his books) He’s a questionable father figure and has the nerve to be disappointed in his children. Dominic wants to go to New York and be an actor but he’s stuck in California because he’s in the army reserves. Tina is in love with a surfer, Rich. Needless to say, Henry despises Rich. Denny is in college, relies on his mother to writer his literature papers and has a black girlfriend which is not acceptable for Henry. Jamie is the only one he tolerates. Henry is terribly rude to his wife, even if he loves her:

Backing the Porsche out of the garage I sensed the flat deadness of my cheek, the place where Harriet had not kissed me goodbye. For a quarter of a century the habit of a goodbye kiss had been part of our lives. Now I missed it the way a monk missed a bead in his rosary.

Henry is one of these insufferable persons who are loud, obnoxious, rude and volatile. You never know what he’s going to say. He’s got a weird view on life, it’s like his internal camera always watches scenes at a weird angle that screws up is assessment of a situation. He’s unemployed (and lazy), 55 and not dealing well with the children growing up. Harriet is the eternal peacemaker, the communication channel between the children and their father who can be an insensitive prick and extremely hurtful.

When Henry finds an Akita dog sprawled on his lawn, he takes him in. He calls him Stupid. In White Dog by Romain Gary, the dog was white because he was trained to attack black people and Gary discovered it after he took him in. Here, Henry discovers that Stupid humps male humans and especially Rich. Imagine Henry’s glee when Stupid molests him.

Stupid becomes the catalyst that makes the family explode. He’s as obnoxious as Henry and when Henry decides to keep him, the kids rebel but Henry doesn’t change his mind.

I knew why I wanted that dog. It was shamelessly clear, but I could not tell the boy. It would have embarrassed me. But I could tell myself and it did not matter. I was tired of defeat and failure. I hungered for victory. I was fifty-five and there were no victories in sight, nor even a battle. Even my enemies were no longer interested in combat. Stupid was victory, the books I had not written, the places I had not seen, the Maserati I had never owned, the women I hungered for, Danielle Darrieux and Gina Lollobrigida and Nadia Grey. He was triumph over ex-pants manufacturers who had slashed my screenplays until blood oozed. He was my dream of great offspring with fine minds in famous universities, scholars with rich gifts for the world.

Henry knows that the kids are growing up and that they will leave the nest soon. It starts with meal independence…

Otherwise it had become a do-it-yourself kitchen, everyone cooking to his own taste. It had to be that way because everyone wakened at a different hour and nobody could be depended upon to show up for dinner except Harriet and me.

…and end ups with kids moving out. Henry fears the empty nest syndrome, despite his tantrums against his kids.

I can’t help thinking that My Dog Stupid is partly autobiographical. Indeed, Henry, like Fante is a semi-successful screenwriter who loves golfing. Harriet, like Fante’s wife Joyce has money of her own and the patience of a saint. The Fantes had four children, three sons and a daughter. If this is what their home life was like, he must have been a difficult man to live with.

The Orgy

The Orgy is totally different from My Dog Stupid. We’re in Colorado, in 1925 and the Narrator is a lot like Arturo Bandini, the hero of Fante’s Bandini Quartet. The narrator is ten, his family is Italian, his father Nick is a bricklayer and his mother a stay-at-home mom and a fervent Catholic. If in West of Rome, Stupid was the family member who divided the family in two camps, in The Orgy, the bone of contention is the friendship between Nick and Franck Gagliano. (Something also present in Wait Until Spring, Bandini.)

His name was Frank Gagliano, and he did not believe in God. He was that most singular and startling craftsman of the building trade—a left-handed bricklayer. Like my father, Frank came from Torcella Peligna, a cliff-hugging town in the Abruzzi. Lean as a spider, he wore a leather cap and puttees the year around, and he was so bowlegged a dog could lope between his knees without touching them.

And Often, but not always, Frank was my father’s best friend. But he was always and without exception my mother’s mortal enemy.

The boy works along with his father as a waterboy, he carries water to the crew on building sites. Once, a worker quits after getting rich on the stock market and as a farewell gift, gives Nick the deeds to a mine concession. Frank and Nick start going there on the weekends to dig for gold. Once, the boy goes with them and sees his father through a new light.

In The Orgy, Fante takes us back into familiar grounds: Nick, the Italian bricklayer, non-religious, womanizer and good friends with another Italian atheist. The mother, Catholic and judgmental, sprinkling holy water in the house, hardworking but kind of a harpy too. And the three children, taken back and forth between the two extremes, loving both parents and having a hard time finding a middle ground between the two.

Fante is a talented writer, he has an eye for descriptions, a fondness for his characters who are not always likeable and a wonderful sense of humor. Here’s Henry going grocery shopping:

And so my day began, a thrill a minute in the romantic, exciting, creatively fulfilling life of a writer. First, the grocery list. Varoom! and I roar down the coast highway in my Porsche, seven miles to the Mayfair Market. Scree! I brake to a stop in the parking lot, leap from the car, give my white scarf a couple of twirls and zap! I enter the automatic doors. Pow! The lettuce, potatoes, chard, carrots. Swooshl The roast, chops, bacon, cheese! Wham! The cake, the cereal, the bread. Zonk! The detergent, the floor wax, the paper towels.

I never knew that the difference between a writer and me was the Porsche because for the rest, I can relate. 😊

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – good fun, most welcome at the moment.

November 7, 2020 22 comments

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. (1945) French title: La poursuite de l’amour.

‘I don’t want to be a literary curiosity,’ said Linda. ‘I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it’s too dismal to have been born in 1911.’

I was looking for a book I was sure I’d enjoy and turned to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. I had really fond memories of Christmas Pudding, its funny tone, Mitford’s witty prose, its eccentric characters and its entertaining plot.

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford takes us to Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family estate. The narrator is Fanny Wincham, a niece of the Radletts who spends her holiday at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie have seven children and Linda is the one closest in age to Fanny. They have a close relationship, built during the holidays at Alconleigh. Fanny tells us Linda’s story.

Raised by a father who uses his children as baits instead of foxes for fox hunting, the children are homeschooled under the supervision of a dubious French governess. The boys go to Oxford, the girls stay home since they don’t need education according to their father.

Uncle Matthew loathed clever females, but he considered that gentle-women ought, as well as being able to ride, to know French and play the piano.

Fanny’s mother had no inclination for motherhood and it was decided that little Fanny would be raised by Aunt Emily, Aunt Sadie’s sister and her mother’s sister as well. Aunt Emily had a more modern and conventional vision of girls’ education.

While Linda grew up with little structure and no formal education, Fanny went to school. She also led a quiet life with Aunt Emily who later remarried to Davey. Linda and Fanny grew up in a very different atmosphere.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.

The two cousins are quite opposite but their bond is solid. Linda is fanciful, her goal in life is to have a full romantic life. She’s a sort of Emma Bovary. No solid education, expecting Great Love and unable to settle for less and bear the quotidian. Fanny, who married a scholar named Alfred muses, comparing her life to Linda’s:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.

We follow Linda in her pursuit of love and Nancy Mitford takes us on a vivid tour of the upper-class milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia and it’s clear her own life, family and friends inspired her.

I don’t want to spoil the plot and tell too much about Linda’s love tribulations. You’ll have to discover by yourself what happens to her.

Linda is an attaching character with a dazzling personality. People are drawn to her, despite her lack of any useful competence. Even if she tries to do something by herself, she fails spectacularly, has no qualms about it and recounts her endeavours with disarming ingenuousness. Here she is, playing house:

‘But oh how dreadful it is, cooking, I mean. That oven – Christian puts things in and says: “Now you take it out in about half an hour.” I don’t dare tell him how terrified I am, and at the end of half an hour I summon up all my courage and open the oven, and there is that awful hot blast hitting one in the face. I don’t wonder people sometimes put their heads in and leave them in out of sheer misery. Oh, dear, and I wish you could have seen the Hoover running away with me, it suddenly took the bit between its teeth and made for the lift shaft. How I shrieked – Christian only just rescued me in time. I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.’ She sighed.

I guess everything is a question of perspective and upbringing, right. (Athough I dislike vacuum cleaners too. They stink, they’re noisy and make you sweat. *shudders*) Linda seems perfect for partying and chatting with friends and nothing else.

Besides Linda’s story, I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love for the picture of the British upper-class in the 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, it made me think of Brexit. Nancy Mitford’s characters react like the upper-classes of the time and she discloses their view of the world. Uncle Matthew hates foreigners.

‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’

Like in The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, I sometimes felt in the book an ingrained distrust for non-English things. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just built-in certainty that the English civilization tops everything else and that there’s “us” and “them”. I’m not sure that 40 years in the EU are enough to erase that feeling from a people’s psyche. Just wondering if it helped the Leave side of the campaign, pushing the right buttons.

At some point, Linda ends up in France and Nancy Mitford writes:

She looked out of the window and saw chateaux, lime avenues, ponds, and villages exactly like those in the Bibliothèque Rose – she thought she must, at any moment, see Sophie in her white dress and unnaturally small black pumps cutting up goldfish, gorging herself on new bread and cream, or scratching the face of good, uncomplaining Paul.

Being a middle-aged French, I perfectly understand what she means. But what do non-French readers make of this quote nowadays? There were also a lot of French sentences or expressions in that part of the book. Mitford’s readership probably knew French well-enough to understand but what about now? There were no footnotes to help a modern reader. It’s not the first time I notice passages in French without any translation. It’s easy for me but how do other readers feel about it? Is there a rule in publishing that says that these passages shouldn’t be translated?

After these random observations, I’ll leave you with this quote about Paris, one that still rings true and makes me long for my Parisian escapades to wander in neighbourhoods and visit art exhibitions.

Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself.

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – Chateaubrilliant, I should say

October 18, 2020 11 comments

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1849) An Anthology Original French title: Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Anthologie. 

I bought this anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave during my literary escapable to Combourg in July. Jean-Claude Berchet, a literary critic specialist of Chateaubriand, selected the texts of this anthology. I trust him to pick the best parts of the forty-two books of Chateabriand’s Memoirs for lazy readers like me.

This billet will not bring anything to literary critic of the Memoirs, I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that. It’ll be my experience as a reader, which is personal and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of this monument of literature.

When Chateaubriand writes about his birth and childhood, he mentions that his mother inflicted life upon him and he wasn’t happy to live. Karma is a bitch, he’ll be on this Earth during eighty years. (September 4th, 1768-July 4th, 1848) and what eighty years! Here’s a little historical digest of the times.

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

08/1830-02/1848 July Monarchy Louis-Philippe

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

Chateaubriand was a soldier in the Revolutionary wars (on the monarchy’s side), fled the country, stayed in England, came back and occupied various political capacities. (deputy at the Chambre des Pairs, minister of Foreign Affairs…)

I was really interested in his childhood, the passages related to his travels to America and his life during the French Revolution and his exile in England. He endured hardship with stride and never complained. I found the last books interesting too as he reflects upon France and democracy. The other books were about his political career and as you can see in the table before, the political scene is very complicated. All the explanations about where he stood and why he supported this or that side went over my head, due to the my lack of historical knowledge. I’m sure that the Memoirs are invaluable material for historians.

I was disappointed that there was almost nothing about his personal life. There’s a nice book about his wife, very polite. It was an arranged marriage that lasted until 1847. They rarely lived together and had no children. (I guess living apart is an efficient method of contraception.) Chateaubriand had mistresses and I hope his wife had lovers too.

Everything was centered on him and History. There were some passages about his books and their success but nothing about his literary life. Nothing about literary salons, only mentions about Mme de Beaumont and Mme Récamier, in passing. Not a word about the battle of Hernani. Almost no literary reference except Lord Byron, and a passage about George Sand. No description of Paris, its people, its changes. He lived in the Paris of Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Nerval and Stendhal and he says nothing about it. What a disappointment! (Or Jean-Claude Berchet cut all these passages)

I enjoyed reading his thoughts about political regimes, though. He was in favor of a controlled monarchy, thinking that the ultimate regime for France would be a Republic but that the country needed a transition period with a constitutional monarchy. It’ll take until 1870 for the republic to be the stable political regime for France but he foresaw that trying to reinstall a full monarchy was a pipe dream. The French population had moved on. There are fascinating thoughts about the public stance a royal family should have that could interest British readers. (Book 37)

There’s a book set in Switzerland, where he’s on holiday, walking in the mountains, trying Rousseau and Lord Byron’s paths, I suppose. And I thought, “Here we go, Romanticism and the bliss of hiking in the mountains.” And no, dear Chateaubriand surprised me with this ironic statement:

Au surplus j’ai beau me battre les flancs pour arriver à l’exaltation alpine des écrivains de montagne, j’y perds ma peine.

Au physique, cet air vierge et balsamique qui doit réanimer mes forces, raréfier mon sang, désenfumer ma tête fatiguée, me donner une faim insatiable, un repos sans rêves, ne produit point sur moi ces effets. Je ne respire pas mieux, mon sang ne circule pas plus vite, ma tête n’est pas moins lourde au ciel des Alpes qu’à Paris. J’ai autant d’appétit aux Champs-Elysées qu’au Montanvert, je dors aussi bien rue Saint-Dominique qu’au mont Saint-Gothard, et si j’ai des songes dans la délicieuse plaine de Montrouge, c’est qu’il en faut au sommeil.

Au moral, en vain j’escalade les rocs, mon esprit n’en devient pas plus élevé, mon âme plus pure ; j’emporte les soucis de ma terre et le faix des turpitudes humaines. Le calme de la région sublunaire d’une marmotte ne se communique point à mes sens éveillés. Misérable que je suis, à travers les brouillards qui roulent à mes pieds, j’aperçois toujours la figure épanouie du monde. Mille toises gravies dans l’espace ne changent rien à ma vue du ciel ; Dieu ne me paraît pas plus grand du sommet de la montagne que du fond de la vallée. Si pour devenir un homme robuste, un saint, un génie supérieur, il ne s’agissait que de planer sur les nuages, pourquoi tant de malades, de mécréants et d’imbéciles ne se donnent-ils pas la peine de grimper au Simplon ? Il faut certes qu’ils soient bien obstinés à leurs infirmités.

For the rest, it is vain for me to exert myself to attain the Alpine exaltation of the mountain authors: I waste my pains. 

Physically, that virgin and balmy air, which is supposed to revive my strength, rarefy my blood, clear my tired head, give me an insatiable hunger, a dreamless sleep, produces none of those effects for me. I breathe no better, my blood circulates no faster, my head is no less heavy under the sky of the Alps than in Paris. I have as much appetite in the Champs-Élysées, as on the Montanvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on the Mont Saint-Gotthard, and, if I have dreams in the delicious plain of Montrouge, the fault lies with the sleep.

Morally, in vain do I scale the rocks: my mind becomes no loftier for it, my soul no purer; I carry with me the cares of earth and the weight of human turpitudes. The calm of the sublunary region of a marmot is not communicated to my awakened senses. Poor wretch that I am, across the mists that roll at my feet I always perceive the full-blown face of the world. A thousand fathoms climbed into space change nothing in my view of the sky; God appears no greater to me from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. If, to become a robust man, a saint, a towering genius, it were merely a question of searing over the clouds, why do so many sick men, miscreants and fools not take the trouble to clamber up the Simplon? Surely, they must be very obstinately bent upon their infirmities.

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Chateaubriand. He is the perfect blend of the Age of Enlightenment with its Voltairean irony and the angst of the first half of the 19th century. He’s a French spirit to the core. Born in the Britany aristocracy, he embraced democracy as the final target for France. His intelligence brought us insightful thoughts about politics and the way to lead a country. Many of analyses are still up-to-date. He was true to his beliefs all his life, not compromising for a position. It left him poor sometimes but with his integrity. Freedom of speech was not something to be trifled with and he understood that King Charles X willing to suppress it contributed the 1830 July Revolution. To be honest, I expected someone a lot more conservative than he was.

Chateaubriand writes beautifully, as the quote before displays it. I wish he had dropped the frequent Greek and Latin comparisons though, because I think they weigh his sentences down. And of course, but that’s not his fault, they are mostly obscure to the modern reader.

So, what’s the verdict? I’m on the fence. I really struggled with some passages that I found truly boring. His speeches, the passage on Napoléon but I’m curious about the missing passages because I wonder if they have descriptions of his personal life. Thinking of reading the whole Memoirs is daunting, it’s more than 3500 pages. Perhaps I should just download a free ebook edition and read what interests me.

I’m happy I read this anthology as I met a great writer and a man with an exceptional intelligence. He surprised me with his modern thinking and how relevant some of his assessments are.

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

October 9, 2020 34 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.

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

August 30, 2020 20 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer #11: Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti – A fascinating novel about fishing campaigns in Iceland’s waters in the 19th century.

August 10, 2020 14 comments

Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti (1886) Original French title: Pêcheur d’Islande.

I’d never read Pierre Loti. For me, he was a 19thC author who wrote adventure novels. I thought that Fisherman of Iceland was a something about an expedition to explore Iceland. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was set in Brittany and is about Breton fishermen. (I know, I really have a knack for finding books that involve fishing)

Fisherman of Iceland is set in the Paimpol area, in North Brittany. From 1852 to 1935, fishermen from the region left their homes for six-month cod-fishing campaigns near Iceland. They left mid-February and came back in end of August. They fished, prepared the cod and put it in salt for keeping. Imagine that they used fishing lines, not nets. They sold the fish in the Bordeaux area and came home with the holds loaded with fresh salt for the next campaign. There was only one call during the campaign and some cruisers from the French State sailed to the fishing areas to bring mail and supplies.

The work was very hard and dangerous but it paid well. At least when the boats returned safely. More than two-thousand men never came home from Iceland and Newfoundland. Generations of men never spent a summer in France, as they were enrolled as ships’ boys at a young age. The villagers’ lives were organized around the fishing schedule. For example, weddings were all celebrated between October and February.

Fisherman of Iceland is Loti’s most successful book. It was a bestseller when it went out in 1886. By 1924, 445 French editions of the book had been published. It’s a love story between a sailor, Yann Gaos and his sweetheart Gaud Mével, mixed with the friendship between Sylvestre, Yann and Gaud.

Forget about the love story, that’s not the most interesting part of the book. Honestly, Loti’s characters are paper-thin, not developed enough and depicted with a Douanier Rousseau literary brush. Nice to look at but not feeling like real-life characters. The descriptions of the landscapes make up for that lack of depth. Loti writes in classic French but keeps it simple and accessible for readers. No calling the sea “Neptune’s kingdom” or compare these sailors to Greek heroes as it could happen for a writer of that time.

Biscuits for sailors. They had to break them with a hammer to eat them

Fisherman of Iceland is interesting to read for the history of these fishing campaigns. I didn’t know about them. I knew about French fishermen sailing to Newfoundland but not in the Iceland waters. Loti describes life on the boats, life at home and the celebration around the fishing campaigns.

It shows the religious traditions, the preparation of the trips and the community’s life at the time.  I discovered that military service lasted five years in the 1880s and that the French State took the opportunity to teach French to all these young men who only spoke local dialects. The Third Republic was really the one to bring public education for all and unify the country around the French language. It killed local dialects. Whether it was a good thing or not is still under discussion.

With Sylvestre leaving for the military navy, I learnt about the Tonkin Campaign in Indochina.

The novel is set in Paimpol, Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even. I’ve been to the museum of the Icelanders in Ploubazlanec. The first part is dedicated to the Iceland campaigns and the other to contemporary merchant navy. The Iceland part explained the whole historical context and showed items from the times. The background of Loti’s novel holds a whole room and it was fascinating to see and read about it, especially since I was reading the novel.

Picture of Guillaume Floury

Pierre Loti was a navy officer. This is where he met two fishermen named Guillaume Floury and Sylvestre Floury. The first became Yann Gaos in the book and the other is Sylvestre Moan. The rumor says that Sylvestre Floury saved Loti’s life in Saigon.

Loti spent some time in Ploubazlanec, fell in love with a local girl and was rejected. We can be grateful that he poured his broken heart into literature. Many descriptions in Fisherman of Iceland are true-to-life, except for the ones of life on the fishing ships. Loti romanticized and glossed over the gory details.

Ploubazlanec really celebrates its history and there’s an Iceland walk in the village. This is why our next Literary Escapade will take you to Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even on the locations described in Fisherman of Iceland.

TBC…

Literary Escapade: Combourg and Chateaubriand

August 6, 2020 26 comments

Chateaubriand (1768-1848) is a writer that my highschool BFF and I had nicknamed Chateaubrichiant. (Chateauboring) That’s how much we enjoyed the excerpts of Memoirs of Beyond the Grave that we studied in school.

Since then I’ve read Atala and René and mused in my billet that I didn’t know that Chateaubriand was in favor of kibbutz (Atala) and missed the opportunity to invent Kleenex (René) The whole billet is here.

Chateaubriand is taught as the precursor of Romanticism and I have to confess this is not my favorite literary movement. Too much gloom and doom for my tastes. And indeed, see what Chateaubriand writes about his own birth:

Il n’y a pas de jour où, rêvant à ce que j’ai été, je ne revoie en pensée le rocher sur lequel je suis né, la chambre où ma mère m’infligea la vie, la tempête dont le bruit berça mon premier sommeil, le frère infortuné qui me donna un nom que j’ai presque toujours traîné dans le malheur. Le Ciel sembla réunir ces diverses circonstances pour placer dans mon berceau une image de mes destinées. A day seldom passes on which, reflecting on what I have been, I do not see again in thought the rock upon which I was born, the room in which my mother inflicted life upon me, the tempest whose sound first lulled me to sleep, the unfortunate brother who gave me a name which I have nearly always dragged through misfortune. Heaven seemed to unite these several circumstances in order to lay within my cradle a symbol of my destiny. 

Translation Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

Kill me now…Anyway, this house is still there, in St Malo, in what is now Chateaubriand Street. (of course)

Chateaubriand was brought up in Combourg, a castle bought by his father who made a fortune as a fisherman in Newfoundland, tunred corsair and then invested in slave trade. A man of his time. Combourg is still owned by the descendants of the family and it’s open to visit, with a guided tour. The castle was empty during 80 years after the Revolution and was renovated by Viollet-Leduc. Here’s a general view of the castle.

And here are the grounds, taken from the stairs of the castle. There’s a lot of space to run around.

The visit takes us through parts of the castle and it’s a Chateaubriand tour, with quotes from Memoirs Beyond the Grave and all.

Here’s the room where he slept as a child, in a remote tower of the castle. The poor boy had to accompany his mother and sisters to their rooms, lock doors and check that there were no monsters and then had to go back to his isolated room in the dark and on his own. I can’t imagine what scars this you-will-be-a-man kind of education leaves on a young boy. Don’t you think that his room looked like a cell?

Chateaubriand died in Paris, rue du Bac. (Like Romain Gary, btw) His furniture was moved to Combourg and they have redone his Parisian room in the castle.

It was a nice tour, telling about Chateaubriand’s early life in Brittany.

The most moving part for me was this tree. It comes from the north of Canada and it’s called a faux cyprès de Lawson in French and according to the dictionary, a Port Orford tree in English. I couldn’t help thinking about The Overstory by Richard Powers, who keeps reminding us that trees, if we don’t destroy them, often survive us.

It’s two-hundred-and-fifty-years old, it has known Chateaubriand as a child. The little stone structure is the Lucile cross, a place where Chateaubriand and his sister Lucile used to chat. She was the one who encouraged him to write.

I left Combourg with an anthology of Memoirs Beyond the Grave. I’m not up for the whole memoirs, so I’ll rely on the work of Jean-Claude Berchet who selected the parts he thought worth reading.

I’ve started to read it and I find it a lot easier than expected.

I’m very curious about the historical aspects of Chateaubriand’s life. He has lived through several political systems in France: born under Louis XV, formative years under Louis XVI (1774-1792), he lived through the Revolution and the Ist Republic (1792-1804), Napoléon and the Ist Empire (1804-1815), the Restauration (1815-1830), the July Monarchy (1830-1848). When he died, the Second Republic had just started. All this in a lifetime.

He traveled a lot, had piolitical responsabilites. I’d like to read his biography some day. (And Lamartine’s, for the same reasons)

I always wonder how common people navigated and survived all these changes.

20 Books of Summer #7 : Nada by Carmen Laforêt – Twelve months in the life of a young woman

July 31, 2020 27 comments

Nada by Carmen Laforêt (1944) French title: Nada. Translated by Marie-Madeleine Peignot and Mathilde Pomès. Revised by Maria Guzmán

While I’m off wandering and doing Literary Escapades, I’m still reading. This year, as part of Spanish Lit Month and 20 Books of Summer, I decided to read Nada by Carmen Laforet along with Vishy.

When Nada opens, eighteen-year old Andrea arrives to Barcelona to attend university and study literature. She’s an orphan and used to live with her cousin in the country. Now, she’s going to live with her maternal uncles, aunt and grandmother.

Her train is late and it’s night when she finally reaches the family apartment on Aribau Street. The grandmother opens the door and it’s as if Andrea falls into a horror movie: the apartment is dark, stuffed with old furniture, it’s dirty and dusty, the people living there look old, tired and menacing. The scene is striking and the reader wonders where Andrea enters. She’s led to the living-room, with her bed made on an old sofa. It’s as if she’s disturbing spiders and other creatures.

The reader knows right away that something’s not right in this household. Being poor doesn’t mean being filthy and there’s something disturbing about Andrea’s welcome.

Andrea will share the lives of her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Roman, her uncle Juan and his wife Gloria and their baby. The grandmother is a sweet and religious old lady who would sacrifice her well-being to maintain the peace. Angustias is a righteous spinster who warns Andrea against Gloria and wants to control her life. Juan is a would-be painter who can’t accept that he has no talent. He doesn’t make enough money to support his family. Roman is a talented musician, too lazy to make a good career out of it. In any case, we’re in 1944 and Barcelona is still recovering from the Civil War.

Andrea finds herself in the middle of the unhealthy ties between the family members. Angustias wants Andrea to be her pet but you don’t catch flies with vinegar. Andrea silently resists. Roman tries to attract her with honey, but she still feels ill at ease and perceives that he’s manipulative. Gloria concentrates all the violence of the family: Angustias hates her, Juan beats her and Roman desires her and belittles her. There are undercurrent of past events between the three.

Roman is a central character in the novel. He’s charismatic and cruel. He counts on his enigmatic personality to draw people in his nets. Other people are preys.

Andrea starts going to university and befriends Ena. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air for Andrea but also the source of torments. She’s too poor to fit with Ena’s family and she feels like an outsider in her circle of bohemian friends too.

From the very first pages, the reader feels that this experience in Barcelona will be crucial in Andrea’s life and that drama is inevitable.

Nada reminded me of Hello Sadness by Françoise Sagan, probably because both have young women as main characters and both were written when their authors were very young.

Andrea also sounded like an existentialist character. Sartre’s Nausea was published in 1938 and Camus’s Outsider in 1942. Like Meursault, Andrea is a bit aloof and her friend Ena notices it. She doesn’t fit into the usual young woman mold: she doesn’t wear make up, doesn’t think about boys and getting married. She’s not even passionate about her studies.

She’s floating on the sea of her life, trying to navigate around the violent outbursts at home, staying with her friends but not belonging. She doesn’t seem committed to anything. The young men who try to seduce her can’t find a grip to climb over her personal walls. They fail and fall like inexperienced climbers in front of a smooth rock face.

Sometimes Andrea cares about others, about Ena especially but she’s mostly indifferent about her relatives. She’s invaded by an overwhelming sadness at times and a depressing vision of life. Who can blame her, considering her circumstances?

Barcelona is a character in the book too. Andrea flees from the house and spends hours wandering in the city’s streets. The architecture and the weather leave marks on her moods.

Despite her apparent apathy, Andrea is a fighter. She resists all attempts at putting her on someone’s side. She fought for leaving the country to study in Barcelona. She silently stands up to Angustias. She won’t bend and she fights for her freewill. Nobody will take her freedom of thinking and even if in appearance, she doesn’t make a fuss about anything, her mind is her own.

Is this silent resistance the author’s vision of how to resist the Franco dictatorship? Staying safe and keeping one’s freewill must have been a challenge back then. Times must have been tough in Barcelona, a former bastion of the Republicans. Nada stays away from political issues and doesn’t delve on the war years but it’s underlying.

In the end, Nada tells twelve months in the life of a young woman and sounds like an existentialist coming-of-age novel.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 23 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

May 11, 2020 22 comments

Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (119) French title: Vie des douze Césars. Translated from the Latin by Henri Ailloud. Original title: De vita duodecim Caesarum libri.

During my (still ongoing) operation Tackle the TBR, I came across Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I don’t remember when I bought it but I suppose it didn’t sound so daunting after my delightful experience with Ars Amatoria by Ovid.

Let’s say that this experience wasn’t as conclusive and to be honest, I stopped reading after Nero’s life. I read a translation that dates back to 1931/1932 and I don’t know whether it was intended for students or readers.

I remember studying passages of De rerum natura by Lucretius and being happy that the French translation was as close to the text as possible, to track down how the translation was done. However, it was unreadable for a reader with no academic purpose. Maybe this translation falls into the second category as it was a strenuous and frustrating read.

It was tiring for very practical reasons. I have a paperback copy and it’s written in very small print. I’m at the uncomfortable stage where small prints are hard to read and my eyesight is still too good for reading glasses. It was frustrating because I was reading and not remembering what I was reading, so I only have vague memories about what I read and only retained some anecdotes.

As the title of the book suggests it, Suetonius writes the bio of the twelve emperors from Julius Ceasar (1st C BC) to Domitian (1st C AD). Contrary to our usual bios, he doesn’t write chronologically but by theme. He writes about their accomplishments in the military, the kind of ruler they were, what they built, how they managed money and treated their people.

Then he explores their family and mores. Gossip Suetonius doesn’t gloss over the horrors: pedophilia, torture, overspending, whims, murders, incest, you name it, they’ve done it. And he describes their physical appearance and their health, gory details and all.

Life of the Twelve Caesars is certainly a terrific resource for historians but it was too difficult for the common reader that I am. I lacked the cultural references and the historical knowledge necessary to fully appreciate it. And the names! Even more confusing than in Russian novel.

Sure, I discovered that Caligula exhibited public diversions in Sicily, Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul besides a contest for pre-eminence in the Grecian and Roman eloquence; in which we are told that such as were baffled bestowed rewards upon the best performers, and were obliged to compose speeches in their praise: but that those who performed the worst, were forced to blot out what they had written with a sponge or their tongue, unless they preferred to be beaten with a rod, or plunged over head and ears into the nearest river.

That’s a way to say that failure was not a option. I wonder why there’s an s at the end of Lyon and I suppose that the river was the Saône since it is the closest to the Roman part of the city.

When reading about Nero and his artistic endeavours, I thought that in today’s world, he would have been a reality TV star since above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity, being the rival of every man who obtained the applause of the people for any thing he did. At least Nero had a decent haircut.

I smiled when I saw that Caligula’s prefect of the pretorian guard was named Macro, who became Macron in the French translation.

I didn’t know that emperors could decide to change the alphabet as Claudius did.

He besides invented three new letters, and added them to the former alphabet, as highly necessary. He published a book to recommend them while he was yet only a private person; but on his elevation to imperial power he had little difficulty in introducing them into common use; and these letters are still extant in a variety of books, registers, and inscriptions upon buildings.

Apparently, Rome was a moveable feast and caesars could also change the calendar, as Augustus did:

He restored the calendar, which had been corrected by Julius Caesar, but through negligence was again fallen into confusion, to its former regularity; and upon that occasion, called the month Sextilis, by his own name, August, rather than September, in which he was born; because in it he had obtained his first consulship, and all his most considerable victories.

 Sure, why not change the name of a month? To think that we still have that name, now!

I could go on and on with various anecdotes like this which I found in my notes and not in my memory. Sadly.

I think that Life of the Twelve Caesars is good for scholars but not so much for the common reader. We, common readers, need a middleman to dive into this. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome at the turning point between republic and empire, I highly recommend the Steven Saylor series. It’s written as crime fiction and it’s brilliant. It describes the politics, the mores and the workings of the political apparel of that time.

PS: The translation I used comes from Project Gutenberg.

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