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Transcontinental love

July 4, 2015 11 comments

Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique. 1999. French title: L’amygdalite de Tarzan.

Preamble: I have read it in French, translated by Jean-Marie Saint Lu. I translated the quotes into English and as often, it’s not easy to translate a Latin language into English.

A tous les deux, comme en tant d’autres occasions, la seule chose qui nous a manqué, qui nous a manqué d’emblée, certes, c’est notre Estimated Time of Arrival. Ce qui n’avait jamais dépendu de nous mais de divinités contraires et, par conséquent, notre histoire devait forcément déboucher sur un avenir souriant et meilleur, sur un optimisme effronté qui nous permettait d’affirmer, avec plus d’enthousiasme chaque fois, que le vrai miracle de l’amour, c’est que, en plus du reste, il existe. For us, like on many occasions, the only thing we never had from the start is our Estimated Time of Arrival. It didn’t depend on us but on opposite gods and as a consequence, our story HAD to lead to a smiling and better future, to a cheeky optimism that made us believe with even more enthusiasm each time that the true miracle of love is that, on top of everything, it exists.

Bryce_Echenique_tarzanPerhaps I should manage the upcoming billets list with a FIFO method. It would be rational. Only I can’t because sometimes the book I’ve just read is so vivid that I want to write about it right away, before I lose the feeling, before I’m out of its zone of influence, before I lose its melody. Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique is one of those books. I bought it by chance because the title and the cover appealed to me. My instincts proved right –only because I based my decision upon the French cover, though. So what’s it about?

Juan Manuel Carpio is Peruvian and from Indian origins. He went to university in Lima. Fernanda María de la Trinidad del Monte Montes is Salvadorian and from a bourgeois family. She went to school in California and in Switzerland in private schools. They meet in Paris where Juan Manuel Carpio plays the guitar and sings in the metro while Fernanda María works for the UNESCO. At the time, Juan Manuel Carpio is married to Luisa who left him and went back to Lima because he wouldn’t give up his dreams about becoming a musician. He’s still healing from this pain.

Chacun se débat comme il peut sur son terrain. Les séparations ne sont pas faciles, comme tu le sais. Et les amours ne s’enlèvent pas avec de l’eau et du savon. Each of us fights on their grounds. Breakups aren’t easy, as you know. And love doesn’t go away with water and soap.

Juan Manuel and Fernanda María fall in love but Luisa is still in the picture, legally and in Juan Manuel’s mind. Fernanda María goes back to El Savador, leaving Juan Manuel behind in Paris with a pile of regrets. She comes back for a while, only now she’s married to Chilean would-be photographer Enrique. They will have two children, Rodrigo and Mariana.

Juan Manuel will pursue his career as a songwriter and a singer and will stay in Europe, living between Paris and Majorca. Fernanda María will be in El Salvador, California, Santiago, London…pushed by the wind of dictatorships, guerillas and family troubles.

It’s a semi-epistolary novel. Juan Manuel tells us their story. His point of view is a classic narrative and Fernanda María’s voice is heard through her letters. Juan Manuel’s letters were stolen when Fernanda María was assaulted once.

Juan Manuel doesn’t complain about his life or his career but we can guess that he was lonely sometimes and that his path to fame and success wasn’t paved with flowers and soft and green lawns. He spent a lot of time on tours and the rest writing songs. His unconventional relationship with Fernanda María nourishes his art.

Fernanda María doesn’t complain either but her life was difficult and made of exile, a drinking husband who doesn’t know what to do with his gift as a photographer and odd jobs to survive and take care of the children. And the pain to come from a little country destroyed by civil war.

Nous marchons tous sur des sables mouvants ces temps-ci. Pour les raisons les plus diverses, le monde est inhabitable. We all walk on quicksand, these days. For the most diverse reasons, the world is uninhabitable.

Friends who disappear. Threats on their lives. Family split in different foreign countries to escape destruction and poverty. Fear for the future. That’s part of Fernanda María’s quotidian in El Salvador.

They will write to each other during thirty years and more. They will meet sometimes. They will nurture their love for each other. They will support each other from afar. They will have other people in their lives but these persons will have to accept they are second best.

Mais comme tu le dis si bien, c’est Dame réalité qui est la vraie triomphatrice de toutes nos batailles.Et peut-être qu’elle se venge de nous parce que nous ne lui avons pas rendu le culte qu’elle exige des personnes réalistes. Comme si nous lui avions tiré la langue, et elle est tellement, tellement orgueilleuse, cette Dame réalité. But as you say it so well, Lady reality is the real victor of all our battles.And maybe she takes revenge because we haven’t worshipped her the way she expects it from realistic people. As if we had stuck our tongue at her and she’s so, so conceited, this Lady reality.

Neither Fernanda María nor Juan Manuel is Argentinean but their story sounds like a tango. They move towards each other, then move away without losing touch and always with amazing grace. Everything in this novel is graceful, from the rhythm of the prose to the acceptance of the characters to move with the music score of their lives. It’s never corny and they embark you on the journey of their lives. The novel is also a reminder of how difficult it was to stay in touch with a loved one from a non-Western country before the internet age. Letters had difficulties to reach Juan Manuel because of war, poor post office service. Phone calls were awfully expensive. And there wasn’t anything else.

“So why Tarzan’s tonsillitis?” you may wonder. Fernanda María is like Tarzan, fearless and jumping in the jungle of her life. Confident in her walk into the jungle except when her throat is clogged with worries and angst. Her mental tonsillitis leaves her unable to yell and jump into the unknown. And Juan Manuel is a distant but concerned witness of her struggles.

I had a lovely reading time and I’ll leave the last word to Juan Manuel and Fernanda María:

– On se revoit dans notre prochaine lettre, Juan Manuel.- Sûr, mon amour. La lettre doit être comme un portrait de l’âme ou quelque chose comme ça, parce que toi et moi nous sommes tout ce qu’il y a de plus photogénique, épistolairement parlant. – We’ll see each other in our next letter, Juan Manuel.– Sure, my love. Letters must be like a portrait of our souls, or something like this because you and me are the most photogenic people ever, from an epistolary point of view.

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

 

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)

PO Box Love: A Novel of Letters by Paola Calvetti

October 27, 2011 10 comments

Noi due come un romanzo by Paola Calvetti. 2009  

  • French title: L’amour est à la lettre A.
  • English title : P/O Box Love: A Novel of Letters (will be published on January 31st 2012)
  • German title: Und immer wider Liebe: Roman
  • Dutch title: Voor liefde zie de letter L

This is the second book we had chosen for our book club and we met last Sunday night to discuss the book.  In November, we are reading Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. If you want to join us, it’ll be a pleasure. As this one wasn’t translated into English, you can also read The Roots of Heaven or Promise at Dawn if you want to discover this brilliant French writer.

Back to Paola Calvetti. I wrote my review of before our meeting and I’ll tell you what the others think of her novel.

My review

Emma, a fifty year old executive has inherited of a shop in the city center of Milan. She’s divorced and lives with her teenage son Mattia. She decides to leave her old life and open a bookstore specialized in love stories. It’s named Rêves et Sortilèges in French (Dreams and Charms) One day she gets in touch with her high-school sweetheart Federico. He’s married, has a daughter and works as an architect for Renzo Piano in New York on a big project, restoring the Pierpont Morgan library in Manhattan. The old flame kindles and as Federico now works in New York, they start writing to each other, using a PO Box. I won’t tell more about the plot, it would give away too many things.

The novel alternates between Emma’s everyday life in Milan and the letters she receives from Federico. She’s the narrator and Federico’s voice is only heard through his letters. We follow her adventure with her bookstore and how she develops her business. I enjoyed her shelves: the broken hearts section, the mission impossible shelf, the love and crime shelf, the traitors’ shelf, the cosi fan tutte one…There’s a lot of book suggestions in the novel, I started to write them down but there were too many of them, I gave up. Guess what? There’s a web site Rêves et Sortilèges and if you visit it, you’ll discover Emma’s bookstore, the shelves and the corresponding books, a video of Emma and Federico writing, the décor of the book. Have a look at it, it’s funny.

I liked Emma a lot, especially because we have things in common. Like her, I love spying on people’s books in trains, in the metro, in parks, everywhere. I’m always curious to see what other people read. She doesn’t drink wine and has to face people who just can’t understand that someone doesn’t like wine. (Is that as hard in Italy as it is in France?) She loves reading in bed and I’d like her to give me a “Shhh I’m reading” mug too. She made me want to visit Milan.

I also enjoyed Federico’s letters. I so want to go back to New York to visit his quiet places where he writes his letters.  I thought his voice was convincing, but can you really ride a Vespa in New York? Federico isn’t a reader but the researches he makes for his project slowly build a bridge between him and Emma. She gets interested in architecture and he starts enquiring after books. I liked to read about “his” project. (“his” because Renzo Piano really renovated the Pierpont Morgan Library in 2006)

The novel has flaws though. I thought that the side characters lacked craziness. I would have liked a whacked salesperson when Alice is so banal. Some literary coincidences may sound fake but they are used in many classic love stories too. I think about Mr Rochester being already married or Elizabeth Bennett stumbling upon Mr Darcy while visiting Pemberley.

In my post about book covers, I wrote “it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature.” So what’s the verdict? It’s a good read in the same category as Daniel Glattauer or Katherine Pancol’ animal trilogy. It’s lovely but it’s not for everyone. I had two charming evenings reading it and I enjoyed the moments I spent with this book as I have a thing for books about books, for the story of a bookstore and for epistolary novels. It is a novel about literature, about all the pleasure and comfort a reader can find in a book. That spoke to me.

After the book club meeting: what the others thought.

We all enjoyed reading it, although I was the one who liked it most, maybe because opening a bookstore is something I’d do if it paid the bills.

J. enjoyed following the development of the bookstore more than the love story and was a little bored by the parts about architecture. C&J both thought Federico wasn’t convincing and that he was speaking a lot of himself, that his feelings weren’t obvious. However, his letters after 09/11 were sober and moving. J also thought that everything runs too smoothly for Emma, that there aren’t enough obstacles.

On Emma herself, we thought it was nice to read about mature love. There’s a great acceptance of getting old, of solitude in these pages. In the span of years described in the book, Emma accepts aging. Her son leaves home, opening a new page of her life. We would have wanted more information about her past and more psychological insight.

We all liked the tribute to literature, as Emma’s customers also come after a break-up or a personal problem. They find comfort in books. I had chosen that quote:

Pour se sauver, on lit. On s’en remet à un geste méticuleux, une stratégie de défense, évidente mais géniale. Pour se sauver, on lit. Un baume parfait. Parce que peut-être, pour tout le monde, lire c’est fixer un point pour ne pas lever les yeux sur la confusion du monde, les yeux cloués sur ces lignes pour échapper à tout, les mots qui l’un après l’autre poussent le bruit vers un sourd entonnoir par où il s’écoulera dans ces petites formes de verre qu’on appelle des livres. La plus raffinée et la plus lâche des retraites. La plus douce. Qui peut comprendre quelque chose à la douceur s’il n’a jamais penché sa vie, sa vie tout entière, sur la première ligne de la première page d’un livre? C’est la seule, la plus douce protection contre toutes les peurs. Un livre qui commence. We read to save ourselves. We rely on a meticulous movement, a defence strategy, obvious but awesome. We read to save ourselves. A perfect balm. Perhaps it’s because for everyone, reading is a way to stare at something and avoid looking up at the confusion of the world. Eyes locked up on these lines to escape from everything, one by one the words push the noise towards a deaf funnel in which it will trickle out in these little glass shapes we call books. The most refined and the most coward of all shelters. The sweetest. Who can understand anything to sweetness if they have never bent their life, their entire life over the first line of the first page of a book? It’s the only and the softest protection against all fears. The beginning of a book.

as it speaks to me, until C pointed out that it comes from Lands of Glass by Alessandro Barricco, as Paola Calvetti indicated in the acknowledgments. Anyway, it’s a beautiful quote. Literature as a balm, an oblivion pill or a place to find answers.

To Paola Calvetti.

If you read this, I have a request:

It would be just great if you asked your publishers to include the list of the novels referred to in your book. There’s such a list in Katherine Pancol’s book, Un homme à distance and it was most convenient for compulsive readers like me. I LOVE that the web site of Rêves et Sortilèges exists and shows the Emma’s bookshop.

Paola Calvetti, book club and covers

October 12, 2011 40 comments

I wanted to remind you that our book club Les copines d’abord is currently reading Paola Calvetti’s book Noi due come un romanzo. It will only be published in English in January 2012 but it is available in French (L’amour est à la lettre A) and in German (Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman). Join us if you’re interested. I’ll post the review on October 27.

After reading Litlove’s post NOT chick-lit about how books are marketed for women and sometimes make look good novels like Harlequins – Sorry Litlove for summarizing so harshly your thoughtful post – Paola Calvetti’s novel came to my mind. Before reviewing the novel, I thought her book was a perfect illustration of how books are marketed differently according to the country and according to the supposed gender of their readership. The novel is the story of Emma, 50, who lives in Milan and quits her former life to open a bookstore. She also starts a correspondence with her former high school sweetheart Federico. If you only read the pitch I’ve just written, it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature. (You’ll have to wait for the review to know where it stands between the two.)

Here is the original Italian cover. The title means “The two of us like a novel”. I think it’s good, not too cheesy and puts forward the most important thing in the book: the letters. The colors are mostly black and white, nothing supposedly feminine. Nothing screams “I’m a novel for women only”

 

 

The French title is L’amour est à la lettre A. (Love is at the A letter), not at all the translation of the original title, which always bothers me. However, it refers to the letters and the bookstore, which is good. The French cover of the hardcover edition looks like the Italian cover. The paperback version shows Emma, but not her face. Is it because she’s 50? A picture of a young woman would be lying. Does that mean that an elegant fifty-year-old woman isn’t good for sales? I have another problem with this cover, it forgets Federico, who does have a voice in the story.

The German title is Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman, something like “And love forever: a novel”. The two German covers are quite opposite. I absolutely loathe the one with the bouquet in pastel tones. It looks like a Victorian novel. I don’t understand where the country setting comes from, most of the book is in Milan or New York. When I see a cover like this, I expect the stupidest romance. The other cover is better, but the red and black colors look sexy and somehow recall the Twilight covers. Where is my urban fifty-year-old Emma? Where’s the bookstore? Where is reading?

 

The English cover could be good without that rose. At least, there are books and letters. There’s nothing with a rose in that book. But look at all this pink!! An overdose of pink: pink background, pink rose, pink books, pink ribbon. It tastes like a stupid romance too. Seeing this cover, do you imagine a divorced active bookseller in Milan? I see a stay-at-home woman in the country in the 19thC.

 

If I’m in a positive state of mind, I’ll think that it will mislead romance readers and help them discover something else. If I’m in a ranting mind, I’m sorry for Paola Calvetti… This summer, I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. This is the adult version of Princesses and pink toys. A book for women? Pink. Cheesy. Corny. Flowers. Homes. Country. Long skirts. These covers forster the idea of women as romantic, interested in “girly” books and also tells men that these books aren’t for them. Honestly, can you imagine a man in a train carriage with a book with that cheesy book-letter-rose cover? He’d want to put a brown bag on it.

I don’t fit the description of the female reader these publishers imagine. I bought Paola Calvetti’s book because of her publisher, 10:18. I know that most of the time, I enjoy their books. If it had been published by J’ai Lu, with a cover like that and such a title, it would have stayed in the bookstore.

 

 

Cyber Crush 2 The Battle: Marshmallow against Cotton Candy

April 15, 2011 5 comments

Every Seventh Wave by Daniel Glattauer, the sequel of Love Virtually. Original title : Alle Sieben Wellen. Translated into French by La septième vague.

After reading Love Virtually, I lent my copy to a colleague, who liked it and bought the sequel. I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise. This is how I ended up reading Every Seventh Wave on a train, on my way back from Paris.

I was curious to read about Emmi and Leo again. I knew from Caroline’s review that maybe writing a sequel wasn’t a good idea as the ending of Love Virtually was perfect. I agree and as often when I write reviews I have a song in mind. This time, it’s a French song by Anaïs and the following  lyrics really express my feeling about this book:     

Ça dégouline d’amour It drips with love,
C’est beau mais c’est insupportable. It’s lovely but unbearable
C’est un pudding bien lourd It’s a very heavy pudding
De mots doux à chaque phrase Of love words at every sentence
“Elle est bonne ta quiche, amour” “Your quiche is good, love”
“Mon cœur, passe moi la salade” “Sweetheart, pass me the salad”
Et ça se fait des mamours, And they cuddle
Se donne la becquée à table. Feed each other during meals
Ce mélange de sentiments This mix of feelings
Aromatisé aux fines herbes Flavored with fines herbes
Me fait sourire gentiment Makes me gently smile
Et finalement me donne la gerbe ! But in the end makes me puke!

Since I’d rather spend time writing something – if possible intelligent – about What Maisie Knew or keep on reading Witches Sabbath or Money, I suggest that anyone interested in a serious review of Every Seventh Wave read Caroline’s prose, which is better than mine.

Cyber crush: to meet or not to meet, that is the question.

March 24, 2011 19 comments

Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer. Translated in French by “Contre le vent du Nord” and in English by the silly “Love Virtually”, instead of the literal “Good Against the North Wind”

I decided to read Gut Gegen Nordwind – I can’t make myself use the ludicrous English title – after reading Caroline’s review. It seemed to be the right book to read for the upcoming 7 hours flight I had to take and I wasn’t disappointed, the hours flew pleasantly.  

So, what is it about? Emmi wants to cancel her subscription to the magazine Like. She misspells the email address and accidentally sends it to Leo Leike. They start chatting and writing to each other until the light and funny conversation turns into a crush. Emmi is happily married and Leo is recovering from a multiple stop-and-go relationship with Marlene. The question “Shall we meet?” is raised right from the start. As they live in the same town, the meeting would be easy to set up. It’s nagging at them and itches more and more intensely as the correspondence develops.

I really enjoyed the beginning of their relationship, their witty ping-pong exchanges. The ending is unexpected and well-chosen. I was a little bored by the procrastination about meeting or not.  As it is written in the form of emails, the style is mostly spoken language, with a very good translation from the German. The sequence of short messages gives a vivid rhythm to the book.

Now that I’m writing the review and try to answer the central question of the book, ie “What are Emmi and Leo looking for in this virtual relationship?”, two opposite tendencies fight in me. My soft side would say it’s a lovely book gracefully avoiding the expected Hollywood ending. My cynical side would be tempted by a twisted interpretation. So, I’ll give you the two voices and you’ll make up your mind.

La vie en rose, the soft voice says.

Emmi and Leo weren’t looking for anything but accidents, like falling in love, happen. They start an innocent correspondence and get carried away. Leo is available and he’s probably vulnerable after his break-up with Marlene. Emmi entering into his life without the constraints of a long-term relationship is probably a good way to forget his former lover. Emmi is a distraction that becomes an addiction. On her side, Emmi is sincerely in love with her husband Bernhard and it is as if her love were opening a new branch for Leo, who reveals the little emptiness of her married life. Someway, romance is lacking in her life and she enjoys the feeling of young love.

Words are powerful weapons that can set imaginations on fire. It was in the core of two beautiful short-stories by Thomas Hardy I recently read. Imagination also plays a crucial part in Gut Gegen Nordwind. This is a disembodied love fostered by teasing words. But is it really love or the idea of love? Can you pretend to love someone you’ve never met? Isn’t this a very convenient “relationship”, one you can stop whenever you want? You’re there, online, only when you feel like it. It’s out of time, out of place, a sort of living diary. It’s like having a diary that responds to your thoughts.

Of course, the other question is: Is Emmi cheating on her husband with this relationship? What is cheating? What she does, as her feelings are committed, seems a greater betrayal than a simple one night stand.

La vie en Noir, the cynical voice says.

Are they two seducers who manipulate each other? Emmi and Leo don’t really share their deepest thoughts or their everyday life. They don’t have engaging conversations. But they need each other, the daily messages and the idea that there is someone out there to talk to. I wondered why what could have been an agreeable friendship had to turn into love.

What if Leo had been a Lea? Would Emmi have kept on writing if her addressee had been a woman? I’m not sure. Although we only see her through her mails, Leo’s answers and the indirect speech of her friend Mia, we guess Emmi takes pleasure in being attractive. We understand that she’s pretty and likes testing her power over men. She’s the one who starts teasing and talking about seduction. Emmi is not built to have a man as a friend. She doesn’t believe in friendship between a man and a woman. From the first emails, Emmi introduces the idea of seduction and sex by asking Leo how he imagines her. Is she doing this to spice her marriage? And Leo? Doesn’t he enter the game easily, nourishing the flames by ambiguous sentences, erotic comments and a strange way of meeting without meeting?

I can’t give too many details without spoiling the last part of the book. But the more I think of it, the more I incline towards the twisted side. What can I say, I have difficulties to buy pure romance.

My two opposite responses to Gut Gegen Nordwind are evidence that this book isn’t as simple and as gooey romantic as the English title gives us to understand. There is a sequel, it will be published in France in April but it’s already released in English and has been reviewed by Caroline here.

“Be good, O my Sorrow, and keep quiet.”

February 15, 2011 19 comments

Lettres d’une Religieuse portugaise.  Anonymous. (337 kindle loc.) Translated as Letters of a Portuguese Nun. I couldn’t find a translation online, so I translated the quotes myself.

I first heard of this book when I read Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol, in which Kay and Jonathan correspond and discuss the books they love. Each book has a clue to explain either the characters or the plot. This is why I’m hugely tempted to discover the books they talk about and that I haven’t read.

Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a French text written in 1669. It is attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues and it is composed of five letters sent by a Portuguese nun to her former French lover. Until the 20th C, the letters were believed to be real letters translated from the Portuguese and written by a nun named Mariana Alcoforado to her French lover, Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly.

We can guess the story through the letters although it is never clearly told. Mariane has met her lover when she was already a nun. He was in Portugal for military reasons and left her behind when he went back to France. His name is never told. Mariane trusts another officer to give her letters to their addressee. We understand that she first saw him from her window and that it was love at first sight. They managed to meet in her room and be physically intimate. This was really bold of her, even if she hadn’t been a nun. Her behaviour was scandalous for the time. By succumbing to him and living her passion, she turns her back to her reputation and her family.

She is desperately in love with this man. We only read her letters and although he seems to answer to her from time to time, we never know precisely what he says. His letters are neither included in the correspondence nor quoted in Mariane’s letters. Writing these letters is part of her healing process, she writes as much for herself as for him.

Il me semble que je vous parle, quand je vous écris, et que vous m’êtes un peu plus présent. It seems to me that writing to you is speaking to you and it brings you closer.

From the first letter to the last one, the reader follows Mariane’s state of mind and the evolution of her pain. The text is poignant because she explains in simple words what she feels and how she suffers from his absence, from his desertion. She’s never bombastic and it makes her feelings more real.

Je me jetai sur mon lit, où je fis mille réflexions sur le peu d’apparence que je vois de guérir jamais : ce qu’on fait pour me soulager aigrit ma douleur, et je retrouve dans les remèdes mêmes des raisons particulières de m’affliger I threw myself on my bed and I had a thousand thoughts about how it seems I’ll never heal : what is done to relieve me only bitters my pain and I found in the very remedies the same particular reasons to aggrieve.

She doesn’t understand why he left. She thought he was truly in love with her too. The reader can’t make up their mind about her situation, as she never gives precise details and as the situation is only seen from her point of view. We don’t know why he left, if he’s as broken-hearted as she is or if it was just an affair for him. She’s in pain from the absence, the memories and the unexplained.

Et comment est-il possible qu’avec tant d’amour je n’aie pu vous rendre tout à fait heureux ? How is it possible that I haven’t been able to make you happy despite all my love?

Nonetheless, despite the pain, she doesn’t regret anything.

J’aime bien mieux être malheureuse en vous aimant que de ne vous avoir jamais vu. I’d rather be in love with you and unhappy than having never met you.

It is really moving. The version I’ve read is in modern French. Sure, the sentences have 17th century cadences. But, as there aren’t many descriptions of her everyday life, she could be the girl next door. She’s just a woman in love who has been left by her lover. And that’s why The Letters of a Portuguese Nun is worth reading.

And yes, when Kay recommends it to Jonathan, it’s a way to share with him part of her past.

PS : The title of this post is my translation of the first verse of the poem Recueillement (Meditation) by Charles Baudelaire. The original French text is “Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille”. The entire poem and several English translation can be found here. These letters reminded me of this poem.

 

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

February 9, 2011 14 comments

Un homme à distance by Katherine Pancol. (152 pages) Not translated in English. The title means “A man at a distance”

Un homme à distance is a disconcerting little book. It’s an epistolary novel between Kay Bartholdi and Jonathan Shields. Kay is a bookseller in Fécamp, Normandy. Jonathan is American, travelling across France to write a tourist guide. He stopped in Fécamp, left a note and bank notes at Kay’s book-store. The note includes the addresses of the hotels he will stay in during his tour of France. The money is for Kay to send him books. They start a correspondence, talking about the books they like. They bounce on each other’s references. Jonathan guesses right. Like the reader, Kay is disconcerted.  

Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres?Est-ce que les livres sont le moyen de tout se dire, même l’inavoué, le plus terrible secret?Si vous m’aviez parlé de livres qui m’indiffèrent, si je vous avais annoncé des livres qui vous laissent froids, auriez-vous pensé à moi comme si vous saviez tout de moi?

Et pourquoi me suis-je livrée à vous aussi facilement?

Pourquoi suis-je allée vers vous en aveugle confiance?

Parce que j’avançais sur des livres, complices muets, farfadets malicieux?

Parce que vous me répondiez en glissant d’autres volumes sous vos pas?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?Are books a way to tell everything, even the unspoken, the most terrible secret?If you had talked about books that are indifferent to me, if I had chosen books that left you cold, would you have thought of me as if you knew everything about me?

And why did I open to you so easily?

Why did I go to you with blind trust?

Because I was walking on books, silent accomplices, impish elves?

Because your answers would slip other volumes under my steps?

 

 A thought-provoking question, indeed and I don’t have the answer.

Unlike my Guernsey marshmallow friends from the other day, this doesn’t turn into ridiculous mawkishness. And I was surprised by the denouement.

I’m embarrassed with this post because writing more about the text would reveal important pieces of the plot. It’s a book about books but it is more than that. It’s a book about love, but it’s also more than that. It’s a book about how book lovers can find help, comfort, shelter in novels.

It’s a book about the freedom brought by solitude. He has a bird name. She has the name of the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Each of them has their idea of what freedom is. In French, Un homme à distance means at the same time a man who is far away and a man to keep at a distance. And Jonathan is both.  

I enjoyed this one-evening read and I thank Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for recommending it to me. I’m curious about the books Kay and Jonathan talk about, especially The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, since I really loved Letters to a Young Poet last year.

I wish Katherine Pancol had made a moderate use of exclamation marks, but apart from that, her style is flowing. It improved in her following novels, Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles and La Valse lente des tortues. In the latter, there are references to Romain Gary. In this one, Jonathan is American but has spent his childhood in Nice, where his father was a consul. My one-track-Gary mind saw here a discreet allusion to Gary’s own adolescence in Nice. And as he was the consul of France in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help thinking about him. Incurable me.

Something else. I always have a lot of fun reading clichés about CPAs. They are always dull and shy little men with glasses. They supposedly love nothing else than numbers and usually have no imagination. Whenever a writer wants a boring character, you can be sure he’s an accountant. No writer can imagine a CPA as a thirty-something woman who loves books. Life is more imaginative that literature, I suppose.

PS : For readers able to read in French, it is easy to read.

The witty pie turned into gooey mashed potatoes

January 19, 2011 14 comments

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

What a disappointment! This book sounded so funny and lovely!

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is based on a good idea.

London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is travelling the country to meet the readers of her recently published book Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War. It is the gathering of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the war under the penname of Izzy Biggerstaff. Her publisher is directed by her dear friend Sydney, whose sister, Sophie, lives in Scotland and has been friend with Juliet since boarding school. The three of them are the first circle of pen pals.

On Guernsey Island, Dawsey Adams happens to read a book by Charles Lamb who once belonged to Juliet. He writes to Juliet to ask for a favour: since there isn’t any bookstore on Guernsey anymore, would she be so kind as to send him another book by Charles Lamb? Touched by his request, Juliet provides him with another book and starts corresponding with him.

That’s how she first hears of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This literary salon was created during the war, out of fear. Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Nothing new for a French reader, everything was pretty much the same in France during those years: hunger, fear, cold, curfew, troops, women sleeping with the enemy by interest, genuine love stories with German officers.

Like in France, livestock was thoroughly listed and some Guernsey neighbours tricked out the Germans to withdraw a swine from them. They throw a party to eat this unexpected meat and forget the curfew. As walk home after the feast, they are caught by the Germans, wandering after curfew. One member of the group, Elizabeth boldly lies and tells they had a literary meeting and forgot the time while talking about books. The Germans buy it and the next morning, the neighbours, led by Elizabeth, buy as much books as possible and start the literary circle for real, to keep the pretence.

Letters fly between Juliet and the Guernsey friends. In the second part, Juliet ends up leaving London for Guernsey to write her new book and meet her pen-friends. Unfortunately, the strongest personality, Elizabeth, is missing, as she has been sent to a prisoner camp on the continent for having protected a Todt worker. Follow then the description of her life in Guernsey, anecdotes about the German occupation, etc.

There are so many goods ideas in this book that it’s even more disappointing that they have been wasted. Elizabeth could have been a more central character as her personality and her actions influenced other people’s life. It is always strong in a book when an important character is there despite her absence. I’m thinking for example of Lydia, in Rebecca Connell’s The Art of Losing.

I would have liked to read Sophie’s letters as well. I think Juliet should have stayed in London and stick to writing letters to Guernsey; it would have been more powerful. And the literary meetings are disappointing. The first part raised my expectations. I expected to read more on books and the characters’ reactions to them.

I’ve read that Mary Ann Schaffer’s health declined and as she knew she wouldn’t have the strength to finish her book, she asked her niece Annie Barrow to complete it. I wonder where Mary Ann Schaffer stopped writing. If she wrote the first part and Annie Barrow the second part, it would explain the differences between the two.

The first part is lovely. The letters addressed by Juliet to Sydney and Sophie, describing her love for literature and her life in London are tender, funny and witty. There are interesting thoughts on how individuals recover from a war, if they recover at all. The early correspondence between Guernsey inhabitants and Juliet is nicely put.

The second part is goofy. Juliet takes a boat to Guernsey to write a book about the German occupation of the island. It seems all the possible clichés are there: a lonely shy and reliable Dawsey – Naming him George would have been too obvious – , an illegitimate child born from the love affair between Elizabeth and a decent German officer, orphans, an eccentric middle-aged lady with a golden heart.

The description of the occupation goes on. The predictable love story between Juliet and Dawsey happens with all the peripetia of romantic comedies. No, Juliet isn’t in love with Sydney since he’s gay. No, Dawsey isn’t in love with Remy, the French woman the literary society welcomes to Guernsey. The end is absurdly “Austenian”.

Well, what could have been a good book turns into a silly romance.

I can’t resist reporting the description of THE French woman in this book: stylish, practical and bold.

“Remy, for all she’s so frail and thin, manages to look stylish at every turn. What is it about French women?”

“Remy, like most Frenchwomen, is practical”.

“I would tell her of his affections, and then she, being French, would know what to do. She would let him know she’d find favour in his suit”

 

I’d never thought that my being practical came from my nationality. As for stylish and bold, I’m not the best judge. But this, added to Rebecca Connell telling me that my Italian features look exotic, makes me think I should have spent an Erasmus year in England. It would have been fun.

The positive point is that I’d never heard of Charles Lamb before. At least I will have learnt something, for which I’m always grateful. My opinion isn’t at all representative of the reviews. It is rated 4,5 stars on Amazon by almost 1400 reviewers.

Instead of reading The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, you might want to read the wonderful Journal à quatre mains written by Benoîte et Flora Groult. I think it has been translated as Diary in Duo. THIS is worth reading. It is autobiographical and composed of extracts from Benoîte and Flora’s diaries during WWII in Paris. If you want to know how it felt to be a teenager in Paris from 1940 to 1945, it’s witty and insightful. For men who’d be interested in understanding what it is to be a teenage girl, it’s pretty accurate.

Here is a teaser. Benoîte writes about her suitor Pasquale, who wants to sleep with her:

En me quittant, Pasquale dit « Vous êtes mignonne à croquer » J’en reste pantoise. Serait-il idiot ? S’il m’arrive d’être croquée par un homme, je compte bien lui rester sur l’estomac! Je ne suis pas une bêtise de Cambrai qu’on suce et qui fond sous la langue. » When leaving me, Pasquale says ‘You’re so lovely I would eat you’. I’m flabbergasted. Is he dumb? If I am to be eaten by a man, I hope I’ll weigh heavily on his stomach! I am not a Cambrai humbug one sucks and that melts under the tongue. (1)

(1) NB: “être mignonne à croquer” is the French expression to say “to be as lovely as a picture”. I meant to keep the food metaphor so I didn’t use it.

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