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Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 22 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.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 9 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother’s and sisters’. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

April 10, 2018 21 comments

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave (2009) French title: Mort de Bunno Munro.

‘Listen, you loopy old cunt. My wife just hung herself from the security grille in my own bloody bedroom. My son is upstairs and I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what to do with him. My old man is about to kick the bucket. I live in a house I’m too spooked to go back to. I’m seeing fucking ghosts everywhere I look. Some mad fucking carpet-muncher broke my nose yesterday and I have a hangover you would no fucking believe. Now, are you gonna give me the key to room seventeen or do I have to climb over this counter and knock your fucking dentures down your throat?’

No need to sum up the events that brought Bunny Munro to his last rope, they’re all listed in this quote.

When the book opens, we meet Bunny Munro, salesman who visits his prospects at home and sells them beauty products. The first chapters get us acquainted with Bunny, a man obsessed with sex. He’s an addicted womanizer and the ladies seem to fall for his charms. Still, we’re a bit struck by his looks and wonder how he’s such a ladies’ man.

Bunny opens the front door. He has removed his jacket and now wears a cornflower blue shirt with a design that looks like polka dots but is actually, on more careful inspection, antique Roman coins that have, if you get right up close, tiny and varied vignettes of copulating couples printed on them.

Right. See what I mean about the sex-obsessed mind? We soon understand that he’s a very unreliable narrator. The book has three parties, aptly entitled Cocksman (where Bunny shows us the extent of his uncontrollable sex-drive), Salesman (He’s on a tour to see clients with his son in tow after his wife’s death) and Deadman (cf the title of the book).

In Part One, the reader is amused by Bunny’s antics. In Part Two, the reader starts feeling very sorry for his son, Bunny Junior, understands the reasons of his wife’s suicide and get more and more alarmed by Bunny’s character. In Part Three, the reader is just plainly horrified.

Despite Cave’s fantastic sense of humor, I was ill-at-ease and my uneasiness grew chapter after chapter. The horror of this tale about this sexual predator is partly hidden by the comic thread around the rabbit theme, which is extremely well-done. Bunny loves his name and loves playing with his name and identifies his sex addiction with something embedded in his name. Bunny plays the rabbit card any time: ‘Oh baby, I am the Duracell Bunny!’ and he does a fair imitation of the pink, battery powered, drumming rabbit, up and down the hall’. And now that I’m typing this quote, I see a dildo instead of the Duracell Bunny.

Lots of details in the book or in the way it’s written are linked to the rabbit theme. The rabbit is the symbol of the magazine Playboy. Of course, the expression going at it like rabbits fits him perfectly. The discussions between Bunny and his boss seems to come out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Even Bunny’s son fits in the theme. First, he’s named Bunny Junior. Then he has a chronic eye infection that gives him red rabbit eyes. And when I read “The boy responds with a tilt of the chin but his feet start flip-flopping furiously”, I saw the rabbit Thumper from the Disney movies.

All these ridiculous allusions to rabbits, the ludicrous clothes and ties, the way Bunny goes from one apartment to the other, always hitting on isolated and lonely women make him look like a pitiful loser. You’d almost take pity on him but Nick Cave makes sure that you gradually realize that you are in company of a dangerous sex predator. Bunny’s head is deranged, here he is at McDonald’s:

Bunny sits in McDonald’s with a defibrillated hard-on due to the fact that underneath the cashier’s red and yellow uniform, she hardly has any clothes on.

He’s a sicko, plain and simple. He might have a funny rabbit fetish, he’s still unhealthy and a danger to society. This sums up my ambivalence towards the book. I admired Cave’s craft: the style is extremely funny, he takes his character through a last crazy and desperate run at life, a Thelma & Louise trip in Brighton, UK. But the character of Bunny Munro himself made me terribly ill-at-ease with his incompetence as a father, his sick relationships with women that cover the whole scope of sexual misconducts, sexual harassment up to rape. And through all this, he never thought he was doing anything wrong. A frightening journey in the head of a sexual predator who deep down knows his behavior is wrong but never acknowledges it. Chilling.

Many thanks to Guy for sending this book over the Atlantic. His review is here. There’s another PG13 review on Lisa’s blog here.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 11 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 11 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

August 29, 2016 11 comments

Hell & Gone (2011) and Point & Shoot (2013) by Duane Swierczynski. Not available in French. (So far. So it goes in the Translation Tragedy category)

 What was that old saying? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye? Hardie supposed the fun and games were over. Now it was something else.

Swierczynski_hell_gone

And something else it is.

I have read Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski almost one after the other. There are the two last books of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. The first one is Fun & Games and my billet about it is here.

In the first episode, poor Charlie Hardie happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and crosses path with a secret organization, The Accident People, who are specialized in killing people through what looks like an accident. Charlie Hardie is a tough guy. The Accident People are so impressed with his resilience and toughness that they decide they they want him to work for them. Hardie isn’t really on board with the idea so they don’t give him a choice. They kidnap him, drug him and ship him to in a high security prison somewhere. Soon, Hardie discovers he’s supposed to be the warden of highly dangerous criminals. And there’s a catch: if he tries to escape, it will trigger a death mechanism and everybody will die. And Charlie Hardie isn’t a killer. So a warden he becomes and he needs to manage a team of lethal guards. Hardie is a lone wolf. He used to work for the Philadelphia Police Department as a “consultant”, being a real cop wasn’t his thing. He worked closely with a police officer, Nate, and he was the one with the social skills in the duo. Hardie is not a leader, he’s a Pitbull who never gives up. Despite his desperate position, he still plans on escaping and doing whatever it takes to get out.

Hardie needed to gain their trust somehow, put them at ease. He couldn’t escape if his own staff was keeping a closer eye on him than the actual prisoners.

God help him…

He needed to hold a staff meeting.

This gives you a taste of Swierczynski’s brand of prose. Punchy, straight to the point and laced with tons of humor. The whole book is a fast paced adventure as Hardie discovers the ins and outs of the prison and the personality of the prisoners. It’s hard to know who to trust. There are new developments all the time and it’s a highly enjoyable ride.

In Point & Shoot, Hardie has been sent in orbit around the Earth. The Accident People again. This time he’s keeping something precious in a satellite. He’s trapped there for a year at least and he can observe his wife Kendra and kid through a weekly live feed. He must stay on duty for twelve months otherwise his wife and kid will have “an accident”. He can’t say he’s comfy in his in-orbit shoe box.

Ordinary life up here in space was a Black & Decker funhouse of pain.

Things change when his avatar lands on the satellite and makes them fall into the Pacific Ocean. How will they survive? Is this man trustworthy? Are Kendra and Charlie Junior in danger?

You’ll know more if you read the book. We learn more about the criminal organization that holds Hardie prisoner, why he’s so resilient despite all the beatings, drugging and other awful things that happen to his body. His mind is unreachable. He’s stubborn as hell and never gives up. He’s got a one track mind and protecting his wife and son is his only goal.

He’s an engaging character because his moral compass remains stable. He’s tough physically but also mentally. He remains human, not a superhero. It is through little observations that the reader sympathizes with Hardie’s predicament.

Sometimes all Hardie wanted in the world was the opportunity to stretch. A real stretch, where you can reach your hands to heaven and you can feel the vertebrae pop. Such a stretch was impossible in this claustrophobic tin can. And taking a leak? Back on Earth, guys were blessed with the ability to find a semi-hidden spot, unzip, and let it fly. Up here Hardie had t contort as he were doing yoga in a closet. If the vacuum seal wasn’t tight, then he’s enjoy the sensation of his own gravity-free piss droplets smacking into his face.

He’s the good guy put in impossible situations and he fights against the monsters.

Swierczynski_point_shootThese books are off the charts action movies. I wonder why nobody turned them into films. There’s so much material here. I love Swierczynski’s sense of humor, his style and his crazy ideas. He even gave the surname of his French translator to the French character in Hell & Gone. It’s an unusual surname, Aslanides, I knew she was her translator for France and I asked him if it was an allusion to her and it is.

I’m so sorry to report to French readers that this trilogy isn’t translated into French. It’s available in ebook and in English. Unfortunately, it means you won’t have the paper books with their gorgeous covers.

Many thanks again to Guy for pointing Duane Swierczynski in my direction. I will definitely read other books by him. Here are his reviews of Hell & Gone  and of Point & Shoot

 

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 23 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

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

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

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

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

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

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilling.

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau

January 24, 2016 13 comments

Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Published in 1878) I don’t think it’s available in English.

Feydeau_cocodetteIt’s better to read this billet after reading the one about images of prostitution in Paris from 1850 to 1910. It’s here. I have bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même at the bookshop of the Orsay museum. It caught my attention because the blurb mentioned that Flaubert wrote that it was tellement lubrique et indécent qu’aucun éditeur n’a consenti à le prendre” (“it was so lecherous and indecent that no publisher agreed to take it”). What could be shocking enough to shock Flaubert? I had to know.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Ernest Feydeau (1821-1873) before. He was a stockbroker and a writer and he combined his two jobs in a book about his experience at the Paris stock exchange. Apparently he inspired Zola for L’Argent. He was also the father of the playwright Georges Feydeau. His second wife was a former courtesan and she wasn’t faithful to him. The rumor says that Georges’s real father might be the duc de Morny or even Napoléon III. These biographical tidbits are important because it shows that Ernest Feydeau knew the world he was writing about in Souvenirs d’une cocodette and even if his character is fictional, there’s a good chance that her story rang true to his contemporaries.

Souvenirs d’une cocodette are the fake memoirs of Aimée. She’s ageing and she relates how she was raised by a beloved but weak father and a beautiful but unfaithful mother. Her mother didn’t like Aimée growing up and becoming beautiful. She saw her as a threat and she eventually put her away in a convent.

After her years at the convent, Aimée gets married to the baron de C*** an older man who wanted her for her beauty. It is not a love match. He married her to possess a beautiful object and started playing dolls with her. He was fond of seeing her in gorgeous gowns and jewels. She started to spend a lot of money on her appearance and became the darling of the high society. She was admired, admitted to the best circles and launched fashion. She breathed fashion and had a lot of fun parading in new clothes. I guess that today we would call a cocodette a fashionista. Life was frivolous but sweet.

Unfortunately, her husband is not as rich as he pretended to be and all this spending led them to ruin. When Aimée realizes in what predicament she finds herself into, a woman comes to rescue her. She’s supposedly the baroness of Couradilles and she acts as the middleman between women who are willing to sell their charms against money. She says that a certain gentleman would be more than happy to pay for Aimée’s body and suggests that she gives herself away against the settlement of her debts.

What I wrote is PG-rated. The text is not so polite and soft. Let’s say that Aimée describes her sexual initiation with lots of candor. First lesbian experiences at the convent in study hall and then experiences with men. The men in her world are perverse. Affairs are common, sexual favors too. Her husband sounds a bit deviant and demanding; her lover as well. Everyone in Aimée’s surroundings is rather toxic, except maybe her father. He’s just turning his head the other way to avoid acknowledging his wife’s affairs. (Something that Ernest Feydeau seems to have done too. He, whose middle name was…Aimé)

I understand why the Orsay museum put this book on display. It illustrates perfectly the theme of the exhibit. It shows how sex and prostitution had infiltrated society. Ernest Feydeau describes a society where sex is a commodity, where appearances matter so much that keeping them was worth a lot of sacrifices. Aimée speaks according to the codes this exhibit helped to decipher. She writes in an honest tone, taking Rousseau’s confessions as a model. Feydeau tries not to be judgmental but Aimée’s statements are rather condemning:

Je ne veux point me donner le ridicule de faire le procès à la société, qui, vraisemblablement, ainsi que le disait mon père, ne vaut ni plus ni moins que celle qui l’a précédée sur la scène du monde ; mais je ne puis cependant m’empêcher de remarquer que c’est à qui, dans les salons, poussera les malheureuses jeunes femmes, de toutes ses forces, à se mal conduire. En y réfléchissant aujourd’hui, je ne me sens même point aujourd’hui aussi coupable qu’on le pourrait croire. Combien de femmes j’ai connues, mariées comme moi, mères, qui se sont vues un jour contraintes de se vendre, pour apaiser des créanciers impitoyables, et qui n’eurent même pas l’idée, comme moi, de racheter ce qu’il y avait de rachetable dans leur action, en sauvant leur mari de la ruine, sans qu’il pût soupçonner le moyen pour cela, le laissant honnête homme et considéré, et prenant le supplice et la honte pour elle.

I don’t want to be ridiculous and put society on trial; as my father used to say, it’s probably not better or worse than the one that preceded it on the world’s scene. But I can’t help noticing that there’s a tendency to push unfortunate young women to misbehave. With hindsight, I don’t feel as guilty as you’d think. How many women did I know, married like me, mothers, who had to sell themselves to appease merciless creditors and who didn’t even have the idea, like me, to find a way to make amends and see what was redeemable in their action by saving their husband from ruin, without his knowing the means to it, leaving him honest and respected and keeping the agony and the shame for themselves.

 

(my translation, clumsy I know but Feydeau’s prose is a bit bombastic)

She sounds like her actions are rather common. Aimée also picture life from a woman’s point of view: someone who’s always at the mercy of men. She goes from obeying to her father to obeying to her husband to putting herself under the orders of her lover. With hindsight, Aimée states:

Je le répète, je n’ai eu, dans toute ma vie, qu’une seule et véritable passion, celle de la toilette. Passion qui n’est point du tout inoffensive, car elle coûte cher.

Heureusement que je ne manque pas des moyens nécessaires pour la satisfaire sans me voir obligée de subir encore les manies des hommes : je suis riche. Je suis veuve. Je n’ai pas d’enfants.

I repeat myself, I only had one true passion in my life : clothes. A passion that is not inoffensive at all because it is expensive.

Fortunately, I have the means to satisfy it without bending over backwards to the odd habits of men. I’m rich. I’m a widow. I don’t have any children.

This reminded me of Notre Coeur by Maupassant. Madame de Burne has no desire to remarry. It would mean losing her freedom.  Although it is said in a candid tone, Souvenirs d’une cocodette is also description of women’s fate in the high society. They have no other perspective than landing a rich husband or a rich lover if the rich husband fails them.

It’s an entertaining read but when you start digging and thinking about what it really means, the picture of the society of the Second Empire isn’t pretty. On top of the explicit sex talk, it’s offensive for the high society of the time. No wonder Flaubert saw it as subversive and that it was only published after Feydeau’s death.

PS: One word about the book cover. ‘Why the hen?’, you might think. In French, a cocotte is a tart, according to the dictionary but it’s also a colloquial way to call a hen.

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins

April 6, 2015 20 comments

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins. (2009) French title: B comme bière. Translated by François Happe.

Robbins_beerI recently realized that there’s no French word to say teetotaler. I wonder why. Because it’s a wine country? Because it used to be a Catholic country with wine at mass? Because alcohol has never been prohibited? I don’t have a clue, I only know we don’t have a word to describe someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drink wine or beer because I don’t like the taste of them. Don’t ask me how I survive in wine country without drinking any of it –imagine me enduring wine tasting at the Hospices de Beaune, standing beside friends and waiting for the boring thing to end—or how I survived being a student in a city where a street is renamed Rue de la bière because it’s the local Temple Bar. So, when I saw that B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins promised to explain beer to children, I thought it was meant for me. At last I’d know what the fuss was all about!

Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered why your daddy likes beer so much? Have you wondered, before you fall asleep at night, why he sometimes acts kind of “funny” after he’s been drinking beer? Maybe you’ve even wondered where beer comes from, because you’re pretty sure it isn’t from a cow. Well, Gracie Perkel wondered those same things.

Gracie is almost six and she wonders what this mysterious beverage the adults drink is all about. Her father doesn’t volunteer but her Uncle Moe starts explaining and even promises to take her to visit the Redhook brewery. When Uncle Moe lets her down and the visit is cancelled, she’s very angry and steals a beer can in the fridge. She drinks it, gets drunk and sick and the Beer Fairy appears to her. The Fairy will take her to the beer country to explain to Gracie how beer is made and how it is consumed. Follows a fantasy journey to a fantasy land.

Tom Robbins is funny in many aspects. He has a funny mind and a funny style. For example, the Perkels, like the writer himself, live in Seattle. Even here in France we know it’s a rainy city. Here’s how Tom Robbins decribes rains in Seattle:

Do you know about drizzle, that thin, soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles? Seattle is the world headquarters of drizzle, and in autumn it leaves a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper. When there is also a biting wind, as there was this day, Seattle people sometimes feel like they’re trapped in a bad Chinese restaurant; one of those drafty, cheaply lit places where the waiters are gruff, the noodles soggy, the walls a little too green, and although there’s a mysterious poem inside every fortune cookie, tea is invariably spilt on your best sweater.

The whole book is full of humorous descriptions, witty comments about humanity and its attraction to beer. The Beer Fairy shows the good and the bad about beer, subtly recommending moderation. Everything in life is about balance and not taking yourself too seriously. I had a wonderful time with that book. I read it in one sitting, an evening I needed distraction. It’s a joyful fairytale that will take you to another world. Tom Robbins has a unique angle on things, seeing fun in little details and creating a plausible Beer Fairy. He brings back your childhood, a time when you loved to imagine these hidden worlds or that there was a little man working a switch button to put light in the fridge when you open it.

Beer_Robbins

I have B Is For Beer in French and the translation is outstanding. François Hoppe managed to translate the puns in a very convincing way. It must have been complicated sometimes to find something equivalent without betraying the original text.

It’s the perfect book to pick while traveling or in-between two serious books or before visiting Ireland or Belgium but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. I still can’t swallow beer. 🙂

PS: Something else, for non-European readers. In this book, you’ll read “In Italy and in France, a child Gracie’s age could walk into an establishment, order a beer, and be served”. In case you’d take this seriously, don’t, because it’s not true. You need to be 18 to drink alcohol and it’s forbidden to sell alcohol to a minor, even in a supermarket.

Stout born

December 3, 2014 17 comments

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. 1939 French title: Swim-Two-Birds.

OBrienMea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m late for November’s Book Club billet. I have abandoned the book so I don’t have any excuse for the late entry, except that work got in the way. I have to say it was a general abandonment, nobody managed to finish the book this month. It was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. I bought my copy at the bookshop in the Dublin Writers Museum. The quote by Dylan Thomas on the back caught my eyes This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. I thought it sounded fun. I wish I had seen that Flann O’Brien had been knighted as “real writer” by James Joyce. It would have tipped me off.

So what’s it about? Er…I don’t exactly know. There’s some guy who’s attending Dublin’s University. He lives with his uncle and loves staying in his room until the air is stale. He likes to drink beer in pubs (well, he’s a Dubliner, right?) He writes unclassifiable stories that are related in the book. The reader, me in this instance, is totally disoriented. I have the novel in English, it’s full of parody of Irish things I know nothing about and I felt I was drowning in an ocean of words perfumed with Irish stout.

I’ve struggled with 50 pages and then I gave up. I asked for help, got some and was told to basically enjoy the funny ride. The problem I couldn’t because it was too complicated to follow. I’ve read 50 pages and I have 13 quotes, most of them marked down as “funny”. Examples:

It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverage and their strange intestinal chemistry.

Or

To convert stout into water, I said, there is simple process. Even a child can do it, though I would not stand for giving stout to children. Is it not a pity that the art of man has not attained the secret of converting water into stout?

I enjoyed the booze induced parts of the pages I’ve read and the descriptions of the narrator’s life in Dublin. Apart from this, it is hard for me to describe O’Brien’s work. It’s totally wacked and yet innovative. It’s unsettling especially since it’s populated (in the 50 pages I’ve read, at least) with legendary heroes of Ireland, fictional Mr Furriskey created by the fictional narrator of the book, Irish version of cowboys… It made me dizzy in a Laughing-Cow sort of way: the Laughing-Cow has earrings, in which there’s a Laughing Cow that has earrings that have a Laughing Cown that…etc. And that’s where you forget where you came from. All this in a language rather difficult for me, as a non-native. It’s a literary scrap-book of the narrator’s thoughts and excerpts of his writing.

I do enjoy crazy books but this one was too much for me. Perhaps it should be read under the influence of stout, to be attuned to the character. Alas, I don’t drink stout. Or perhaps I should have read it in French? Anyway, don’t dismiss this book because of this billet. The problem is clearly on my Book Club’s side.

The sorting of scumbags and other assholes by Sébastien Gendron

August 5, 2014 3 comments

Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. 2014. Not available in English

Chaque jour a son lendemain et à force de vivre, on devient tous le connard de quelqu’un. Each day has its tomorrow and simply by being alive, we all become someone else’s jerk.

 Let’s start with a little bit of French. In French, le tri selectif des ordures refers to the sorting of waste in order to recycle it. But an ordure is also a scumbag. And a con is an asshole. So basically, le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons means the sorting of scumbags and other assholes. Now that you’ve been enlightened about the title, the book.

Imagine you’re a democratic hitman and you want to bring your useful services to the masses. After all, rich people are not the only ones to have someone in their life that they’d love to get rid of. That’s the idea. So Dick Lapelouse, hitman extraordinaire, decides to start a business in Bordeaux. See the content of his flyer:

GENS DU PEUPLE, RELEVEZ-VOUS, CAR VOICI POUR VOUS SERVIR LA TREPANATION A 56€ TTC, L’ACCIDENT DE VOITURE A 79,99€ (VEHICULE NON FOURNI), L’ENTERREMENT EN MILIEU FORESTIER A 100€ TOUT ROND (HORS FRAIS DE DEPLACEMENT ET DE TEINTURERIE) ET LE FORFAIT MENACE + GRANDE PEUR + ASSASSINAT DANS RUE DEGAGEE, POUR 250€ SEULEMENT. WAKE UP GOOD PEOPLE BECAUSE HERE IS TO SERVE YOU TREPANS FOR 56€ ALL TAXES INCLUDES, CARS ACCIDENT FOR 79,99€ (CAR NOT INCLUDED), BURIAL IN A FOREST FOR 100€ (TRAVEL AND DRY CLEANING EXPENSES NOT INCLUDED) AND THE PACKAGE THREAT + BIG FEAR + MURDER IN A CLEAR STREET FOR 250€ ONLY

GendronHe goes to a banker to get a loan, settles down in an office near a psychiatrist, builds the IKEA catalogue of the various ways to kill someone, including options, advertises his services in the local newspapers and waits for clients to come. Things roll well for a while until he gets a job that cannot be performed according to plan. He is threatened by his client, his office is trashed. Who is after him?

Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons plays with the code of Noir and is a highly humorous book. No one should take this seriously; it’s a parody. That kind of novel is a risky business, it canhttps://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=5423&action=edit&message=10 be very good or terrible. Here, I think Gendron won his bet. He’s obviously knowledgeable in the Noir department, his imagination runs wild and he manages to create a crazy and yet plausible story. I laughed a lot, reading this story about the Easy Jet of contract killers and the impact of his business on the market of murders is irresistible.

Gendron’s style is better than you’d expect and it reads easily with dialogues that remind me of Michel Audiard.

– Les vrais salopards ont des gueules d’ange et c’est ça leur principal talent.- Vous trouvez que j’ai une gueule d’ange ?- Non, je vous ai dit, vous avez une gueule de tueur à gages. – Genuine bastards have an angel face and that’s their main talent.– You think I have an angel face?– No, I told you so, you have the face of a hitman.

It’s a light read, you need to be in the right mood to enjoy his off-the-wall sense of humour but it’s worth the ride. Provided you can read in French.

They Read That Post And Rush To The Nearest Bookstore To Buy The Book

July 17, 2014 24 comments

The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle. 1989. French title: Midnight Examiner.

A long rectangular plaque on my desk bore my name, HOWARD HALLIDAY, lest I forget it amidst the many identities I assumed from week to week; since, as an economy measure, we never purchased outside material from anyone, our small staff had to write everything, and we all had many names, sometimes we even had the same names, but lately we’d tried to coordinate. I’d assigned each of us one letter of the alphabet from which to choose our noms de plume, and so far this month I’d been Howard Haggerd Halberd Hammertoe Harm Habana Hades Halston Handy Harley Hamon Heman Hence Hardman Hardon.

KotzwinklePlease Ladies and gentlemen, meet with Howard, our narrator. He’s the chief editor of Macho Man, Bottoms and Knockers. He works for the trashy Chameleon Publications which has a classy portfolio of papers and magazines also named The Midnight Examiner, Ladies Own Monthly, Young Nurses Romance, My Confession, Brides Tell All, Beauty Secrets, Prophecy, Real Detective and Teen Idol. As you can see, they cover the whole spectrum of gutter press from crime to teen angst through romance and beauty tricks.

Their publisher, Nathan Feingold loves to play with his blowgun so much that nobody dares to enter his office until sure that the coast is clear. After all, he shoots poisonous darts. Fernando, the art director paints bikinis on pictures before publication, to differentiate Bottoms and Knockers from the competition: no way they’re selling nude bodies. Hip O’Hopp is the editor of The Midnight Examiner and showers his colleagues with improbable writing requests such as “Can you do a story for me about a woman who gives birth to puppies?” The other editors there are Hattie Flyer, in charge of romance orientated titles and Amber Adams, specialised in beauty topics, Celia Lyndhurst the writer of detective stories. The team wouldn’t be full without Siggy Blomberg, the publicist; he sells advertising space in the papers and always ends up with dubious ads about expending your breasts or other magical creams and utensils. And let’s not talk about the lengths he has to go to collect the payment of the ads from shady companies. They’re a crazy bunch breathing trash articles all the time and it shows in Kotwinkle’s style as they spout crazy headlines at Mach speed like Our Sister Has Two Heads But We Love Her.

That’s for the crazy environment. At the beginning of the book, they hire a new editor, Mr Crumpaker who will be in charge of Nathan’s new project, a religious paper named Prophecy. The job interview is absolutely hilarious. Things move to full speed when Mitzi Mouse, one of Chameleon Publications’ models, shoots at a guy from the mafia, Tony Baloney. She has now the bad guys after her and the whole team with stick together and help her.

It’s a fast pace road trip in a New York cab and a track race against the bad guys. And I will say no more.

The Midnight Examiner doesn’t have a strong plot but what a fun read! It’s a light read as I love them: well-written, full of quirky characters and a page turner. Chameleon Publications is quite a circus and a lot of the fun comes from the description of the daily job of these “journalists”. Howard has a crazy sense of humour and I’ll let you discover by yourselves what kind of unbelievable weapons they picked to fight against gangsters. I was about to tag it in the Literary UFO category when I realised how apt it is for the author of…E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Rush to the nearest bookstore, buy it and have fun.

PS: In French, a headline is a manchette.

Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

July 13, 2014 8 comments

Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 1995. French title : Coupable d’avoir dansé le cha-cha-cha.

Cabrera_chachacha_FrenchI’ll be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias with my book club in August and that’s too late for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month. So I decided to pick Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante instead. I bought it when I was browsing through the Folio 2€ collection in a book store. I like this collection, it’s a good way to discover new writers or forgotten texts. I’d never heard of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I expected three short stories but it’s something totally different and hard to define. (Help, if you know in which literary category this one goes. I put it in Literary UFO)

Regular readers of this blog know that I haven’t studied literature beyond high school, that I’m not particularly curious about literary criticism and that I read mostly for enjoyment. I’m not much interested in the techniques leading to the books I’m reading. So, Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha and me started on the wrong footing since the first page is about repetitive literature and something I don’t even know how to translate into English but I’m trying anyway.

La littérature répétitive tâche de résoudre la contradiction entre progression et régression en répétant la narration plusieurs fois. Il s’agit d’un jeu de narrations qui veut dépasser la contradiction entre réalité et fiction. Les fragments sont autonomes et d’égale valeur, mais l’auteur se réserve le droit d’exercer un certain déterminisme narratif. Les choses ne sont pas, elles arrivent, mais en littérature autorité devient auteur. Repetitive literature endeavours to solve the contradiction between progression and regression by repeating the narration several times. It is a set of narratives that wants to overcome the contradiction between reality and fiction. The fragments are stand-alone and of equal worth but the writer has the right to impose a certain narrative determinism. Things aren’t, they happen but in literature authority becomes author.

Cabrera_chachacha_SpanishThis is a totally literal translation as I don’t even understand what that means in French. This introduction is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante himself and to say I started the first story with a feeling of dread is an understatement. The book is some sort of literary exercice, like Exercice de style by Queneau where the same story is told three times but each time with a different style. The basic outline of the story is: a man and a woman have lunch in a restaurant in La Havana in the 1950s and it’s raining. The first version entitled The Great Ecbó is a third person narrative and the style reminded me very much of Marguerite Duras. It’s told in that clipped and neutral tone you can find in The Lover. I liked it. The second version –A Drowing Woman—is also a third person narrative and the style is warmer. The third one –Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha—is a first person narrative and it’s in a messy stream-of-consciousness style. Oh my, what a labyrinth of words. I lost track of where digressions started and I almost wished that like in a Excel formula I could browse the closing parenthesis to found out where the opening one was. What’s more terrible than having literature make you crave for Excel spreadsheets? In the end, I’m not sure I would have understood anything without reading the two other versions.

Cabrera_chachacha_GermanThat aside, each story represents a side of Cuba and of its culture and history. The first story brings the characters to an ecbó, a ritual ceremony of African origin, like voodoo. The second one shows the luxury hotels and the last one pictures communism and its political persecutions.

In the conclusion –that I didn’t fully understood, I’m afraid—Guillermo Infante Cabrera compares his three stories to music and to the three steps of ChaChaCha. Hmmm…It’s a hundred pages long, it’s good to read it in one sitting and if someone out here has read it or will read it, please come back and explain it to me. It left me puzzled. I also don’t understand why three translators were involved in translating this short book into French. When I see three translators like this, I expect a collection of short stories published at different times and put together afterwards. Here we have a fully constructed literary exercice wanted by the writer himself and I really don’t know why one translator didn’t do the whole job. After all, it’s only 100 pages long.

Cabrera_chachacha_EnglishPS: I’m adding four covers of the book, the English, the French, the Spanish and the German one.  The French and Spanish ones are great for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but for this? The English one is a mystery although there’s a car involved in story one and two. I think the German one is the best and represents the book better than the others. You see the two men, the woman and the communist.

Whirlwind of words, all about snow

May 10, 2014 14 comments

Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano 2003. Not available in French.

Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano is a quirky little book about snow, with articles going from Angel to YHWH, all somewhat related to snow. Some are short biographies, some are literature, some explain a word or a concept. It’s really hard to describe. The book is well constructed, the style is poetic, the content literate. All literary techniques are used here: classic narrative in the short stories (WINK AND WHISTLE), verses for poems (NAGA NAGASHI YO), dialogues, epistolary fiction for the letters between Butterfly and Moth (HARMONY), theatre (POLAR-ITY). For some articles, the layout is original, bringing back poets like Appolinaire or writers like Raymond Queneau.

Miano_Page

Miano_Page2

Some articles or passages have footnotes to enforce the idea of encyclopaedia, like here:

I could smell him before he even got there. Not because of potency but because of extreme familiarty—I saw Marc every day at school, and oftentimes after school, and his cologne always travelled with him. It was a fresh cool water smell that reminded me of scuba-diving and Acapulco, though I’d never experienced either.*

(…)

* The male Danaide butterfly travels from one flower to another, collecting scents in a pocket on each hind leg until he creates the ultimate perfume to attract a female.

Miano_Snow The general impression is as disorienting as being in a middle of a snow storm, flakes flying around you. Each article linked to snow plays its part to create the global snowy atmosphere. It’s lovely, artistic but not exactly agreeable. Snow is cold, remember? I liked parts of the books, was nonplussed by some articles, and totally lost in others. I enjoyed the short stories but struggled with the rest. Clearly, I lack the cultural background to understand everything. The book’s variety resembles snow: you can lose yourself in a blizzard, be swallowed by an avalanche, slide slopes on skis or on a sled, build a snowman or have a lot of fun with snowballs. Snow can bring peace, as its blanket muffles sounds like nothing else and early morning in a city covered with snow has an eerie and peaceful sound. Snow is stressful when you have to drive. Snow is fun when you’re a child or a skier. The book mirrors all these emotions through the various themes and forms of its articles.

If Encyclopaedia of Snow belongs to a specific literary genre, I don’t know which one it is. It unsettled me because I was left behind, lots of time. You know the feeling of contemporary art exhibitions? It’s supposed to be art since it was chosen by more knowledgeable people, you stare and you wonder what the hell the artist meant by that thing. I usually feel stupid in front if these works of art. Well, I also felt stupid reading Encyclopaedia of Snow. I still don’t know what Sarah Emily Miano meant to achieve with this book. It’s been carefully put together but what does she mean by it? The next question is: does a book have to mean something or can it just be beautiful and nothing else?

This is the Humbook Stu picked for me last Christmas and I thank him for the challenge. This is not a book I would have chosen by myself. But like when I read Sleeping Patterns by J.R. Crook, I liked that it forced me to follow another literary path, for a change.

 

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