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

October 18, 2020 10 comments

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

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

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

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

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

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

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

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

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

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

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

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian – Highly recommended

April 22, 2020 16 comments

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (1997) French title: Le chien noir du destin.

Today, I had decided to write my billet about Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate. Coincidentally, I also listened a radio program about Charles Aznavour today, and he’s a very famous member of the Armenian diaspora and I first heard about the Armenian genocide through him.

I could write a lengthy billet about this book that tells the story of the Balakian family and of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It would be too long and wouldn’t entice you to read the book. And it would be a pity because it’s worth reading, really.

Balakian opens his memoir with his childhood in New Jersey. He was born in 1951 and he talks about his grandmother, his parents and his family life in suburban New Jersey. His family customs are different from the WASP boys around him in his bourgeois neighborhood. This part of the book reminded me of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The two writers describe a different way-of-life between them and the WASP children. They had formal meals, the relationship with between parents and children were different. The fathers especially have a different way to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity is less macho, I should say, for lack of a better word. Balakian says it quite well:

In the world of my friends’ dads, my father stood apart. No backslapping or hearty handshakes, or greetings of “old buddy” or “man.” No polo shirts or khaki pants or slip-on canvas sneakers, or buddies for gold on Wednesdays, when doctors were supposed to be riding the fairways in orange carts and lime-green pants and white visors. No weekend cocktails with the McKays or the Wheelers. Nor did my father joke with me about macho ideals, the kind that Hemingway and John Wayne embodied. He made no jokes of the kind my friends’ fathers would tell, in sly moments when mothers were out of the room and fathers and sons bonded. Because he was 4-F in World War II owing to high blood pressure, something he never mentioned, he had no war stories either.

This very attaching part of Balakian’s memoir is a testimony of growing up American with immigrant parents and trying to fit it, to be as American as the others. While his family kept some family traditions, they also immersed themselves in the American way-of-life.

Balakian never heard anything about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 until he was in his twenties. His awareness of the massacre didn’t come from his family and at home, it was total silence about these events. Slowly, he will investigate and research his family’s past, describe the genocide and work for its recognition.

Part of his memoir comes back to historical facts, describing the Armenian people, where they lived, what was their status in the Ottoman Empire. He describes the genocide and it’s absolutely awful. 1.5 million people were eliminated in appalling circumstances. It is comparable to the Nazi methods (Balakian said that the laissez-faire of other countries and the Turkish methods inspired Hitler) The refugees became stateless. And even worse than the crime is the fact that for a long, long time, no country acknowledged this genocide.

As Charrey and Lipstadt have written, the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

I also loved the part when Balakian visits Lebanon and Syria, going back to the places of the massacres and on the trail of his grandmother’s stay in Syria before emigrating. It’s a very moving passage, chilling too.

At first, he didn’t understand why he’d never heard of the Armenian traumatic past before reaching adulthood. But his journey through history helped him understand his family better.

At some place in their minds my parents must have found the real issues of being Armenian too hard, too painful, too absurd. As my aunt Gladys had put it, “It was a pill too bitter to swallow, a pain too bad to feel.” In affirming the American present, my parents had done their best to put an end to exile. In the suburbs of New Jersey, they found rootedness, home, belonging. Yet, the past was a shadow that cast its own darkness on us all. The old country. I realize now that it was an encoded phrase, not meant for children. Spoken by numbed Armenians of the silent generation. It meant lost world, a place left to smolder in its ashes.

Reading Balakian memoir is a way of resisting against those who would like to erase this genocide and keep going as if it never happened. It happened and we, European countries, should be ashamed of the time it took us to acknowledge it.

Highly recommended.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 19 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

July 14, 2018 23 comments

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara. (2016) Not available in French

Lisa has organized an Indigenous Literature Week from July 8 to July 15th and I picked one of her suggested read, Marie Munkara’s memoirs, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Marie Munkara is an Aborigine of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent. She was born on the banks of the River Mainoru in 1960 and lived her first three years with her family on Melville Island, an island part of the Tiwi Islands. For non-Australians like me, let’s look at maps to see where all these places are located. First a map of Australia showing where the Northern Territory is and where the Tiwi Islands are in said Northern Territory:

Now that we all have our geography in mind, let’s go back to Marie Munkara. Marie Munkara was 28 when she found her birth card at her adoptive parents’ place in Melbourne. She knew they weren’t her birth parents but she was shocked to discover her Aborigine background. When she was three and a half years old and like many Aborigines of her generation, she was taken from her birth parents to be raised by white parents. She belongs to the Stolen Generations. She was sent to a white family in Melbourne.

They chose me from a photograph, so she said. One of the many that had been shown to them in the welfare office as they sipped their cups of tea. Each of those photographs represented a kid who had been removed from their family while strangers organised their fate and then sent them on to other strangers. They call it child-trafficking nowadays but back then it was the government’s attempt at turning Australia into another Britain. By assimilating the black minority into the white population they hoped that the pesky problem of the blacks would eventually take care of itself by them either dying out or doing as they were told and relinquishing their culture and ways forever.

On top of the horror of being taken away from her parents, she was also given to a couple with an abusive mother and a pedophile father. Three layers of abuse were piled upon her little being. Munkara describe her difficult life with her white parents. She had to learn how to speak English and live in a world that didn’t really want her. She survived and tried to make the best of her circumstances.

After the joys of playgroup came school, which was even better. Here I learnt how words were put together, and the crazy rules of the English language, and after that reading just happened. I opened up a book one day and realised that I could read, and after that the world became a bigger and better place.

Her ability to survive abuse from both white parents is admirable. When she learns about her origins, she decides to fly to Darwin and visit her birth mother. A good part of her memoirs relates her living in Tiwi Islands with her birth mother, her siblings and her extended family. She has trouble adjusting to the Aborigines’ way of life which I found was between their traditional world and the Western ways.  Everything is a challenge for her. She was raised by prude Catholic white people in a town that’s probably one of the most British in all Australia. Shock of culture barely covers what she was confronted to.

She engaged in all her family’s activities, embracing their everyday life with gumption, totally out of her comfort zone. She has to learn everything about hunting, fishing, choosing a proper dress code, cooking. It’s not easy but she doesn’t give up. Her family welcomes her in their homes and in their lives as if she was expected. And yet, it must have been difficult for them too. Her personal journey to reconcile her two identities is long and heartbreaking at times. I wondered what she would end up doing since she didn’t fully belong to any of her two worlds.

I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them. The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents. The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both. I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. But I can’t because this journey is all mine. I don’t want the days when they brush me aside because I can’t get it right. I want there always to be beautiful days when the space between us is full of light and love.

Most of her journey consists in reacquainting herself with Aborigine’s vision of life, rituals, traditions and customs. She never sugarcoats what she lives and she also uncovers a side of Australia she never knew of before. For example, she sees that her birth mother limps and she’s horrified to learn she has leprosy.

Leprosy. I am shocked because I thought lepers only existed in the Bible and lived in poor countries like India and Africa. I thought they walked with bells around their necks warning people to keep clear and lived in colonies where they couldn’t infect anyone and where their limbs and appendages dropped off. I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems.

Her adaptation to her mother’s way-of-life isn’t smooth. Life in Tiwi Islands is very far from what she’s always known and her mother has reactions she can’t expect and can’t understand. The whole environment is a challenge for her and sometimes it’s hard on her.

I am disheartened by the brutality of life in this place. It’s everywhere. Dogs with broken legs that have never been set limping down the road, birds trying to fly with wings shattered by a kid’s slingshot, big green turtles turned onto their backs and carved up alive, their hearts still beating, joeys tortured. For a few minutes I long for white middle-class suburbia where ugly crap is hidden behind doors and white picket fences where I don’t have to see it.

What she describes reminded me of Kim Scott’s novel, True Country. The setting is fictional but similar: an Aborigine who lives in white Australia goes to live among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Munkara pictures the same scenes in a hostile but beautiful nature, the poverty and rampant violence. In both books, I was shocked about how much alcohol is consumed. And I guess Scott is also disheartened by Indigenous people’s living conditions. There seem to be little progress there. Thanks to Scott’s book, I wasn’t surprised by what I read about her new living conditions.

I was mostly angry for her. I can wrap my head around colonizing a place for economic reasons. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying there’s a logic behind it, greed. What I can’t fathom is this arrogance of Christianism. In this case, the Catholics decided to found a mission in this Tiwi island for no other reason than bringing “superior civilization” to these poor blackfellas. And these Catholics were so sure of their worth, of their superiority and of their evangelization duties that they found normal and even desirable to retrieve children from their families. And we’re in the 1960s, not in the 16th century. This is something I can’t understand. How could they? How could the Australian government encourage it and make it legal? And to top it off, they placed her in an abusive family, proving there was no proper screening of the foster/adoptive families. This institutionalized child trafficking is appalling.

We had that kind of institutionalized child deportation in France too with the Enfants de la Creuse scandal where 2163 children were sent to mainland France from La Réunion island from 1963 to 1982. The idea was to bring fresh blood in rural departments with low natality and high rural exodus.

In Canada, 150 000 Indigenous children were sent to the Canadian Residential School system.

We, white people really have a lot to apologize for.

Despite all the misery in Munkara’s life, this is not bleak book. She’s often quite funny in describing her experiences with her family and the confrontation of life as she knew it and life as she gets to live it with her mum. It’s challenging but rewarding. While she struggles with their different views on hygiene, personal property and modesty, she learns to enjoy the nature in her surroundings and a more relaxed approach to life.

Read more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem Land.

This read also qualifies for Australian Women Writers challenge.

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.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or

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

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

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

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

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Eight

March 5, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesThis week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.

There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:

Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là. I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)

In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.

I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.

PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin

January 19, 2014 14 comments

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.

Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit » To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”

Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:

Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi. When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.

Grandin_françaisIsn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.

Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.

Grandin_EnglishShe needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.

Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.

She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.

An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:

D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté. By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.

I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.

I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.

On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:

Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite. The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.

Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?

All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.

The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!

I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.

Let’s read Romain Gary

January 8, 2014 56 comments

Gary_LecturesIn my New Year billet, I mentioned that 2014 is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth. Indeed he was born on May 8th, 1914 in Vilnius, Russian Empire. It was the year WWI started and the year WWII ended in Europe. Talk about a man to be destined to be influenced by war.

I decided to celebrate this anniversary with you. I thus declare that May 2014 is Romain Gary Literature Month. On the 8th of May, I will post a billet about one of Gary’s books, I don’t know which one yet. I hope I won’t be celebrating it only with myself but that some of you will want to join me. All you have to do is to read a book about him or by him and post a billet on your blog. Participants who don’t have a blog are welcome as well and can either leave a comment here or contact me to arrange the publication of a guest post. (bookarounthecorner@gmail.com or Twitter @BookAround) Ready to participate? Here are some reading recommendations:

For completists, Gary has two books included in 1001 books you must read before you die:

  • La promesse de l’aube, (Promise at Dawn)
  • Les raciness du ciel,  (The Roots of Heaven)

For aficionados of literary prize winners:

  • Les racines du ciel, Prix Goncourt 1956
  • La vie devant soi, Prix Goncourt 1975 under the pen name of Emile Ajar. (Life Before Us)
  • Education européenne, Prix des critiques 1945

For people who repeatedly land on my blog after googling “How French men treat their women”, try Clair de femme or Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable.

Otherwise, here are what are considered his best books:

  • La promesse de l’aubre
  • La vie devant soi
  • Les racines du ciel
  • Chien blanc
  • Clair de femme
  • Lady L
  • Education européenne
  • Les enchanteurs
  • Les cerfs-volants.

Personally, I have a soft spot for Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your ticket is no longer valid) and Adieu Gary Cooper.

Bellos_GaryGary’s life is literary material. Poor, rich, aviator, war hero, diplomat, writer, son the jewishest Jewish mother, immigrant, married to the glamorous Jean Seberg, guilty of the most incredible literary mystification with the creation of Emile Ajar. Intrigued? A biography might tempt you. In English, you can find Romain Gary, a Tall Story by David Bellos and in French, Romain Gary by Dominique Bona or Romain Gary le caméléon by Myriam Anissimov.

If you want to read what others have written about him, check out Tombeau de Romain Gary by the Canadian writer Nancy Huston. She’s a huge Gary fan. Pierre Assouline from Le Monde wrote a wonderful article on his blog –Sorry, it’s in French. His first wife Lesley Blanch wrote Romain, un regard particulier. Several writers arranged a collective book, Lectures de Romain Gary in which each of them tells about one of Gary’s books. Nancy Huston and Pierre Assouline are among them.

I hope you are now excited to try one of his books and join me in May. Meanwhile, I will publish a quote by him from different novels every Wednesday, starting today.

Il faut toujours connaître les limites du possible. Pas pour s’arrêter, mais pour tenter l’impossible dans les meilleures conditions.  in Charge d’âme.

You need to know the limits of what’s possible. Not to stop yourself but to aim at the impossible in the best conditions. (my translation)

A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 33 comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

Happy who like Ulysses has explored

August 19, 2013 16 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. (Egy Polgár Vallomásai). French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois. Not available in English.

du_bellay

Although the title of the book refers to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by Alfred de Musset, I felt that these verses by Joachim du Bellay suited better to the book. Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is a Hungarian writer and this memoir was published in 1934, which means Márai was still young and had many years to live, which of course he wasn’t aware of. The Confessions of a Bourgeois relate his formative years until he became a writer. The first part covers his fourteen first years until the Great War starts. The second part relates his years from 1919 to 1928 and ends when his father dies.

The first part interested me for the description of his hometown, Kassa. He describes the architecture, the society, the rules, the way of life. There’s a fantastic passage about servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie and I intend to come by to it when I read Anna Edes. He pictures a society where Catholic and Jews live at peace, where people speak both German and Hungarian. Márai was born in a family from the small bourgeoisie. His father was a lawyer and he built a successful career. Márai had a strict education with every component of what was considered as good education: high school + French + English + piano. He portrays his extended family, showing the most colourful characters, some wealthier than others. Later, he was miserable in his boarding school in Budapest.

Mes ambitions me liaient à la famille et celle-ci appartenait corps et âme à une classe. Tout ce qui se trouvait en dehors de cette famille et de cette classe –hommes, femmes, intérêts ou relations—n’était que matière informe, brute, impure, assimilable aux déchets. Même à l’église, les pauvres étaient considérés comme des malades responsables de leur état, car ils n’avaient pas sur maîtriser leur vie. My ambitions were linked to my family which belonged heart and soul to a certain social class. Everything that was out of the realm of this family and this social class –men, women, interests, connections—were only made of an undefined, gross and impure clay comparable to trash. Even in church, the poor were considered as sick people responsible for their circumstances because they didn’t manage to shape their lives.

marai_confessionsAfter high school, he went to university in Leipzig. This is the starting point of a decade of living abroad. He lived in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin and then six years in Paris, interrupted by months in Florence and frequent visits to London. He wants to discover “Europe” and in his mind, Western Europe means France and Great Britain. What did he do during these years? He wrote articles for different newspapers, especially for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, lived hand to mouth and went from one rented room to the other. He mingled into all kinds of circles. He went to class but never actually got a diploma. He wandered, dreamed, drank and contemplated life.

There are fascinating passages about Berlin in the early 1920s, insight about the French society in the 1920s. (Some observations match with what Edith Wharton wrote in French Ways and their Meaning.) During that time, he got married with Lola, a woman from Kassa who was also in Berlin. These ten years are the decade during which he matures into a writer. He stores – consciously or not – material for future books.

Then, he eventually decided it was time for him to go home, not in Kassa, but in Budapest. He wanted to come back to his culture, but more importantly, to his language. He didn’t think that a writer could fully express themselves in another language than their mother tongue. (More of that in an upcoming billet) Hence the du Bellay reference.

What did I think of this memoir? First, a word about the translation. My French copy was translated by Georges Kassai and Zéno Bianu. I found it annoying because of the extensive use of quotation marks around words. For example:

Je n’avais aucune intention de “faire carrière” et, au fond, je n’attribuais guère d’importance à mes relations avec ce “journal de province” I had no intention to “make a career” and actually, I didn’t care much about my connection with this “provincial newspapers”

Please tell me why we need quotation marks here. Either it’s the right choice of word, either it’s not, and then the French dictionary is thick enough to provide the translator with a better fit. Isn’t making a choice –no matter how imperfect it is—the job of the translator? It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this under Kassai’s pen. This frequent indecision irritated me.

I’m not much into knowing writers through their memoirs or their detailed bios. I bought this because I wanted to read about Hungary at the beginning of the 20thC to illustrate and understand its literature better. Save for the first part, most of the book (almost 600 pages) is set outside of Hungary. I was very disappointed that he totally skipped the Great War’s years and politics in the 1920s. Two sentences about the war (he was mobilized at 18) and not a word about the devastating consequences it had on the Austro-Hungarian empire and thus, on his life. In once sentence, you learn that he can’t go back to Kassa since it’s now in Czechoslovakia. The war made him stateless. Isn’t this a major event? He mentions the fascists when he relates his stay in Florence, he mentions the economic disaster experienced by the German bourgeoisie, the riots in Berlin. But all this is said on a light tone, in the middle of a paragraph, without analysis or personnel assessment of the events. Frustrating, especially when he writer is a journalist.

What does he say, then? He’s self-centred, talks a bit about the characters that cross his life. He was quite a womaniser and never was seriously involved with a woman and suddenly, he’s married. One meeting for tea and a few months later, they’re married. He must have been in love, given his track record with women but he doesn’t say a word about his feelings. It’s called “confessions” but the man himself remains aloof. He neither uses this book to analyse the world he lives in –which Musset did—nor to expose his inner self—which Rousseau did. It’s just his peregrinations, his thoughts about writing, being a writer and his slow process of turning from an adolescent to a man, an author. To be honest, I didn’t like much the man half revealed in this book. I want to read one of his novels now, to see how this mildly interesting man was as a writer.

What happened to him later? The fled from Hungary in 1948, lived in different European countries and eventually settled for the rest of his life in San Diego, California. He only wrote in Hungarian.

Here’s one last quote:

Mais dans les instants privilégiés de notre existence, une explosion assourdissante –le pianissimo du silence équivaut quelquefois au fortissimo d’une déflagration—nous avertit que nous nous sommes trompés de chemin, que nous n’habitons pas là où nous voudrions vivre, que nous n’exerçons pas le métier pour lequel nous sommes faits, que nous recherchons les faveurs et suscitons la colère de personnes avec lesquels nous n’avons pas grand-chose en commun, alors que nous traitons avec indifférence celles qui nous importent vraiment. Si l’on reste sourd à ce genre d’avertissement, on risque de passer à côté de la vie, de passer une existence mutilée et superficielle. Il ne s’agit nullement d’un rêve, fût-il diurne, mais d’une sorte d’illumination qui nous révèle notre réalité profonde, nos obligations, nos engagements et notre destinée personnelle –tout ce qui, au-delà de la misère échue à la condition humaine, nous appartient en propre. But during the precious moments of our existence, a deafening explosion—the pianissimo of a silence sometimes equals the fortissimo of a blow—warns us that we have taken the wrong path, that we don’t live where we’d like to, that we don’t have the profession we are meant for, that we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter. If one remains deaf to that kind of warning, one risks to miss out on life, to live a mutilated and shallow existence. It has nothing to do with a dream, even diurnal. It is a sort of enlightenment which reveals us our true reality, our obligations, our commitments and our personal destiny, everything that belongs to us, above the misery inherent to the human condition.

Here’s another review by Passage à l’Est.

What can I say, I’m a city girl

December 15, 2012 16 comments

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimbal 2010. French title: Une vie pleine. Mon histoire d’amour avec un homme et une ferme.

A while ago, I read Le mec de la tombe d’à côté by Katarina Mazetti, a nice little novel about a Swedish city girl falling in love with a farmer. So someone lent me The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which is in appearance, the same kind of book. Except that Katarina Mazetti is a writer creating a funny story while Mrs Kimball relates her life. Kristin Kimball was journalist, working in New York and she was sent on an assignment in a farm in Pennsylvania. Mark grows organic vegetables and raises animals. They fall in love, she leaves New York to start a new life with him on a decrepit farm. She wrote a book about their first year together.

That’s for the story. I could be fine with it. After all, I had already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Before writing more about The Dirty Life, I have to say a few words about myself. I grew up in an urban environment. My first encounter with country life was when I was seventeen. That summer, I had signed up for a three weeks stay in a German family and ended up in a farm in Bayern. The farmer there thought that t-shirts were optional pieces of clothing, went around the place bare chested in tiny shorts, scratching his behind. The couple were very nice to me but I can’t say I enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night and stand in the barn in my nightgown to watch the cow calve. No epiphany there. My idea of a perfect location for a home is How far is it from the bakery and from the cinema? Although this is not a life for me, I have a deep respect for farmers, they work really hard and they love their job, otherwise they’d quit. I also cook mostly from produce, we compost part of our food scraps, so I know what vegetables and fruit look like before they’re in cans or in frozen pieces. In addition, I believe in moderation in every thing and I have trouble getting along with extremists of all sides because black and white situations are just too simplistic for me. Now that I’ve written a long disclaimer, let me tell you my opinion about The Dirty Life.

Mrs Kimball and I started off on the wrong foot right from the first pages when she describes her first encounter with Mark:

I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe brocoli for this dude.

Then a few pages later you have:

Michael [a farm employee] handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man.

Kimball_Vie_pleine_HardI can deduct from these quotes that cerebral men are not real men but only ersatz and that being a real man means working with your hands. Hard work at university or in the office doesn’t make a man of you. I frowned. Old clichés don’t apply only to women. I could have forgiven her that gratuitous comments if she hadn’t nailed them a few pages later when she says she wishes to every woman that she finds a man with a body fit by hard work and not by working out at the gym. Well, Mrs Kimball, there’s no accounting for taste but I rather like living with a graduate of the French equivalent of an Ivy League school who wears business suits to go to work and doesn’t come home caked with mud or stinking cow dunk. I can live without the farming muscles. Who does she think she is?

As expected, she describes with lots of details her experience with farming. I skipped lots of pages of descriptions of vegetables, milk, the colour of butter and other edifying explanations. To be fair, she doesn’t hide that it’s exhausting and that it takes their whole days. But I’m a bit suspicious about the rosy description of her neighbourhood: what? All are perfectly friendly, no one’s nosy, no one’s eyeing suspiciously the newcomers and their crazy project?

Because, I haven’t told you everything yet. They start farming but Mark is an extremist: no tractor, no chemical products. He doesn’t want plastic anywhere, had a phase of living without electricity and doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike. I’m all for organic agriculture and being cautious with technology but really, was horsedrawn farming absolutely necessary?

Of course, she glorifies farm work, sometimes in a strange way. The slaughtering of animals doesn’t bother her but ploughing does, she finds it violent to the Earth. (obscene is the word used by the translator) That puzzled me. What surprised me too is how little regulation there seem to be in America. In France, you can’t slaughter a pig or a calf in your backyard; you need to bring them to the slaughterhouse. And is putting a horse to sleep with a gun authorised?

Kimball_Vie_plein_1018I finished this book out of respect for the person who lent it to me. I can’t wait to discuss it with her. As you now know it, I didn’t like The Dirty Life neither in substance nor in form. Barbara Kingsolver honestly shared her experience of farming with her reader. It was an interesting and intelligent narration. Here, I found the tone patronizing.  I’m married to a man who spent his adolescence making up fake homework to avoid being enrolled to farm work by his father, I don’t find farming glamorous. I don’t envy her, I don’t think her life is fuller than mine. If living from farming was that fantastic, can you explain to me why all these people left the country to take a job in factories and in cities in the 20th Century?

PS: I have a copy published by France Loisirs, that’s right in their alley. But I discovered that 10:18 published it as well and I’m disappointed that my favourite publisher picked this book for their collection.

When our qualities are off wandering, what can we do with ourselves?

May 1, 2011 27 comments

Le Sabbat by Maurice Sachs (302 pages) 1939. English title : Witches’ Sabbath.

I was interested in reading Maurice Sachs’s memoirs, Le Sabbat after enjoying his Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit, which I reviewed here. As Guy Savage was interesred too, we coordinated and read it at the same time. So another post is published on his blog.  I recommend to read his review as it will show these memoirs in another light.

 Maurice Sachs was born in 1906, in a bourgeois family in Paris. He was of Jewish origin but never went to the synagogue. He has few memories of his childhood, except his English nurse Suzy and his wish to be a girl. His parents were divorced, he was living with an indifferent mother (very close to the character of Mrs Farrange in What Maisie Knew, now that I think of it) and never heard about his father after he left. He was sent to boarding school where he learnt nothing useful but read a lot and definitely accepted to be gay. Back from school, he spent a few years with his newly-wed mother. He lived his first true love with a boy named Oscar, a feeling he says he’d struggle to relive all his life.

When his mother inherited a large sum, she decided to manage it herself and went bankrupt. His world collapsed and he helped her evading to Great-Britain to avoid prison for debts. He was 15 when it happened, was left alone and had to fend for himself as almost all their acquaintances turned their back on him. After a while, he decided to join his mother in London, where he worked for a twelve-month as a bookseller. He chose to come back to France in 1922. He was only 16.

1922 was a turning point in his life.

Le Maurice Sachs louche, fuyant, combinard, ivrogne, prodigue, désordre, curieux, affectueux, généreux et passionné, ce Maurice Sachs qui s’est formé toujours un peu malgré moi, mais avec ma complicité et qui a donné ce personnage parfois répugnant, souvent attachant, auquel je donne tant d’importance parce qu’il est quand même moi, (…) ce Maurice Sachs dont j’espère qu’il écrit ici avec cette main qui est la sienne et la mienne la confession qui clôt un cycle de notre vie, date vraiment de ces premiers jours de l’année 1922 quand je revins d’Angleterre.

This Maurice Sachs who is shady, elusive, a real schemer, a drunkard, untidy, curious, loving, generous and passionate; this Maurice Sachs who grew up in spite of me but with my complicity and who turned into that repulsive but sometimes touching character and to whom I’m so attached because he is me anyway (…); this Maurice Sachs who writes this confession that closes a period of our life and hopefully writes it with this very hand that is both his and mine; this Maurice Sachs really dates back to those early days of 1922 when I came back from England. Chapter 9

In 1922, he started partying in Paris; it was the time of Au Boeuf sur le Toit, a place where the golden youth of that time used to hang out. He was part of Cocteau’s crowd and he adored him like an idol. He was his fan, worshipping the ground Cocteau walked on. He was 16 and had the same enthusiasm for Cocteau than a nowadays teenager could have for a rock star.

Thanks to Cocteau, Maurice Sachs met Jacques Maritain, a Catholic devout. He changed of guru, converted to Catholicism, planned to become a priest and got in a seminary. No one seemed more ill-fitted for seminary life than him. (apart from Casanova maybe?). After a few months of happiness and peace in blissful rituals, strict routine and soothing prayers, chastity became a burden. He left the seminary.

He was due to military service and had to spend 18 months as a soldier. He didn’t want to be an officer. He rather enjoyed life in the army, which is highly improbable for someone not so keen on discipline. There was no such rule as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but he thought it more prudent to hide he was gay and manfully survived through his relationship with a girl who had elected him as her man of the moment. The other soldiers thought he was lucky, it was impossible to refuse such a gift.

Back to civilian life, he came back to Paris and had an awful meeting with André Gide. He worked as a librarian for Coco Channel, tried to be part of the high society of the Boulevard Saint Germain, always spending more that he could afford and thus always running after money.

After a while, he shipped himself to New York to manage an art gallery. A failure. Introduced in the NY society, he was hired as a speaker for a tour of the USA. During that tour, he met Gwladys, who wanted to get married to liberate from her parents and leave her little town of Morpheus. On a whim, Sachs proposed to her and she accepted. They got married in Morpheus after he converted to their Presbyterian faith. Unsurprisingly, the whole marriage turned into a big failure and he abandoned her. It was the kind of departure where the guy goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back. Sachs writes “I had married her like a crazy man; I left her like a coward”.

In California he met Henry; they fell passionately in love and Maurice Sachs persuaded him to come back to Paris with him. After a few months of happiness in the country near Chartres, they were back to Paris. Their come back was a slow go down into the underworld of poverty. They were filthy poor, lived in a dump hotel, the Hôtel Saint-Joachim, among a strange crowd of semi-artists. Maurice Sachs drank heavily and spent his time chasing after money.

When Maurice Sachs wrote his memoirs, in 1939, he was only 33. Really young to write memoirs. I think he wrote this book when he was in rehab for alcoholism. It’s an exorcism. He tries to slough off his former self, the hateful Maurice Sachs who, as quoted before, was born in 1922. He wants it to be a resurrection, at 33, the age Jesus was when he died and resurrected. I’m not sure it is a coincidence.

Maurice Sachs had no moral roots, no principles. He just grew up like a weed. He was lazy, crazy, always making a fool of himself and always full of himself too. No idea of grandeur was foreign to him. That same grandeur that turned men into heroes during WWII turned him into a weed. His male models were either weirdos, debauchees or saints. He never compared himself to average men, to reachable models.

He was aware of his vices and aimed at virtue but he lacked persistence and temperance. Words like “decency”, “integrity” or “honesty” were in his dictionary but as a vague ideal he couldn’t reach for himself. This book can only foresee what he would do during WWII, black market, work for the Gestapo. As long as there was money to be earned, no moral issue could get in the way.

He drank heavily, tried drugs. And yet, with all this, he managed to be a member of the prestigious reading committee of the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) He always kept in touch with the literary world. How charismatic, witty and intelligent he must have been for people to help him along the way despite his despicable flaws. In the last years of these memoirs, he had started to write plays and novels but he doesn’t talk about his literary work.

For some reason, the guy was incapable to work. He could have been a waiter, a cleaner or whatever instead of living in misery in a dump hotel. It seems that having a regular job was impossible to him. He was too snob, too lazy for that. He had so much pride and blinded confidence in luck and in his personal qualities. He was a gambler. He gambles his life, bet on his qualities and always expected a turnaround of luck.

Maurice Sachs was a homosexual and I appreciated how he casually describes his sexual preferences in this book, although it was still a crime at the time. His lack of moral education was an advantage on that field. He was never taught to think homosexuality as a deviance. Cocteau was homosexual too and so was Proust. He knew he wasn’t alone and had great models in mind.

I thought his memoirs a little dry; I would have liked more anecdotes or thoughts about society and “l’air du temps”. I enjoyed the chapter about Proust and Albert, the model for Jupien. The description of Morpheus is really vivid and the other inhabitants of the Hôtel Saint-Joachim are depicted in a colourful manner. Sachs had a real literary style, rather close to Kessel for example. They were from the same generation and the reader can feel the imprint of the time. The syntax is still traditional; he uses the “imparfait du subjonctif”, a past tense nobody uses any more. It’s not heavy, it’s formal, more formal than Gary’s first short stories I read lately. He sounds a bit old fashioned too, like when he uses such expressions as “the age of manhood”. It would also be interesting to compare his style to Saint-Exupéry’s, another writer of that generation. As shown in the next quote, Sachs could write well but he was not innovative.

Je revois la commode bien polie et je ne sais quelle odeur de confort me monte aux narines, comme si le salon sentait le pain frais; quel appétit me revient du poulet du dimanche que l’on mange le cœur content.

I recall the well-polished drawers and a scent of comfort reaches my nostrils as id the living-room smelled of fresh bread; I’m reminded of Sunday chicken that one eats with a contented heart and a heartily appetite. (chapter 13)

I translated the quotes and I found Sachs really hard to translate into English. Curiously, Sachs mentions that being a writer was the first career path he thought of. Writing was important to him but he seldom evokes his literary work but for the last chapters.

There is a lot of name dropping in this book. It didn’t bother me, it came naturally to Maurice Sachs. He lived in the literary world and literature was the one and only topic he really studied.

His work is full of literary references: he sees himself as a Balzacian heroe, as a new Julien Sorel. Proust is hovering over his shoulder as THE model, I think. He’s hidden in that sentence “C’est pourquoi elle était revenue y terminer ses jours pour tenter to recapture the past The English translation would be “She came back to end her life here in an attempt to recapture the past. In English, Time Recaptured is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time... The following quote reminds me of Candide by Voltaire:

Il faut être son propre jardinier : arracher ses mauvaises herbes, faire côte à côte avec soi-même le terrible chemin et quand on se dégoûte trop, suer les odeurs mauvaises, travailler, travailler jusqu’à ce que l’âme soi nette. Car il ne faut se remettre à personne le nettoyage de son être, à Personne. Sur cette route solitaire et brûlante, il y a pourtant des poteaux indicateurs. Il faut les examiner, suivre certains indications, repartir. Personne en chemin, personne à l’arrivée ; quelques bras tendus sur la route. You have to be your own gardener: pull out your weeds, walk the dreadful path side by side with yourself and when you’re disgusted with yourself, sweat out the bad smells and work, work until your soul is all cleaned up. Because you can’t rely on anybody to clean up your soul. On Nobody. On this lonely and scorching path, there are road signs though. You need to watch them carefully, follow some of the instructions, resume walking. Nobody on the way, nobody at the arrival; some arms held on the road. Chapter 13

Doesn’t Mlle Viaud who lives in the Hôtel Saint-Joachim look like La Cousine Bette?

J’y trouvais Mlle Viaud, une petite noiraude au visage tanné, aux mains sèches, qui faisait de la couture mais était l’âme des potins qui circulaient d’étage en étage avec une incroyable rapidité. Here I found Mademoiselle Viaud, petite, dark-haired with a tanned face, dry hands, who used to sew but was the soul of the gossips that circulated from stair to stair at an incredible speed. (chapter 32)

When he’s in the army, his lover’s name is Lisbeth and she sorts of force him into the relationship. Does he think himself as the Stanislas that Lisbeth (La Cousine Bette) loves and who has to put up with it? Is Lisbeth her real name or was it just for the literary reference?

Sachs also plays with words and knowing Guy was reading the English translation, I often wondered how the translator had fared with specific passages or translated double meanings of words. Here is an example at the end of chapter 14:

Tout en nous croit en elle, comme tout de nous a crû neuf mois en elle du jour de la fécondation” (All in us believes in her, like all of us have grown nine months in her from the day of fertilization). Sachs plays with the conjugation of “croire” (believe) and “croître” (grow). So the sentence could also be translated as All in us grows in her, like all of us have believed in her from the day of fertilization. Only the ^ on “cru” lets the reader know that the first meaning is the good one. Orally, the sentence can be understood in both ways.

I’d be curious to know what the translator did with “J’aurais aimé la voix d’une femme qui dit “mon ami” et qui veut dire “mon amant”, ce vouvoiement qui tutoie” (chapter 18) , which means I would have loved the voice of a woman who says “my friend” and means “my lover”, addressing to me as a “tu” but saying “vous”. In French, “mon ami” can be used for friend, lover or partner. Only the inflection of the voice can tell you what the person intends to say.

Like Rousseau in Les Confessions, Sachs is looking for the reader’s compassion. Though he doesn’t show any indulgence for his vices and never tries to present himself as a victim, he wants the reader to forgive him all the things he has done. I didn’t find Maurice Sachs likeable because of his unquenchable need for money combined with his laziness. Post Office was a novel about a drunkard and Bukowski is not a model for virtue. But he worked hard in that post office, enduring horrendous hours and dreadful working conditions. Maurice Sachs was never able to keep a position for long without taking advantage of it. Of course, you can always argue that he had a miserable childhood and that no one really took care of him during his formative years. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

In the 1960s, Maurice Sachs would have been Jim Morrison, enjoying fame, money, sex, booze and drugs while dreaming of being Rimbaud or some other literary model.

In the 1980s, he would have been a well-read John Self, the fictional character of Money by Martin Amis. With his rotten background, he would have written commercials, enjoyed money, sex, booze, cocaine and would have died of AIDS before the end of the decade.

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