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Crazy me, I’ll do 20 Books of Summer again #20booksofsummer22

May 22, 2022 38 comments

I’m crazy busy and yet, I plan on doing 20 Books of Summer again.

Cathy from 746Books is the mastermind behind this event. I could pick only 10 or 15 books but I wanted to have 20 books to choose from and then we’ll see how it goes.

I already have the books from my ongoing readalongs with my Book Club, my sister-in-law, my Proust Centenary event and my non-fiction challenge. That makes seven books.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australia)
  • Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Fall Out by Paul Thomas (New Zealand)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

In August, I’ll be travelling to the USA, going through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve already read The Line That Held Us by David Joy and Country Dark by Chris Offutt. I love to read books about the place I’m visiting, so I’ll be reading:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Southern Region)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Washington DC)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)

That’s eight more books and some of them rather long. I also wanted to do Liz’s Larry McMurtry 2022 readalong as I’ve had Lonesome Dove on the shelf for a while. That’s two chunky books in a beautiful Gallmeister edition.

And then I’ve selected four novellas, to help me reach the 20 books with one-sitting reads:

  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  • Adios Madrid by Pablo Ignacio Taibo II (Cuba)

I’m not sure I’ll make it but who doesn’t love a little challenge? I’m happy with my choices, a mix of countries, of crime, literary and non-fiction and of short and long books.

Have you read any of the books I picked? If yes, what shall I expect?

If you’re taking part to 20 Books of Summer too, leave the link to your post in the comment section, I love discovering what you’ll be up to.

The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

April 24, 2022 14 comments

The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – 1958/1984. Original French title: L’homme à la colombe.

It’s not easy to write a billet about The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary. I tried to pull a Murakami this morning, went for a run and hoped it’d clear my head and help me write a tentative billet about this farce. It didn’t work so you’ll have make do with this billet.

First, a bit of context. Romain Gary first published The Man With The Dove in 1958 and under a penname, Fosco Sinibaldi. At the time, Gary was a diplomat and was a member of the French delegation in the UN in New York. He wasn’t allowed to publish such a book under his real name and you’ll soon understand why. A new version was published in 1984 after his death and under his real name. It’s the version that I have.

If you’ve never read Romain Gary, you need to know a bit about his literary universe and his references. He fought with de Gaulle during WWII, he was an early resistant. He’s a humanist and a promoter of French moto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. He believes in it and it is etched in his soul. He saw firsthand what communism meant as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He’s fond of the comedia del arte and loves the Marx Brothers. He uses humor as a weapon to take the pin out of mentally explosive situations. He has a wicked sense of humor and he’s the epitome of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest”.

Now that you’re aware of this, the book.

The Man With The Dove is set inside the building of the UN in New York. The tone of the book is set from the first pages. The UN is organized in such a way that it seems to take care of problems but does everything not to solve them and drag them as long as they can. That’s how the top management acts. And as always, Romain Gary thinks out of the box and points out:

A l’autre bout des longs couloirs qui unissaient le bâtiment de l’Assemblée à l’immense tour rectangulaire du Secrétariat, trois mille cinq cents fonctionnaires de toutes les races, couleurs et croyances, continuaient à résoudre tranquillement, jour et nuit, pour leur propre compte, tous les problèmes d’amitié entre les peuples, de coexistence pacifique et de coopération internationale dont leurs chefs débattaient en vain depuis plus de dix ans, dans les salles de conférences et les réunions de l’Assemblée.At the other end of the long hallways that connected the building of the Assembly to the huge square tower of the Secretary, three thousand and five hundred civil servants of all races, colors and beliefs quietly kept solving, night and day, on their own account, all the problems of friendship between nations, of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation that their bosses had been debating upon in vain since more than ten years in conference rooms and Assembly meetings.

The introduction of the book is clear: the UN works on its own, goes through the motions of taking care of international issues but does whatever it takes not to solve them. It is a theatre where the American-Russian relationship is staged and choregraphed, where everything is done to avoid any kind of escalation. It’s a comedy and the hustle and bustle is more about communication than a real attempt at efficiency.

The novella opens on a scene among the top management of the UN. The Secretary-General Traquenard (Trap) and two trustworthy members of his team, Bagtir, known for his calm and Praiseworthy, known for his prudence have a crisis meeting.

Traquenard and his men have a new problem: the building seems to have a new unofficial tenant. A man with a dove occupies a room in the building, one that is not on the map and he was seen wandering in the hallways, presenting his dove to secretaries and other staff members. They want to track him down. This mysterious character with the dove is Johnnie Coeur, supported by other outsiders of the building, a Hopi chief, three illegal gamblers who are there for the diplomatic immunity granted by the international zone of the building and a shoeshine-man. Johnnie is in search of a grand scam.

Le sourcil froncé, il rêvait de commettre, lui aussi, quelque immense escroquerie morale, quelque abus de confiance prodigieux, pour se venger de ses illusions perdues et pour montrer qu’il était complètement guéri de ses errements idéalistes.With his brow furrowed, he dreamt of committing some sort of huge moral scam, a phenomenal breach of trust that would avenge his lost illusions and would show to the world that he was totally healed of any idealistic wanderings.

And light bulb! Johnnie will simulate a hunger strike. With a little help from his friends, he’ll pull it off so well that things won’t turn out the way he thought.

The Man With The Dove was written in 1958, rather at the beginning of Gary’s literary career. It announces the themes of The Ski Bum and the ferocious tone of The Dance of Gengis Cohn. It reflects Gary’s disenchantment with the power of diplomats and international institutions.

Et oui, que veux-tu, c’est une chose qui arrive fréquemment aux Nations Unies. Les choses les plus concrètes deviennent ici des abstractions—le pain, la paix, la fraternité, les droits de la personne humaine—les choses les plus solides se volatilisent et deviennent des mots, de l’air, une tournure de style—on en parle, on en parle et à la fin, tout cela devient une abstraction, on peut passer la main à travers, il n’y a plus rien.What can I say? It’s something that happens frequently in the UN. The most concrete things become abstractions here –food, peace, fraternity, human rights—the most solid things vanish into thin air and become words, a breeze, a turn of phrase. People talk about them, again and again and in the end, all this becomes abstract, you can stick your hand through it, there’s nothing anymore.

Now you see why he couldn’t claim this book as his own when he was a diplomat. He spoke several languages, and was fluent in French, English and Russian. I can’t imagine what kind of conversations he overheard in the hallways and in meetings, with people unaware that he could understand them.

The Man With The Dove is a farce that rings true. It’s even prophetic. We saw the inefficiency of the UN peacekeeping forces during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN is powerless against Putin and doesn’t help Ukraine now.

In 1958, thirteen years after the UN was founded, Gary’s analysis was that it was a cynical farce and he decided to take it at face value and actually wrote one.

The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin : highly recommended

March 20, 2022 24 comments

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin (1899) French title: L’Eveil.

“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”

The main course of The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin is the novella The Awakening. Mrs Edna Pontellier is the speaker of the quote opening this billet.

We meet her at Grand Isle, where she’s spending the summer with other people from New Orleans. She’s there with her maid and her two children, her husband Léonce staying in town during the week and commuting to Grand Isle during the weekends. New Orleans’ Hamptons, so to speak.

Edna isn’t happy as a wife and a mother, not that Léonce is a bad husband. She just finds no fulfillment in taking care of the children or being a doting wife.

Léonce is a man of his time and has the common expectations towards his wife. He’s courteous and thinks he treats her well but in his mind, she’s like an employee whose performance doesn’t quite meet with her job description.

He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business. He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them.

Edna, as a wife, is also a mandatory fixture of a successful man’s life, like a mansion or a carriage:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.

He needs to show off his children, his wife, his well-kept house and she needs to have her visiting day to entertain the network of his business circle’s wives. Sometimes, she’s more like a glorified servant than a partner. Like here, where he complains that she doesn’t listen to him…

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

…but this conversation occurred at night, when he woke her up after being out! He wanted to talk about his day! It’s like calling the maid in the middle of the night to have some tea or run a bath.

That summer at Grand Isle, Edna became the center of Robert’s attentions. He’s a young flirt, the son of the inn keeper. He’s known to attach himself every summer to a woman, especially to interesting married women, and everyone knows that it is a meaningless summer thing. The ladies and Robert know the rules.

But Edna, and that’s important in the story, is not a native from Louisiana and she’s not a Creole. She doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the same background. She was already dissatisfied with her life reduced to maternal and conjugal duties before coming to Grand Isle and Kate Chopin sums it up nicely:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Robert opens a window she had closed when she got married. Her awakening is her self as a woman, a sleeping beauty who wakes up and wants her place in Edna’s life. And suddenly, Robert leaves Grand Isle to go to Mexico on business. The reader understands that he got a little too attached to Edna. She goes back to New Orleans but she can’t fold back into her previous Mrs Pontellier box. Like toothpaste, once out, you cannot get back in.

So, she starts neglecting her wife duties: housekeeping is approximative, she stops doing her Thursdays, she doesn’t visit other wives. She takes on painting again even if she has no illusion of her gift as an artist. She knows she doesn’t have a real talent for it but she applies to it seriously. She enjoys working hard.

Mr Pontellier is worried about his wife’s mental health but chooses not to intervene. He has an important business deal to conduct in New York and is away from New Orleans for several months. The children stay in the country with their grandparents. Edna is suddenly totally freed from her daily duties.

She spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who was a guest at Grand Isle that summer too. She chose to remain single and enjoys her freedom. She has news from Robert and these letters help Edna understand that she loves him and that the feeling is mutual.

We see Edna taking back her freedom of movement and of thinking, getting her own money on the race field, moving out of her mansion to a smaller house that she pays herself.

How will this unfold when Mr Pontallier comes back?

I imagine that some have compared Edna to Emma Bovary. There are some similarities, since they are both bored by marital duties and motherhood. They don’t have bad husbands, just ones that aren’t what they need.

The main difference between the two is that Kate Chopin is not a misogynistic male. So, Edna is not a stupid woman who falls for the first man who pays attention to her. Chopin shows that not all women have fun changing diapers, taking care of running noses and organizing diners and she doesn’t judge Edna for that.

Edna is not uncaring, she loves her children but her life as a wife and a mother is not enough. Edna is not frivolous or impractical. She doesn’t behave as foolishly as Emma Bovary or overspend on fashion and trinkets. She wants to be herself, to be free and to exist as a separate entity from her husband and children.

I believe that the ending is not one that a male author of the time would have written and it is closer to Virginia Wolf than to Gustave Flaubert. The Awakening was published in 1899, before The House of Mirth (1905) or The Custom of the Country (1913). It is a feminist work by a writer who probably had common points with Edna and I thought it was very modern for her time.

A word about the short stories included in the book, which are:

  • Beyond the Bayou
  • Ma’ame Pélagie
  • Desiree’s Baby
  • A Respectable Woman
  • The Kiss
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings
  • The Locket
  • A Reflection

They are little gems, stolen pictures of Louisiana in the 1890s, with the scars of the Civil War and the race question. Their main characters are women who struggle with their life, who have desires they can’t fulfill and who survive as best they can.

As a French reader, I have to comment on Chopin’s style. She was a Creole and her writing is peppered with French words and sentences. See here: We’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. How does it sound to you, English-speaking natives? There’s the word “convenances” in the middle of the sentence and the whole phrase sounds French to me.

I have the same impression with this one: She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household en bonne menagere. It’s not the first time I read a book set in Louisiana and there’s a familiarity in the language and sometimes in the way of thinking: Mr. Pontellier did not attend these soirees musicales. He considered them bourgeois, and found more diversion at the club. It could come out of a book by Maupassant, no?

All the French words, expressions and sentences are not translated into English in footnotes. English-speaking readers, how do you fare with that?

It may sound futile but I was irritated that the publisher didn’t bother to write French properly: no accent on chérie, grammar mistakes due to missing accents (a instead of à), no cedilla on garçon. Is that so complicated to check out the right spelling?

I owe the discovery of The Awakening to Vishy and read his post here. Many thanks, Vishy, I loved it and I think it’s an important milestone in the 19thC literature. Highly recommended.

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy – Translation Tragedy.

March 6, 2022 16 comments

The Traveling Companion by Gyula Krúdy (1918) French title: Le Compagnon de voyage. Translated by François Gachot. (1990)

Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) was a Hungarian writer and journalist. The Traveling Companion was published in 1918 but the first French translation only dates back to 1990 and it’s still not translated into English. So, if George Szirtes doesn’t know what to do with his free time…

I’ve already read N.N. by Krúdy, also published by the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière, in the collection directed by Ibolya Virág. According to their website, LaBaconnière sounds like an independent publisher. Lucky me, Lizzy and Karen have extended #ReadIndies until mid-March…But back to the book.

The Traveling Companion has a classic opening: in a train compartment a traveler confides his story to a fellow passenger. The narrator relates the man’s story, how he settled in a small town after wandering around the country. He was forty-four, experiencing a mid-life crisis and this is how he describes himself:

Quant à ce genre de fou que son esprit chevaleresque incite à se faire secouer douze heures durant dans un wagon, si ce n’est une voiture ou un traineau, pour aller baiser la main d’une femme, écouter le chuchotement d’une voix, respirer la senteur d’une jupe ou d’un corsage, exprimer, en retenant son souffle, son adoration au fond d’un jardin sous une tonnelle ou dans un sentier où l’aimée s’est rendue, après avoir quitté subrepticement son lit, eh bien, ce genre de fou est aussi rare qu’un merle blanc. Il fut, néanmoins, un temps où j’ai été cette sorte de merle blanc. J’ai explosé d’amour, comme une charge de dynamite placée dans une carrière d’où une fumée jaunâtre s’échappe le long de la pente de la montagne, avant de se disperser sans laisser de trace.As for this kind of crazy man whose chivalrous mindset encourages him to be rocked during twelve hours in a train compartment, a carriage or a sleigh in order to kiss the hand of a woman, listen to a whispering voice, breathe the scent of a skirt or a blouse or go to a garden and breathlessly express his adoration under a gazebo or on a path where the loved one met him after secretly leaving her bed, well, this kind of crazy man is as rare as a white blackbird. However, once upon a time, I was that kind of white blackbird. I blew out of love, like a stick of dynamite set up in a quarry from which a yellowish smoke goes up the side of the mountain and disappears without leaving a trace.   (My clumsy translation.)

This is a man whose profession is to fall in love with women all over the country, but preferably in small provincial towns of Upper Hungary. This quote (pardon my clumsy translation) sounds like a long sentence by Marcel Proust where the Narrator would mull over all his attempts at getting close to one woman or the other. Except that Proust’s Narrator usually remains at the dream stage and Krúdy’s character acts upon his desires.

The man arrives in town by train and explains that he doesn’t like to stay in hotels but prefers bed and breakfasts. This is how he enters into Mrs Hartvig’s house. Her husband is often away on business, she’s at home with the children and could rent him a room. He seduces her the first day, charmed by the turn of her legs and the unexpected elegance of her shoes. Krúdy, like his character can be straight to the point. This is how he portrays Mrs Hartvig:

Eh bien, Mme Hartvig était comme une nonne qui serait née avec des jambes de putain.Well, Mrs Hartvig was like a nun who was born with a whore’s legs.   (More of my clumsy translations)

He doesn’t believe his good luck and how this lady could fall into his lap so easily. The affair doesn’t last but he stays with the Hartvigs and settles in the small town. Krúdy has a knack for the description of small-town life. We meet the local bourgeois and learn about their life, their customs and their ways. His style has a lyrical tone, he mixes the feeling of his character, who is always on the verge of falling in love with descriptions of the countryside. He’s a butterfly who flies from one woman to the other, heart fluttering and lust simmering. But he can still point out the ridicules of the provincial community.

This goes on until he really falls for Eszéna, a young girl in flower. Her mother is unmarried and she wishes that her daughter becomes a nun. Eszéna wants to know love before going to the convent and she’s ready to let herself fall for this stranger. He’s all too willing, of course.

I know I shouldn’t read books written in 1918 with my twenty-first and post-feminism glasses. But still, I was ill-at-ease with a forty-four years old man planning to meet an adolescent for a tryst. The man is a scoundrel, when you analyze things with hindsight but everything he does is genuine. He loves women, falls in and out of love, can’t help it and would rather deal with the consequences than refrain from anything.

He’s close Krúdy himself, as I discovered him in the autobiographical N.N. and I found in The Traveling Companion the same kind of old-world poetry. I suspect he’s not easy to translate into French, especially since French and Hungarian have nothing in common. (You can’t find the toilets in Budapest without a pictogram to lead you to the right direction.) Krúdy gives the impression of a man deeply moved by beauty and able to find it everywhere.

The Traveling Companion leaves you with a feeling of fleetingness, of a man passing through like a southern wind, of someone on the move and who loves to love.

Translation Tragedy.

Other books by Krúdy on this blog: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda – Budapest in 1913 and The adventures of Sindbad.

Joyeux Noël and A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry.

December 24, 2021 21 comments

A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry (2021) Not available in French.

So, we’re back on the Covid merry-go-round, playing a game of Omicron Says. In other words, it’s Christmas with Covid Season 2.

New restrictions are blooming all over Europe like toxic mushrooms infecting our Christmas again. In France, we are exempted of too many restrictions for now, except the usual health pass, the hydroalcoholic gel fiesta and the mask wearing. They are starting to feel as the new normal. We’re in a frenzy of PCR testing for family reunions and we’ll try to enjoy ourselves despite the omicron cloud over our heads.

With all the bad news piling up, I was looking for something sweet after reading Betty by Tiffany MacDaniel. I turned to Anne Perry’s last Christmas story, A Christmas Legacy and it did the job.

In this one, we’re with with Gracie, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt’s former maid. She has now left their service to get married. She has three children and is happy with her new life. A few days before Christmas, Millie, a girl Gracie has taken under her wing and who works as a housemaid in a Londoner townhouse, comes to her house and says she feels insecure at her employer’s house, Gracie replaces her for a couple of days to investigate what’s going on in this mansion.

This is a book you read under a plaid with tea, Christmas cookies and papillotes. It’s nothing to write home about but a nice and relaxing read. Exactly what I needed.

I hope you and your family are safe and well and that you were able to spend Christmas with the people you love. If you’re locked down because of this damned virus, I hope you planned a wonderful self-party and celebrated the holiday anyway. We, avid readers, are lucky bastards: our main enjoyment is Covid-compliant. We should count our blessings, and that’s definitely one.

Give me some news in the comment section if you wish and Joyeux Noël!

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – beautiful grumpy rant

November 14, 2021 41 comments

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982) French title: Béton. Translated from the German by Gilberte Lambrichs.

Challenge of the day: write something intelligible about Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. To tell a long story short, it’s a beautiful grumpy rant.

Rudolf is ageing and ill. He has sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks his lungs and prevents him from exercising. He’s now a recluse in his property, in the village of Peiskam. He doesn’t see anyone but his housekeeper Frau Kienesberger and his hated sister Elisabeth.

When the novella opens, his sister has just left Peiskam after she arrived announced and overstayed her welcome. Rudolf is relieved that she’s gone and that he’s now be able to work on his biography of Mendelsohn Bartholdy.

Rudolf is a musicologist and has been gathering material to write this for ten years. But Rudolf is unable to start writing because he wants the conditions to be perfect and perfection is not part of this world. So…

He’s angry with himself and with the world. He blames his sister’s presence that lingers in the house. He paces through the house grumbling about everything. He’s depressed and undecided. He’s restless as he goes round in circles in his house and in his head. He needs a way out.

The result is a 158 pages long verbal diarrhea. He rants about everything. His country and its useless politicians, the Austrian people, Vienna, the Catholic Church, the press and its incompetent and complacent journalists. His sister and her business sense, her friends and the Viennese high society she belongs to. Everyone is on the same boat of mediocrity and corruption.

As his flow of consciousness fills the pages, we discover that this unreliable narrator can’t help being honest with himself. He acknowledges that he abhors his country but used to love living in Vienna. He misses the city life that his health doesn’t allow him to live any longer.

He knows his sister loves him and she came because she cares for him. Her tough love is what he needed to get out of his funk and start thinking about travelling to Majorca and feel better. She came after he asked her to, not as an imposition. She knows how to steer him out his head, out of his house and towards a better place. Majorca it will be.

Concrete is a dense text with no paragraph, no chapters, no dialogue. We’re plugged to Rudolf’s thought process. It could be annoying but it’s not. It’s surprisingly easy to read. I couldn’t help liking the cantankerous old coot in the end because at some point, he dropped all pretenses and owned up to his flaws and inconsistencies.

Je me suis persuadé que je n’avais besoin de personne, je m’en persuade aujourd’hui. Je n’avais besoin de personne, donc je n’avais personne. Mais nous avons naturellement besoin de quelqu’un, sinon nous devenons inéluctablement tel que je suis devenu : pénible, insupportable, malade, impossible au sens le plus fort du terme.I persuaded myself that I didn’t need anyone and I’m still persuading myself so. I didn’t need anyone, therefore I had no one. But by nature, we all need someone, otherwise we inevitably become as I became: tiresome, insufferable, sick, impossible at the strongest meaning of it. My translation from the French.

His honesty warmed me to him. For example, he calls his housekeeper die Kienesberger, not Frau Kienesberger. He doesn’t want to need her but he does. She’s his only link to the outside world.

This brings me to the French translation. Die Kienesberger is translated as la Kienesberger even if we don’t use articles before proper nouns in French, except in Alsace-Moselle sometimes. I’ve seen in the English excerpt of the book that she has become Frau Kienesberger in the English translation.

My German is very poor but I remember enough to notice the unusual amount of Naturellement in sentences. We’d rather say évidemment, but I’ve obseved that in translations from the German, évidemment becomes naturellement, to mirror the German natürlich, I suppose. My guess is that the French translation keeps as close as possible to the German verbal flow of Rudolf’s rant.

And his rant is funny, in spite of him. He’s so unreasonable that he made me chuckle and shake my head in disbelief like you do when a child throws a tantrum.

I really recommend Concrete to other readers, you’ll become amused riders of Rudolf’s storm in a glass of water.

This is my contribution to German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy and to Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.

More Thomas Bernhard at Book Around the Corner : the play Elisabeth II. Another funny rant.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd – Meet Edmond and his family in the Armenian community in Iran.

October 10, 2021 8 comments

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd (1997) French title: Un jour avant Pâques. Translated from the Persian by Christophe Balaÿ.

This is my last billet about the twenty books I read this summer for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s OK, it’s Indian summer at the moment, right?

I hoped to write about Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd for WIT Month but my TBW pile was too high. The French title of the book is Un jour avant Pâques, The Day Before Easter and it seems to be the direct translation of the original title. And it makes sense.

Born in 1952, Zoyâ Pirzâd is an Iranian writer from the Armenian community in Iran. Her book Space Between Us is set in this community and covers several decades of the main character’s life, Edmond. Three chapters, each set at a key moment of Edmond’s life, all three times around Easter day.

In the first chapter, Edmond is twelve. He’s an only child and lives in a small town by the Caspian Sea. His father is the director of the local Armenian school. Edmond’s best friend is Tahereh, the concierge’s daughter. She’s Muslim but goes to the Armenian school too, since its more practical. A drama will occur in the tight-knit community, forcing Edmond to grow up.

In the second chapter, Edmond is older, married to Marta and they now live in Teheran. They have a grownup daughter, Alenouche who announces that she’ll marry her Muslim boyfriend. Edmond accepts it willingly but Marta is rigid about it, a Christian devout and she takes it as a personal insult.

In the last chapter, Edmond is even older, a widower now. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, since her fight with Marta.

Space Between Us is a lovely book. It’s very poetical in its description of childhood, of food and smells. It has a melancholic ring that matches Edmond’s temper. He’s a quiet child, Tahereh is the daring part of their duo. He’s observant too and shares his thoughts about his family and the Armenian community around him. He knows that his mother is not the traditional Armenian mother, she’s not keen on housekeeping and she had to live with a formidable mother-in-law. Edmond’s father is a quiet man too who loves his wife the way she is and never pressures her to comply to traditions but the community, though helpful, is also stifling.

Marta was thick as thieves with Edmond’s grandmother. They shared the same sense of community, a strong will to keep traditions alive and not change anything in their vision of the place of men and women in a couple, the duties children had to pay or the fact that one remained in their community.

The grandmother never liked Edmond’s friendship with Tahereh and Marta didn’t take Alenouche’s engagement well. It felt more like a will to keep the Armenian community alive, not to have it dissolved into the Iranian society than anything else. They are survivors of the Armenian genocide and they have the duty to keep their community and their traditions alive not to lose their identity and lose their history. It would mean forget about their lost country, about the genocide and their tragedy as a people.

Zoyâ Pirzâd doesn’t write a political novel. She writes about the quotidian, its little beauties and the family traditions. She takes us into Edmond’s life, full of ladybugs, friendship, painted Easter eggs and Armenian dishes. He sees family politics with his child’s eyes and, as an adult, lives through it by avoiding conflicts. The French cover of the book, a watercolor is perfect for the book.

Pirzâd’s writing reminded me of Philip Roth’s when he describes the Newark of his childhood or when Peter Balakian remembers his youth in New Jersey among his Armenian family in The Black Dog of Fate, also published in 1997. A community of immigrants in a country with other traditions.

Highly recommended, both Space Between Us and The Black Dog of Fate.

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara – the appalling Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918

July 11, 2021 15 comments

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (2014) Not available in French.

I’ve had A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara on the shelf since 2018, when I bought it at Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. I decided to read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week organised from July 5th to July 11th. Given my timeline, we’re still on July 11th when I write this, so I’m still on time.

I’ve heard of Marie Munkara on Lisa’s blog and read her autobiography Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea. She’s one of the Stolen Generation people and she explains how she came back to her biological family.

A Most Peculiar Act is a satirical novel set in the Northern Territory in 1942. Each chapter starts with an excerpt of the Aboriginal Ordinances Act that date back to 1918. Basically, the Aborigines have no civil rights

We are in a remote place in the bush. The Aborigines live in two places, The Camp where families are gathered and The Pound, a place “enclosed with a high fence to keep the coloured females under eighteen in and everyone else out.”

They can’t live outside of The Camp, the young women must go the The Pound and they’re not allowed to welcome who they want at The Camp. They are all listed on the Register of Wards of State. The girls are placed as domestics in white families. Whitish babies are taken away from their mothers.

White civil servants operate The Camp and The Pound. The staff is composed of an Administrator, a Chief Protector of Aboriginals, four patrol officers and a Superintendent of The Pound. The wives also play an important part in the system. This little clique runs the Aboriginals’ lives according to the power bestowed upon them by the Aboriginal Ordinances Act and according to their incompetence, their prejudice and their meanness. They are all unworthy of their power.

We follow the fate of Sugar, a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal and of Ralphie, a patrol officer.

When the book opens, Sugar is pregnant and at the end of her pregnancy. She fails to hide in the bush when Ralphie and Desmond, the two patrol officers, come to the Camp. She’s sent to the hospital against her will. She wanted to deliver her baby in the bush, among her people. We soon learn that she had an affair with Ralphie and when she delivers twins, the whitest of the two is taken away and given to a white family.

Meanwhile, we see the absurdity of the interactions between the white management. The new Chief Protector of the Aboriginals, nicknamed Horrid Hump, is a teetotaller and a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. He fires Ralphie for drinking too much, condemning him to poverty. He hires Drew Hepplewaite to replace him. She’s mean-spirited and racist. She’ll go beyond her duty to make the Aboriginals’ lives miserable. She’ll also wreak havoc among the whites, destroying the carefully constructed balance between the people.

Each chapter is more absurd than the other and Marie Munkara uses her novella to point out the cruelty and the stupidity of the system. The Chief Protector of Aboriginals doesn’t protect them from anything and the assimilation policy ends up in changing people’s names or stealing their children. That’s why Aboriginal characters are named Rawhide, Horseshoe, Fuel Drum, Donkey Face or Pickhandle.

While Marie Munkara succeeds in showing the appalling system of these ordinances, I would have liked to learn more about the Aboriginal characters of the book. Also, for a French reader, the pidgin English spoken by the Aboriginal characters was difficult to read and to understand. It wasn’t a smooth read for this reader and it got in the way of fully enjoying the book. I might have missed some references too.

Out of the two Munkaras I’ve read, I’d recommend her autobiography before reading A Most Peculiar Act.

See Lisa’s review here.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan – excellent

March 31, 2021 15 comments

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (2018) Original French title: Les Loyautés.

Les loyautés.

 

Ce sont les liens invisibles qui nous attachent aux autres –aux morts comme aux vivants—, ce sont des promesses que nous avons murmurées et dont nous ignorons l’écho, des fidélités silencieuses, ce sont des contrats passés le plus souvent avec nous-mêmes, des mots d’ordre admis sans les avoir entendus, des dettes que nous abritons dans les replis de nos mémoires.

Ce sont les lois de l’enfance qui sommeillent à l’intérieur de nos corps, les valeurs au nom desquelles nous nous tenons droits, les fondements qui nous permettent de résister, les principes illisibles qui nous rongent et nous enferment. Nos ailes et nos carcans.

Ce sont les tremplins sur lesquels nos forces se déploient et les tranchées dans lesquelles nous enterrons nos rêves.

Loyalties.

 

They’re invisible ties that bind us to others –to the dead as well as the living. They’re promises we’ve murmured but whose echo we don’t hear, silent fidelities. They’re contracts we make, mostly with ourselves, passwords acknowledged though unheard, debts we harbour in the folds of our memories.

They’re the rules of childhood dormant within our bodies, the values in whose name we stand up straight, the foundations that enable us to resist, the illegible principles that eat away at us and confine us. Our wings and our fetters.

They’re the springboards from which our strength takes flight and the trenches in which we bury our dreams.

This is the foundation of Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan. Through four characters, she will explore this notion of loyalties and how they affect our vision of the events we live and our decision-making process.

Hélène is a science teacher in a Parisian collège (middle school in France) and she has Théo and Mathis in her class. When the book opens, she has noticed that something is wrong with Théo but, based on her own experience, she makes the wrong conclusion. She thinks he’s molested at home.

She’s right in her observation, though. Théo is on a dangerous path. His parents are divorced and he’s split between his loyalty to each parent. Her mother is embittered by the divorce and doesn’t want to know anything about the weeks Théo spends with his father. Théo’s father is unemployed, broke and depressed. He barely makes it out of bed. Théo has promised not to say anything to his paternal grandmother. He remains silent. Théo has discovered that alcohol brings a welcome numbness and experiments drunkenness.

Mathis is Théo’s best friend and they’re each other’s only friend. Mathis drinks with Théo, in a hidden spot at the collège. As Théo’s drinking increases, Mathis feels more and more ill-at-ease with their games. But talking to an adult means betraying his friend.

Cécile is Mathis’s mother. She notices that something is different with Mathis and she doesn’t like Théo. She’ll make a discovery about her husband that will shatter her life and destroy the personality her husband shoed her in.

Delphine de Vigan explores how Hélène and Cécile’s pasts shaped them and still influence who they are and how they react to problems. As they got older, a new web of loyalties added to the one they weaved in childhood. When things go wrong, which loyalty will be the wings and which one will be the fetter?

Théo and Mathis are bound by their loyalties to their parents and to each other.

Hélène turned the loyalty to the frightened little girl she was to a loyalty to her students. She knows something is seriously wrong with Théo, even after the school nurse has examined him and assured her that there was no trace of violence on his body. She still watches him, tries to talk to his mother, shows that she cares, even if her actions are sometimes over-the-top and put her at odds with her hierarchy.

Will Théo get the help he needs? That’s for you to discover in this excellent novella. Delphine de Vigan expertly explores the concept of loyalty through a plausible story.

Highly recommended.

PS : Sorry, I haven’t found out how to insert a book cover with a proper layout with the new WP editor. I’m going to ask for help…

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi – And fear changes sides

March 16, 2021 14 comments

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi (1991) French title: Dirty Week-End. Translated by Jean Esch.

My Kube subscription brought me Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi, a society and feminist novella, one that was almost censored, according to the libraire who chose it for me. What a ride it was! It opens with this stunning paragraph:

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least, she had the decency to do the decent thing.

As you imagine, Bella did not decide to do the decent thing. Quite the contrary.

Bella lives in Brighton, in a mezzanine flat. She’s single, lives a quiet life, reads a lot and keeps to herself. One day, she realizes that a man observes her from a nearby apartment. He starts calling her on the phone, he accosts her in her favourite park. Her life becomes filled with constant fear. She shuts herself away in her flat, closing the curtains. She stops answering the phone.

And one day, she has enough of living in fear. She doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She doesn’t want to be afraid to go out, to open her windows or answer the phone. It’s time for fear to change side.

Bella goes over the edge and starts a killing spree against men who persecute her, force themselves on her or threaten her.

It’s a rough ride and of course Bella’s solution to her problem is not the right one. But Helen Zahavi shows one thing: how fear is ingrained in women. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk in dark alleys. Don’t wear short dresses or plunging necklines. Don’t go in an unknown man’s car. Don’t accept a drink you haven’t prepared yourself. Take care of your own safety.

And Bella tells us it’s not normal to live in fear and in constant worry for one’s security. It’s not normal to be obliged to be prudent because you’re a woman. Bella seems to say: Enough. Guys, live my life. It’s your turn to be afraid.

I’ve read that Dirty Week-End caused an uproar when it was published and that a request for its interdiction was brought to the Parliament. Some people in 1991 England thought it was immoral, pornographic and subversive. Thirty years after its publication, I don’t see why this book should be censored. (or any book, but that’s another debate) Let me get this straight: a book with a man serial killer who preys upon women doesn’t raise an eyebrow and the reverse is immoral?

Dirty Week-End is not a revenge novel, as it has been labelled. It’s more a novel that makes some men uncomfortable because this time, the tables are turned.

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

PS: Covers are interesting to compare, for that kind of book. They influence your view of the book. I think that the French and the American one with the gun are the most faithful to the text.

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – Subtle, poignant and balanced

February 28, 2021 16 comments

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright (2017) Not available in French.

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright opens with a foreword by Meike Ziervogel from Pereine Press.

The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realized that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears—and what hopes—drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.

And Anthony Cartwright delivered a poignant story that points out the differences between these two Britains, builds a tentative bridge and avoids the pitfall of judgment. I’m reading this with the eyes of a foreigner, so forgive me if I missed cultural undercurrents or if I’m making naïve remarks.

We’re in Dudley, in the county of West Midlands. (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, I’m not good with UK geography) It’s a former coal, iron and limestone industrial area.

Cairo Jukes, in his early forties, has lived his whole life among the canals of the Black Country. He’s been divorced for years and he’s already a grand-father as his daughter Stacey-Ann got pregnant at 19. He lives with his parents because he can’t afford a flat. He struggles to support himself on zero-hours contracts.

Grace is a successful documentary film-maker and she comes from London to do a reportage in Dudley. They meet by chance in downtown Dudley and Cairo agrees to speak with her and participate to the documentary. They are attracted to each other but clearly don’t live in the same world, with the same codes and same vocabulary. The bridge is hard to build as they don’t have the same foundations.

Cairo lives one day at a time, he literally can’t afford to make projects. He never knows how many hours he’ll work and how much he’ll earn. This is where the current pandemic puts us all on equal footing: we all have to learn to live with uncertainty and the impossibility to plan ahead. And it’s hard.

We know something dramatic happens and page after page, we discover Cairo’s life, his world and Anthony Cartwright manages to put the right words on it. He’s never condescending. Cairo comes to life, a multidimensional character with hollows and bumps. I found him very moving and of all the differences between Cairo and Grace, their circumstances, their past and their hope for the future, the one that upset me the most was in this paragraph:

What swayed him was when she said it might be fun. She actually used the word fun. She was a person who used words such as fun and wonderful, and he was not sure he’d ever met anyone who spoke like this in real life, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed to open something up. Maybe it was OK, changing again after years, to feel himself becoming someone new, when he’d assumed he’d shrink away.

Something is seriously wrong with our countries if we have people who don’t know how to use the word fun anymore.

The campaign for the Brexit is in the background, a white noise that makes itself more and more persistent as the book progresses. Cartwright shows a mosaic of people around Cairo and none of them can be pingeonholed in a comfortable little box. Brexit is a complex matter and turning complex matters into a simple referendum question leads to disaster.

Cartwright doesn’t make a statement, doesn’t take any side but paints an accurate picture of two people who don’t live in the same country. Hell, they put subtitles on the television when Cairo’s interview is broadcasted. I’ve never seen this on the French TV, except sometimes for Québec speakers. Most Francophone speakers are intelligible without subtitles.

Cairo’s vision is summed up here:

People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired to be told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Tired of supermarket jobs and warehouse jobs and jobs guarding shopping centres. Work had always worn people out, the heat of furnaces, the clang of iron, but this is tiredness of a different order, tiredness that a rest will not cure, like a plague, eating away at them all.

That’s one reason people vote for Brexit, to try something new. That’s how they put on their yellow vests and invest roundabouts and city centres. But the reasons are more complex than that and it’s time the Grace side of the world pays attention to them.

The Cut is set in the UK but it goes with books like And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu, Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis, films by Robert Guédiguian or plays like I Took My Father on my Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot or the stage adaptation of Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. Hot topics that were swept under the carpet by a pesky virus but will come back full force in 2022.

Many thanks to Marina Sofia for sending me this book. Her interesting review is here. It’s still time to add this to the #ReadIndies challenge hosted by Karen and Lizzy. It’s a Pereine Press book, after all.

Three novellas by Turgenev

November 29, 2020 20 comments

Three novellas by Ivan Turgenev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West of Rome by John Fante – two novellas

November 15, 2020 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

West of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Orgy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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