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20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

August 5, 2020 18 comments

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou – a trip to a Greek working class neighborhood

January 12, 2020 43 comments

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou (2010) French title: Ça va aller, tu vas voir. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou is our Book Club read for January. It’s a collection of short stories published in 2010 by a young Greek writer. According to the afterword from the French translator, Michel Volkovitch, most of the stories were actually written before 2008 and the subsequent Euro crisis in Greece.

All the stories are set in a blue-collar neighborhood of Athens. The characters are employees, factory workers, dockers or unemployed. They all struggle to survive in a world with a slow economy. Jobs are scarce, several characters have just been laid-off and they don’t have much hope to find something else soon. Even when they work, money is tight because they are in low-paid jobs (one works in an ice factory) and sometimes, their employer doesn’t have enough cash to pay everyone. They come home without pay.

Ikonòmou describes a country whose working class walks on the edge of a financial abyss. Several characters haven’t paid their rent for a few months, others couldn’t afford their mortgage. The ghost of eviction is at their door and steals their sleep. In several stories, the protagonists can’t sleep and invent various stratagems to keep insomnia at bay or survive the night. We all know how a small worry can become a huge issue after nightfall. They smoke, they stay on the stairs outside their building to monitor the street, they tell each other stories. A man talks to his spouse all night to lull her into sleep.

We see people who can’t afford food. We see a country where its senior citizens spend the night on the pavement in front of the community clinic because they want to be the first in the waiting line when the clinic opens the next day. A woman dies in the hospital because the person who brought her to the ER didn’t know her name and they couldn’t check whether she had insurance.

All the stories are bleak, the country seems to be about to crumble and indeed, it did a few years after Ikonòmou wrote these stories. Basic public services like drinkable tap water are not a sure thing.

We see a country with deep differences between the rich and the poor and no security net, which is common for a US reader but shocking for a European reader.

All the stories are bleak because of the characters’ circumstances but they are lit from inside by people’s love for each other. Spouses stay close, comfort and love each other. Friends take care of friends. Families try to help with small jobs or loans. The times are hard but the family unit stays strong and close-knit.

The people we meet here are breathless, holding their breath for what is yet to come or trying to catch their breath after another fortnight without wages. Their fear of tomorrow suffocates them. Some are hungry. A lot are nostalgic of the past. Most of them underwent forced changes in their lives: they had to move out of their house, to change of neighborhood, to accept a job only to make ends meet and pay the bills.

Men are raised to provide for their families and can’t anymore. They feel useless and it chips at their identity and maybe even at their sense of virility.

People have to survive and make the most of what they have. They live in the Piraeus neighborhood and Ikonòmou takes us there, in its street and by the sea.

Ikonòmou’s prose reflects his characters’ struggles. He alternates long and short paragraphs. Some sentences repeat themselves in a story, like thoughts are played on a loop in someone’s mind when they are sleepless with worry. The rhythm of the sentences mirrors the characters’ breathlessness, the way their financial worries choke them. Their hardship puts their sanity at stake. Ikonòmou shows a people beaten down by capitalism and a poor management of the country. They are bruised and battered by life but there’s still hope in love, friendship and solidarity.

Ikonòmou gives us a vivid picture of today’s Greece and I do recommend this collection of short stories.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash – compelling

April 26, 2019 9 comments

Burning Bright by Ron Rash (2010) French title: Incandescences

I discovered Ron Rash at Quais du Polar and bought (and got signed 😊) a collection of twelve short stories, Burning Bright. Unfortunately, it took me two years to read it. As always, it’s difficult to write about a collection of short stories. Write about all of them? Boring. Pick one to three favorites? That’s an option. Have an overview of the collection? That’s my choice.

The stories in Burning Bright are all set in the Appalaches, where Ron Rash comes from. Ron Rash was at Quais du Polar this year too and he said that he writes about his region again and again because it’s home, because he wants to tell about this land and its people and because he thinks that if he digs deep enough in one place, he’ll reach the core of the human soul and his stories will have a whiff of universality.

His exploration takes us in different times. A story is set during the Civil War (Lincolnites), one during the Great Depression (Hard Times), one just at the end of WWII (Return) and the others are set in the last decades. As you can see, historical stories happen at a pivotal moment of the history of America. In the others, the timestamp is less clear. A way to reach universality, probably.

Several stories picture people at a rough moment of their lives. Money is tight and they’re one step away from poverty. A brother has to evict his nephew and his junky friends from his brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are stuck in a trailer, scared to death of their violent and drug addict son. A farmer and his wife struggle to survive during the Great Depression and discovering who or what snitches eggs in their henhouse is vital. A child steals valuable objects on the victims of an airplane crash to his worthless parents in order to sell them and put food on the table. A man digs up in tombs of confederate soldiers, looking for belt buckles and other tokens to be sold to people who collect such items or like to reenact battles of the Civil War. He needs money to pay for his mother’s medical bills. These stories show to what length humans are ready to go when their survival is at stake. Some become nasty, selfish and tend to lose part of their humanity in the process. Some keep their dignity and kindness and do what needs to be done but feel guilty.

Ron Rash describes a tough world where people struggle to survive in a region where the economy was based on the wood industry and coal mines. At Quais du Polar, he explained that people have hard lives and live on and off the land. Their lives are intertwined with the land.

His great aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades, and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk. (Into The Gorge)

In Into The Gorge, Rash describes an old man who wants to harvest ginseng in a place that used to be communal woods, where everyone could help themselves and is now a National Park, where it’s forbidden to pick anything. It’s hard for him to accept that the land where his great aunt had died, where his father had planted ginseng is now off limits. His relationship with the land that provides his living runs deep. He earns enough from his tobacco plot but would like to earn a bit more by selling ginseng, to have a bit of money in case of emergency.

Ron Rash also writes about old beliefs. In the Corpse Bird, an engineer who has trouble sleeping hears an owl at night and he remembers that it is said to be the death bird. When he hears that their young neighbor is suddenly ill, he becomes restless, unable to find logical reasons convince her parents to bring her to the hospital. They think he’s nuts but his unease remains.

Burning Bright is a compelling collection of short stories. Rash’s prose is beautiful and he also writes poetry. He says that he reads his texts aloud to hear how they sound. Each word is valuable and I wish my English was good enough for me to hear everything he put in his words.

Comparisons are always dangerous in literature but these stories reminded me of Annie Proulx’s short stories. They have the same rough edges, the same understanding of the roots of America. The stories are dark but not bleak. They put common people in the spotlight and shows how they cope with what life throws at them.

Highly recommended.

PS: The English cover of Burning Bright goes better with the stories than the French one.

Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke

December 29, 2018 8 comments

Two Stories of Prague: King Bohush and the Siblings by Rainer Maria Rilke (1899) My French edition is Histoires pragoises, suivi de Le Testament. Translated by Maurice Betz, Hélène Zylberberg, Louis Desportes and Philippe Jaccottet.

I have read Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke in French and my edition also includes a translation of another text, Le Testament. (Das Testament in German, I’m not sure that there’s an English translation; I suppose it’d be Legacy) Two Stories were published 1899, Rilke was 24 at the time. Legacy was written much later, abroad, in the winter 1920-1921.

Two Stories of Prague is composed of two related short stories, King Bohush and The Siblings. They are related to Rilke’s youth in Prague, his hometown. They were put together by Rilke himself with this quick introduction:

Ce livre n’est que passé. Son arrière-plan : le pays et l’enfance, tous deux lointains depuis longtemps. Aujourd’hui, je ne l’écrirais pas ainsi, mais je ne l’écrirais pas du tout. Cependant, à l’époque où je l’ai écrit, c’était pour moi une nécessité. Il m’a rendu cher ce que j’avais à demi oublié et il m’en a fait don. Car, de notre passé, nous ne possédons que ce que nous aimons. Et nous voulons posséder tout ce que nous avons vécu. This book is only about the past. Its background: my country and my childhood, both gone for a long time now. Today, I wouldn’t write it that way, but I wouldn’t write it at all. However, at the time I wrote, it was a necessity to me. It made dear to me things I had half forgotten and it made me a gift. Because from our past we only own what we love. And we want to own everything we’ve been through.

I like his introduction, his voice. He’s only 24 and he’s already aware that he’s moved on from his formative years in Prague but he still cherishes his early work. He knows these stories are clumsy but he doesn’t turn his back on them. He owns them as part of his past, a reminder of his younger self.

King Bohush describes how Rezek turned King Bohush, a pacific character of the Prague scene into a political activist who went into underground meetings to promote Czech nationalism. King Bohush opens with a scene at the Café National, actually the Café Slavia. Actors, journalists, students and Czech nationalists met there and discuss art and politics Founded in 1884, Rilke used to meet friends there and this café remained a place for political dissidents as it was also the one where Václav Havel used to spend time in. Poor Bohush is quite flattered to draw Rezek’s attention and he gets sucked into the Czech nationalist movement and forbidden political activities.

The Siblings is also set in Prague. We are with Zdenko and Louisa Wanka who just moved to the city from the country with their mother after their father died unexpectedly. They struggle to make ends meet and their mother works as a domestic in a German speaking household. Zdenko goes to medical school, at the Czech speaking university and Rilke explains that it’s less prestigious than the German speaking one. Zdenko also becomes one of Rezek’s followers and also gets involved in political activities.

The two stories have a lot in common. Set in Prague, the Czech activist Rezek appears in the two stories and both are focused on the division between the German speaking and Czech speaking inhabitants of Bohemia. Rilke explains that Czech-speaking are seen as second-class citizen, that everything German is supposedly better and that the elites of the country are looking west and tend to turn their back to Bohemian folk culture. The German speaking represent 10% of the people of Bohemia but seem to concentrate a lot of wealth and power and they clearly look down on the Czech speaking people. It is quite clear in the offhanded comment the German housewife makes about the Wanka. That part was interesting.

I like The Siblings better, probably because Louisa becomes a more prominent character as the story unfolds. She’s the symbol of the hope of reconciliation between German and Czech speaking Bohemians.

While the stories betray that their writer was a little green in his trade, they are still interesting for the descriptions of Prague and the glimpse of Rilke’s poetic eye and pen.

Les premiers soirs de printemps, l’air est d’une fraîcheur humide qui se pose doucement sur toutes les couleurs et les rend plus lumineuses et plus semblables les unes aux autres. Les claires maisons du quai ont presque toutes pris la teinte pâle du ciel, et seules les fenêtres tressaillent de temps en temps dans une luminosité chaude et, réconciliées, s’éteignent au crépuscule, lorsque le soleil ne les dérange plus. Seule, la tour de Saint-Vit reste encore debout dans son antique et éternelle grisaille.

In the first evenings of Spring, the air has a humid coolness which slowly settles on all the colors and make them brighter and more alike. The light houses on the embankment have almost all taken on the pale shade of the sky. Only the windows still quiver from time to time in a warm light and, reconciled, switch off at dusk when the sun doesn’t bother them anymore. Lonely, the Saint-Vit Tower stands still in its eternal dullness.

(my clumsy translation, sorry Mr Rilke)

Walking around Prague with Boshush and the Wanka siblings make you want to visit Prague and that’s already a success for Rilke’s stories. After all, it was about his hometown and his childhood.

A few words about Legacy. It’s a collection of short texts, drafts of letters written during the 1920-1921 winter. Rilke was staying at the Berg castle near Zurich. The foreword by Ernst Zinn was a riddle impossible to decipher for a non-Rilke specialist. When you need footnotes to a foreword, it’s like a Russian doll game for the reader. Legacy in itself will probably be of some interest for Rilke’s fans who know a lot about his life and wanderings. For philistine readers like me, it was almost impossible to follow because a lot of references were lost on me.

Good news for English speaking readers, it’s no big deal that your edition of Two Stories of Prague doesn’t include Legacy.

For other billets about Rilke’s work see: Au fil de la vieLetters to Lou Andrea SalomeThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young poet.

The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook.

April 16, 2018 13 comments

The Killer Koala – Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook (1986) French title: Le koala tueur et autres histoires du bush. Translated from the English by Mireille Vignol.

I bought The Killer Koala, humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook at the Fête du Livre de Bron and it seemed to be a common collection of short stories published in France. Since I’m reading Australian books this year, it sounded a light and funny read. I wasn’t mistaken, these fifteen short-stories are a wild ride through Australia. Not sure they are good for tourism, though. They might frighten potential visitors.

To write this billet, I tried to find the list of the short stories’ original titles and I discovered that it’s OOP in the English-speaking world and I couldn’t find the table of content of this collection of short stories. So, sorry, I can’t give you the list. If anyone has it, please feel free to post them in a comment below.

Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) is best known for his Noir novel Wake In Fright, a book I’ll read too. The Killer Koala is part of a trilogy of short stories, the other volumes being Wombat Revenge and Frill-Necked Frenzy. He loved the Australian bush and all the stories are related to his supposedly true adventures in the outback. They are too extraordinary to be invented, he said.

I think that all the Australian states and territories have at least one dedicated story. Let’s me see:

  • Queensland, north of Mackay: With poisonous snakes like black snakes and king browns, it’s better not to fall asleep in an aquarium full of them,
  • Northern Territory, near Arnhem: There’s a story featuring the violent sex life of crocodiles and another story is about venomous snakes,
  • Tasmania, Kudulana island and its irate koala that grips you like vise,
  • South Australia, Coober Pedy and its crazy opal miners.
  • New South Wales, near Sydney: another encounter with poisonous snakes,
  • New South Wales, the narrator is at a friend’s farm where he performed a rectal injection on a female elephant,
  • Queensland, Cape York and its deathly crocodiles,
  • Western Australia, in the desert where cunning Aborigines sell camel tours to naïve tourists,
  • South Australia, near Marree: our narrator encounters a strange cat while bringing cattle to the Marree railway station,
  • New South Wales, the Macquarie swamps and its wild boars,
  • Western Australia, near Kalgoorlie and its gold trafficking,
  • Queensland, near Rockhampton, where his crazy dog George keeps bringing him a poisonous snake as a gift,
  • Queensland, Airlie Beach, where he almost drowns when he goes diving in the Great Corral Reef.

After reading these stories, only Victoria seems a safe place to be in Australia. Strangely, there’s no encounter with wandering kangaroos or monstrous spiders or poisonous jelly fishes. They must be too common, I don’t know. Or they’re part of the Wombat Revenge.

Kenneth Cook is the Australian equivalent of Jim Harrison, I think. They both were bon vivant, liked food and alcohol and had the body to prove it. Working out wasn’t their thing. They loved the wilderness in their country, Australia for Cook, the Upper Peninsula for Harrison. Some of the stories also reminded me of Craig Johnson’s Wait For Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories, probably because of the hilarious story involving an owl, a bear, a tourist and a Porta Potty. The three writers share a love for life, a good dose of humanity and a deep respect for the natives.

All along the stories, we see the narrator in dangerous situations, always told with a fantastic sense of humour. This large man who wasn’t in the best shape ends up in situation where he needs to run, walk, flee, swim, crawl or ride a camel to get out of perilous adventures. He’s not as good a gunman as he should be, which endangers him. He’s open and trusting and this leads him to interact with swindlers, nutcases, poachers and other various adventurers. In these stories, he has dubious encounters that almost lead him to disaster. It’s normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything funny and gripping to tell. However, I bet that he also met great people through his travels and thanks to his openness.

When you read The Killer Koala, it’s not surprising that Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in the Australian bush in 1987. If he really lived the way he describes in his short stories, he didn’t treat his body well and pushed it to its limits. I hope he died happy, doing what he loved.

If anyone from Australia has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you want to know what these stories sound like, I found the text of The Killer Koala here.

PS: Funny translation anecdote. I was reading several stories in a row and all involved animals. So, I thought that each story was about a different animal. When I reached the story Cent cannettes, I expected a story about a hundred quills (as ducks or cannette in French) and I read a story about someone drinking a hundred beer bottles (also a cannette in French)!

Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas! Stories to read by the Christmas Tree

December 24, 2017 11 comments

Merry Christmas! Stories to read by the Christmas tree (2015) Original French title: Joyeux Noël ! Histoires à lire au pied du sapin.

This year my seasonal Christmas read was Merry Christmas! Stories to read by the Christmas tree. It’s a slim book that belongs to the Folio 2€ collection, a series of paperback books published by Gallimard with a length and price constraint. They aren’t longer than 120 pages and they cost 2€. I’ve bought several titles from this collection, I find it a good way to discover new writers.

This Joyeux Noël! opus is divided into three sections, Christmas Eve, Christmas day and a memory of Christmas past. Each part opens with a poem and continues with short stories from various authors.

I have to confess that I skipped A Christmas Tree by Dickens (1850) because of the lengthy description of a Christmas tree. There was no breather in the text, barely a paragraph here and there. I enjoyed Les fées by Sylvain Tesson (The Fairies), a short story set in Brittany and about a man whose views on the existence of fairies will be changed during a Christmas night.

Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish by F-S. Fitzgerald (1940) is one of the Pat Hobby short stories that Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire in 1940-1941. In this one, Pat Hobby, a lowly screenwriter in Hollywood tries to blackmail his producer…As always Fitzgerald’s chiseled irony is a gem.

Our Christmas tour takes us to Russia with a poignant tale by Anton Chekov. Aging illiterate parents decide to ask someone in their village to send a letter to their estranged daughter who left to Petersburg with her husband. Then we’re back in France with Marcel Aymé who brought some magic in military barracks during Christmas night. Then Maupassant tells us a story of possession and exorcism that I didn’t enjoy despite his flawless prose.

My favorite one is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. We’re somewhere in the South of the United States in the 1930s. Buddy is seven and his parents don’t know how to relate to him and entertain him. He has a special friend for that, though. She’s a distant cousin who’s in her sixties. She and Buddy prepare Christmas together, scrapping money to make cakes for friends and people they admire (They always send one to Eleanor Roosevelt), decorating a Christmas tree with home-made decorations and making each other a kite as Christmas present. It’s the lovely story of the strong bond between a little boy and an older woman, someone who brings him the affection he needs. To know more about Truman Capote’s Christmas story, have a look at Ali’s post here.

This little book helped me transition from fast-paced work days to this festive time of year. I wish you all a Merry Christmas. I hope you’ll have a good time with friends and family, that you’re doing well and enjoying the holidays.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

August 23, 2017 13 comments

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Columm McCann (2015) French title: Treize façons de voir. Translated by Jean-Luc Piningre.

I am slightly late with this billet as Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann was my Book Club read for…June. I definitely don’t manage the BTW (Billets To Write) pile according to the FIFO method. Thirteen Ways of Looking is made of four stories, the eponymous novella and three short-stories. (What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?, Sh’khol and Treaty)

Let’s start with the novella. The main character is an eighty-two-year-old retired judge from Brooklyn. He’s a widower and he needs a caregiver, Sally because his body now betrays him. His days are made of little rituals and it soon becomes clear that he’s going to die from a violent death. We are in his head, following his musings about his late wife, his quotidian, his career as a judge and all the little humiliations that his failing body imposes on him. I enjoyed that part very much, it reminded me of the depiction of old age in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.

Our body ages quicker than our mind and we often need reminders of our actual age because, inside, we never feel as old as what our ID says. For our protagonist, the mirror seems to lie and reflect a stranger instead of him

He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eye pools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He feels humiliated to need diapers, handlebars and various reminder that his body doesn’t obey to him anymore. And he muses

And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won’t follow? What a wonderful thing it would be to live as a brain for a little while. To be perched in a jar and see it all from there.

A wonderful concept for times when our body takes precedence over everything because it aches or we are sick. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor but it’s hard for him to be old. I would have been happy with following his train of thoughts and revisit his life with him. I was not really interested in the events around his death. He was interesting enough on his own, without the added drama. His quirky mind was enough for me.

All war, any war, the vast human stupidity, Israel, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, all the I’s come to think of it, although at least in Iceland they got it right. Odd that. You never hear a peek of war from Iceland at all, but then again who’d want to be firing bullets over a piece of frozen tundra?

Indeed, who’d want that? Come to think of it, if said tundra has oil below, all bets are off.

The three short stories are very different from one another.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is the story of a novelist who committed to write a short story for Christmas and inspiration deserts him. The story shows the writer turning ideas in his head until he settles on the character of a female soldier who phones her family for Christmas. We follow his creative process and here we have another story about writing. Someday, some writer will be original and decide to write about the technicity and angst of something else. Let’s say bookkeeping. That would be a change.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland. A mother lives with her mute adolescent son in a cottage by the ocean. It’s Christmas, and she got him a wet suit for he loves to swim. She wakes up to find that both he and the wet suit are gone. The story describes the sheer terror of a mother who might lose her only son. This one was difficult to read because as a parent, you can relate and feel in your bones the horrible moments this woman is living.

The one I preferred is Treaty. Beverly is an aging nun. She lives in America now and she struggles to fit in with the other nuns. Beverly –she is never called Sister Beverly, which is a telling detail—smokes and is considered as a rebel. One day, she watches television and sees a man from her past on the screen. We learn that Beverly used to work in South America and had been kidnapped by rebels. She was badly abused, beaten up and raped for months when she was held captive in the jungle. Now the man who used to torture her is on TV because he’s the main negotiator of a peace treaty on behalf of his country. The horrors of her past come back to her but also the difficulty she had to keep on living after she was freed. McCann describes her inner struggles masterfully.

She struggled for so many years with absolution, the depth of her vows, poverty, chastity, obedience. Working with doctors, experts, theologians to unravel what had happened. Every day she went to the chapel to beseech and pray. Hundreds of hours trying to get to the core of it, understand it, pick it apart. Forgiveness for herself first, they told her. In order, then, to forgive him. Without hubris, without false charity. Therapy sessions, physical exams, spiritual direction, prayer. The bembrace of Christ’s agony. The abandonment at the hour. Opening herself to compassion. Trying to put it behind her with the mercy of time. The days slipping by. Small rooms. Long hours. The curtains opening and closing. The disappearance of light. The blackened mirrors. The days spent weeping. The guilt. She sheared her hair. Swept the rosary beads off the bedside table. Took baths fully clothed. No burning bush, no pillar of light. More a pail of acid into which she wanted to dissolve.

We assume that she was better equipped than most to move on but even as a nun and a very pious person, forgiveness is not easy to find. Before being a nun, she’s human and her weakness makes her an engaging character.

Sometimes, writing a billet long after reading a book is a good way to know how much stayed with you. So, verdict for Thirteen Ways of Looking? I remember the novella quite well. Beverly stayed with me but I had absolutely no memories of the two other stories, even the terrifying one with the Irish mother and her missing son.

Although I was impressed by McCann’s impeccable style, I didn’t get on with the stories that much. It probably doesn’t help that I had no knowledge of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, a poem whose verses adorn the chapters of Thirteen Ways of Looking. Like I said, I would have been happy with the old man’s life story and a peaceful death in his bed. And Beverly made a lasting impression. If you have read and reviewed it, don’t hesitate to leave a link to your review in the comments.

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

August 13, 2017 17 comments

Datsunland by Stephen Orr (2017) Not available in French.

I loved The Hands by Stephen Orr so much that when Wakefield Press requested reviewers for Orr’s new collection of short stories, I asked for an advanced copy of Datsunland. And to be honest, it’s hard to write about it. Usually, when I write a billet about a collection of short-stories, I try to find common points between stories but here, I have a hard time finding them, so I’m going to write a billet that sounds like a six-degree-of-separation post, each story leading me to the other. It’ll make you see the variety of the stories.

The stories are set in different countries at different times from the beginning of the 20th century to nowadays. Several involve religious characters and they’re all on a scale going from weird to unbalanced. The Keeping of Miss Mary is about Brother Philipp, a teacher at Lindisfarne College who takes care of Miss Mary in his home. So far so good. Except that Miss Mary has been on a wheelchair since a car accident when she was twelve and nobody knows that she lives with Brother Philipp. He sees her as a challenge since she stopped believing in God after her accident but he’s also attracted to her and he enjoys the companionship, even if it seems one sided. It’s the sad story of a loving man whose religion condemned him to celibacy and who would have loved to have his own family. He found another path to have it and comply with his faith.

The Syphilis Museum is about Bill a fervent Catholic who loves his town, his religion. He first started to save his dying town, Reeves. When a shop closed, Bill bought the premises and founded a museum. This is how the Museum of Pestilence, the Museum of Famine, the Museum of War and the Museum of Syphilis. Getting older and lacking time, he decided to concentrate on the Syphilis Museum and how awful the illness is and how abstinence is the best prevention method. Then Mrs Bly arrives, challenges his speech, pushes him until we discover why it’s such a sensitive topic for her.

Akdak Ghost is about Preacher Fletcher who wants to shoot a video to increase the number of his parishioners. He wants people to find Jesus but the more the filming goes on, the more the reader see that Preacher Fletcher is not as sane as a pastor should be.

And then there’s religion as a political tool, in The Confirmation. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in 1976. A man is coming home from work to son’s Confirmation ceremony when the bus he’s on is ambushed by IRA combatants.

At least two stories portray human cruelty to other and these stayed with me. The Adult World Opera features six-years old Jay, a very lonely child who’s abused by his mother’s boyfriend. It’s always hard for me to read about child abuse of any kind and it was particularly difficult. A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia is a different kind of cruelty. Mark and Susan are on a field trip in Shearwater to visit a dwarf town. A literal dwarf town where little persons run an open-air museum. Susan is terribly ill-a-ease while Mark enjoys himself under the false pretense of compassion. Susan discovers a side of her husband that she never suspected:

But now, now she suspected she’d misread him completely. Compassion, or a forensic fascination? A desire to pin every man onto a foam backing board, watch him wriggle, die, and dry out, write a label that said, ‘Can man’, ‘Aborigine’, ‘Dwarf’. To close the box and forget, knowing he’d made some attempt to understand, but really just to observe, to know, to control.

This is not the only one showing how spouses can be estranged. In Guarding the Pageant, Sam left his safe job to chase his dream and be a writer. His wife never expected this and their marriage went south. The story tells us what happened to his dream. How much do you know your spouse? What should you sacrifice, your dreams or your current life? In The Barmerva Drive-in, Trevor chose to go after his dream and restore an old drive-in.

Three stories have themes that reminded me of The Hands. The Shot-put mentions the episode of the cowards’ lists that the Australian government published after WWI. They were lists of deserters and what a shame it was to have your son on the list. The Shack is the story of an old man, dying from lung disease and who wonders what will happen to his mentally handicapped son after he’s gone. The Photographer’s Son is set in a rural area and Adrian is told some of the family’s secrets.

Life in the outback is the main topic of Dr Singh’s Despair, the story of an Indian doctor who traveled from India to take a medical position in the Australian outback. Dr Sevanand Singh is not prepared for what’s ahead of him. Nobody’s at the airport to welcome him, his accommodation is not exactly ready. Mark, a local guy tries to make him understand the local way-of -life.

And with these few words Mark Ash knew that Sevanand was not the one. He could already guess how long he’d last – four, five, maybe six months. ‘Listen, Dr Singh, Sevanand,’ he said, ‘up here you gotta take things as they come. It’s bush time. You know? Outback time. Like the black fellas. Doesn’t bother them if it takes six months to change a tyre. A year, ten years, so what? Get what I mean?’ Sevanand tried to smile. ‘And people enjoy their sex?’ Ash slapped his knee and laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s how you wanna be.’ ‘Flexible?’ ‘That’s one way, eh?’ And he broke up laughing. ‘Beer?’ ‘Plenty of beer.’ ‘And humour?’ Ash stopped. ‘That, my friend, is the most important thing of all.’ ‘So, I wait for my room? In the meantime?’ And smiled. ‘A few nights’ kip? I’ve got the perfect place.’

Dr Singh is used to more respect and this is not what he signed up for. Will he be able to adapt?

Datsunland is the longest and probably the best story of the collection. Charlie Price is 14, a student at Lindisfarne College when William Dutton is hired as a music teacher. Charlie has lost his mom to cancer, William never made it as a rock star. Somewhere, they’ll find common ground thanks to rock and blues and become friends, beyond the age difference. William is an adult Charlie feels comfortable with, probably because he’s not settled. He’s still chasing his adolescent dream of being in a band and making a living with music. He doesn’t have a wife and children. William recognizes Charlie’s talent but also his pain. But in a traditional small town, teacher and student can’t be friends. Like in The Hands, Stephen Orr has a knack for being in a young boy’s head and Charlie sounds real. And it raises a valid question: are we so focused on risks of child molestation that we can’t imagine that a child might find a mentor in a teacher and that sometimes, it’s important to have another adult figure in your life than the ones in your family?

I enjoyed Orr’s collection of short stories very much. Some stories were poignant and several were dark, much darker than I expected. Of course, for me, there’s also the exoticism of Australia. Outdoor pageants for Christmas because it’s summer time. Odd words like kranksies and ute. The wilderness of the outback. Some remnant of British culture with Lindisfarne College.

You can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, Datsunland.

Many thanks to Wakefield Press for sending me an ARC of Datsunland. Sorry it took me so long to write this billet.

PS: Sorry French readers, this is not available in French.

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson

August 3, 2017 7 comments

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson (2014) Not really available in French.

Wait for Signs is peculiar collection of short stories by Craig Johnson. They all feature the characters of Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, about a rural sheriff in Wyoming. These stories are snapshots of Longmire’s life as a sheriff but also as a man. My favorite ones are Old Indian Trick, Messenger and Divorce Horse.

In Old Indian Trick, Longmire is driving his Cheyenne friend Lonnie Little Bird to the hospital for a check-up. On the way, they stop at a restaurant for coffee and arrived just after it’s been robbed. Switching into sheriff mode, Longmire starts investigating the case. At some point, his friend tells him who the culprit is and where he lives. After Travis the thief is under arrest, Longmire asks his friend how he knew and if it was an old Indian trick. Lonnie shrugs and Longmire realizes that Travis is so stupid that he filled in an application form before robbing the restaurant and gave accurate contact information. As Longmire points out if you sat a bag of groceries next to Travis, the groceries would get into Stanford before he would, something that the French translator translated into “si on posait un panier de légumes à côté de Travis, les légumes arriveraient à Stanford avant lui. Please note that in French, a bag of groceries (literally, “un sac de provisions”) becomes un panier de légumes. (A basket of vetegables) It means a lot about French eating habits, I think.

For me, Messenger is the funniest story of the collection. Longmire, his Cheyenne best friend Henry The Bear and his deputy Vic are on their way back from a fishing trip. They intercept a message on the radio. It comes from a local ranger, Chuck, who’s asking for help: he’s in such a dangerous situation that he’ll soon have to use his gun. Longmire drives up to Crazy Woman Canyon, a spot in the Big Horn Mountains, where they find Chuck and Andrea Napier, a tourist from California. Both are stuck on the roof of a Porta Potty, surrounded by a bear and her cubs since Ms Napier had fed the bears with popcorn. Despite the situation, Longmire and his friends can’t help cracking jokes and see the funny side of moment:

It was really unfair to call it a Porta Potty. It was actually much more than that—what they call in the literature a self-contained, freestanding restroom facility. It sat on a concrete pad and was made of heavy wood with a lower foundation of masonry and river rock. With a short overhang and shallow shingled roof, it must’ve been a chore to climb onto.

Longmire convinces Henry to change their fishing loot into treats for the bears. While Henry diverts the bears’ attention with fresh fish, Longmire and Vic help Chuck and Ms Natier out.

Then the tourist explains that something hit her bottom when she was using the facilities and that it freaked her out. Longmire is skeptical but eventually discovers that there’s an owl stuck into the toilet. He’s about to shoot it when Henry comes back and explains that the Cheyenne believe that owls are messengers of the dead and that they bring word from worlds beyond. Therefore, the owl must be saved. This is how Vic ends up head first in the toilet to catch the owl with Longmire and Henry holding her by her feet.

Anyone who’s ever seen the kind of restroom they have in American National Parks can imagine the scene and the stench. Johnson’s description is very cinematographic and always laced with his humorous undertone. I imagined the scene perfectly and as always you can feel that this writer knows his settings. He lives in Wyoming, he knows the place and I’d love to know how much he invented int his story and how much he borrowed to the local newspaper. I suspect that the Californian tourist stuck on the Porta Potty roof after feeding the bears with popcorn is a true story.

Divorce Horse is set during a pow-wow. Tommy Jefferson, a participant to the horse races complains that the horse that the sheriff department has nicknamed Divorce Horse has been stolen. Tommy was married to Lisa and she asked for a divorce because he spent more time taking care of his horses than her. It was a nasty divorce, Tommy kept on calling her and the sheriff department got involved. Now Lisa is back in town and Divorce Horse has been stolen. What happens with the horse, Tommy and Lisa holds the story together but the most interesting part of the story is the description of the pow-wow, of the horse races and of the weather.

The weekend had been blessed with three memorable spring evenings where you could smell the grass in the pastureland, and the sagebrush and cottonwoods that had been holding their breath since October gasped back to life. The cool of the evening was just starting to creep down from the mountains, but it was still T-shirt weather, if long-sleeve T-shirt weather.

Again, we can hear that the writer himself belongs here, that he’s more than familiar with Wyoming.

Among the nine other stories, two feature Longmire and his grief over his wife’s death. The other stories are encounters with strangers, fleeting moments in Longmire’s life.

I have also read An Old Indian Trick and Divorce Horse in French because Gallmeister, Johnson’s French publisher gave them as gifts. Sophie Aslanides is Craig Johnson’s translator for French readers. She’s excellent. She knows him, she spent time at his ranch and you can feel it in the fine tuning of her translations. Craig Johnson sounds the same in French and in English. She managed to translate his Americanisms into French. For example, Yep becomes Ouaip. It’s the same level of language, the same tune, it’s fantastic. Here’s an example:

After a moment, a weedy looking young woman came to the door and looked at me. She did not open the screen and had the look of someone who had taken life on early, made some bad choices, and had gotten her ass kicked.

Au bout d’un moment, une jeune femme malingre apparut et me regarda. Elle n’ouvrit pas la porte. Elle donnait l’impression d’avoir commencé à vivre très tôt, d’avoir fait les mauvais choix et de s’en être mordu les doigts.

I suppose that this collection of stories will mostly interest the readers of the series. It’s like making a phone call to a friend to hear how he’s doing. I imagine that fans of Commissaire Adamsberg or Chief Inspector Gamache will understand the appeal. We share glimpses of Longmire’s quotidian. It introduces us to the everyday life of a rural sheriff. He doesn’t face a lot of pure violence but he ends up meeting all kind of people:

“I’m serious, Sheriff. She says she’s supposed to meet Him. Here. Today.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “Jesus?” “Yes.” “Jesus.” I sighed, glancing around trying not to cast aspersions, but it was hard. “Returning after two thousand years and He chooses the Sinclair station in Powder Junction, Wyoming?” “Apparently.”

The stories give us clues about Longmire’s personality. Johnson’s tales are always full of humanity, spiced up with a good sense of humor and a strong sense of place. A nice and comforting read.

PS: For French readers. This collection is not available in French, per se. However, it is easy to read in English.

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 15 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

What ladies like by Voltaire

October 16, 2016 9 comments

What ladies like by Voltaire (1694 – 1778) Texts from 1715 to 1775. French title: Ce qui plait aux dames.

Il n’est jamais de mal en bonne compagnie. Nothing is evil when in good company

And with Voltaire, we’re always in good company.

voltaire_damesI’m not sure that this collection of tales by Voltaire has its English equivalent. It’s probable that all the texts gathered in Ce qui plait aux dames have been translated into English and published somewhere. This collection is split in three parts. The first one includes early texts from 1715 to 1724. The second one corresponds to the Guillaume Vadé’s fictional stories and dates back to 1764. The third one assembles texts from 1772 to 1775.

All the stories are related to love and relationships between men and women. But Voltaire wouldn’t be Voltaire if he didn’t sprinkle philosophical thoughts here and there or throw literary punches to princes, priests and iconic writers. These pieces are sometimes in prose but often in verses. (decasyllable, octosyllable and alexandrines). They are set in Rome, in the Middle Ages or Ancient Greece. Greek and Roman gods are frequent participants to the stories. Voltaire drew his inspiration from Chaucer, Ovid or Lafontaine.

I enjoyed the earliest texts the most. They are the most irreverent. They attack all forms of power, the ruling class, the church and the elites. He doesn’t shoot at them with heavy artillery. No. He makes dents with accidental bumps, scrapes in passing near a vehicle of power. His tone is laced with irony and he even makes fun of himself. He promotes freedom and is a definite libertarian. To me his tone is like vitamin D. I want to bask in his sun to soak it in. He makes me laugh and I love his witty piques. He points out inconsistencies of church representatives and confronts them. A lot of allusions were obvious to his contemporaries and he mocks people who pretend to impose their views to others.

Several tales show to the reader that people would be happier if they appreciated what they had instead of always wishing for more. And it’s not just about material goods. It’s also about affection. A man says to his demanding lover:

Et si vous voulez posséder

Ma tendresse avec ma personne

Gardez de jamais demander

Au-delà de ce que je donne.

And if you want to own

My tenderness with myself,

Hold off asking for

More than I’m ready to give.

All the stories celebrate love and lust. They aren’t as graphic as the book cover suggests. They glorify the right to love whomever one’s want, the right to fall in love and out of love. Voltaire tells us we should be free to choose our partner and that princes and priests shouldn’t have their say in our decision.

I preferred the earlier texts because they were lighter on the metaphors. I find the endless references to Greek or Romans mythology tedious. I get the allusions but they weigh on Voltaire’s prose. It feels stuffy.

The Guillaume Vadé section includes Ce qui plait aux dames, the story eponymous to the book. It’s based upon The Wife of Bath, her Tale by Chaucer. According to Voltaire, what ladies want is to be the sole mistress of their household. Despite Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire cannot imagine that what women want is equality. Pure and simple but oh so complicated to get.

 

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 16 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

Sicily2

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 14 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)

 

Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.

 

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)

 

A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

 

In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

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