Archive

Archive for the ‘British Literature’ Category

20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

August 30, 2020 20 comments

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1938) French title: Adieu à Berlin. Translated by Ludmila Savitsky

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was published in 1938. It is composed of six pieces set in pre-WWII Berlin. They are in chronological order and feature characters that overlap from one piece to the other. The narrator is named after the author, but he claims in the foreword that there’s nothing to read into it and that “’Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”. I’ll call him the Narrator, to avoid any confusion between the writer and his literary doppelganger.

Goodbye to Berlin opens with A Berlin Diary – Autumn 1930 and ends with A Berlin Diary – Winter 1932-3. A contemporary reader immediately knows that the Narrator will picture Berlin during crucial years, the ones when the Nazis took power. Between these two bookends, we’ll spend some time with Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers and spend the summer 1931 On Ruegen Island with the Narrator.

We get to meet with Berliners in one of those boarding houses that were so frequent in those times. Frl. Schroeder rents rooms in her flat to survive and the Narrator lives there while he supports himself by giving English lessons. He stays there the whole time, except when, broke, he moves in with the Nowaks, a working-class family. While I didn’t care much about Sally Bowles, I was interested in the Nowaks. It gives a good picture of the struggling working class of the city. The part about the Landauers, a Jewish family who owns a famous department store in Berlin, was engaging too. (For the record, the store already has an inhouse nursery to watch the children while their mothers are shopping.)

Isherwood doesn’t write an openly political novel but his description of life in Berlin is a vivid picture of a city that slowly shift from free and impoverished to ruled and controlled by the Nazis. With light touches, the reader feels things change around the Narrator. His students’ type changes: at first, we see him giving lessons to bored upper-class housewives and in the last winter, he teaches English to Germans who want to leave their country and work in the USA.

Unemployment is going up. Bobby, another of Frl. Schroeder’s boarders goes from occasionally working to unemployed. The Nowaks live in a squalid attic, one that regulations declare unfit for accommodation but do they have a choice? Banks go bankrupt, factories close, the price of food goes up. There’s no clear focus on this, details here and there alert the reader and it’s up to them to put the pieces together to have a clear picture.

The more the book progresses, the more the presence of the Nazis and S.A. men makes itself known. It starts with flags and militants. It ends with beatings on the streets, arrests, book burning and Hitler taking power. The night life goes from wild and free to interrupted by police raid in cafés and cabarets. The attacks against the Jews progress, get more and more violent until it is pure persecution.

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to any new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fürher’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

The Narrator is in a unique position. He lives in Berlin and shares the population’s way-of-life. He’s protected by the safety bubble of his British nationality but at the same time, he’s not there as a newspaper correspondent. He belongs to the Berliner people and is an outsider.

Goodbye to Berlin is the Narrator’s farewell to a city he spent time in and had to leave due to the political circumstances. It’s also his adieu to a certain Berlin, the fun one where he sowed his wild oats. His book is disquieting, especially in the times we’re living. What would I do, if I were in Frl. Schroeder’s shoes? Do we, common people, see dictators coming before it’s too late?

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 26 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

#1920Club. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie – how you can hear French in Poirot’s English

April 15, 2020 25 comments

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920). French title: La mystérieuse affaire de Styles.

This time I was received with a smile. Monsieur Poirot was within. Would I mount? I mounted accordingly.

When I heard again about the #1920Club hosted by Simon, I decided to read The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie. I have fond memories of binge reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. I borrowed her books in French at the library and they were all in the collection Le Masque. I’ve always been fond of detective stories. In primary school I read a lot of Famous Five, Nancy Drew or Fantômette. I guess that Agatha Christie was the next step.

It’s been years since I’ve last read a book by her and I’d never read one featuring Hercule Poirot in the original and what a delight it was.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles is the first book with Hercule Poirot as a detective. Set in a rich country house in Essex during WWI, old Emily Inglethorp dies in her room from strychnine poisoning. We have the usual setting of such stories: the lady had just remarried to Alfred Inglethorp who is twenty years her junior. Her stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, live with her and hate her new husband. She also has a young protégée, Cynthia. Hastings is friends with John and has arrived at the estate for a few weeks of R&R.

Poirot, a former detective from the Beligan police is living in the village near Styles. He’s a refugee from the war and is delighted to meet Hastings again. They will investigate the murder and give a hand to Scotland Yard when Inspector Japp arrives to take charge of the case.

I will not get into the plot as it’s the usual Agatha Christie book and we’ve all read some. I found Hastings delightful with his naïve and overdeveloped ego, he has such a refreshing voice.

The setting is the usual lovely English countryside where people’s main hobby is walking in the woods. I’ve never seen so many characters having walks than in English literature, it’s like a national sport.

We also hear the tone of other books of that time, the Downtown Abbey comments about faithful servants and the uncomfortable little remarks about foreigners and Jews.

For this reader, the best thing about The Mysterious Affair At Styles was discovering Poirot in the original instead of reading him in French translation. Poirot uses a lot of French words in his English like Pouf!, Voilà, mon ami, Voyons!, A merveille!. He swears like Captain Haddock in Tintin (Milles tonnerres!), not that I’ve ever heard this insult in real life. He makes little grammar mistakes like using his instead of its, a common thing for French people because there is no neutral gender in French. The reader can’t forget he’s a foreigner.

Poirot speaks English like a French native and makes delightful errors, even funnier for me who heard the French behind his English sentences. Let’s see:

Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me. Poirot uses Permit me instead of Allow me because in French it would be Permettez.

I comprehend perfectly. instead I understand perfectly, a literal translation of Je comprends parfaitement a natural way to speak for a French speaker.

A little minute,(…) I come is the direct translation of the French, Une petite minute, j’arrive. One of the most difficult step in speaking another language is to know how things are said. In English, you’d say something like Give me a minute, I’ll be down soon, which is not the French way to express this.

Deciphering when to use little or small, forgetting to add down, off, up, etc. after verbs and understanding when to use the present continuous are common difficulties for French speakers who learn how to speak English.

You are annoyed, is it not so? brought me back to the classroom and the endless lessons about how to conjugate the equivalent of the French invariable n’est-ce pas? (literally is it not so?)

My favourite Frenchism remains the incomparable I will mount to my room, literally Je vais monter dans ma chambre.

To be fair, Agatha Christie also shows what happens when an Englishman tries to use a French word. When I read Me and Moosier here have met before, it took me a few seconds to understand that Moosier was Monsieur, as I had no clue of how an English native would pronounce Monsieur!

Many thanks to Kaggsy for reminding me of this blogging event, I had a great time with The Mysterious Affair At Styles and reading Poirot made me chuckle many times.

 

Gone to Ground by John Harvey – Crime fiction, cinema and urban violence

March 27, 2020 6 comments

Gone to Ground by John Harvey (2007) French title: Traquer les ombres. Translated by Mathilde Martin.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey is a crime fiction novel set in Cambridge and Nottingham. I didn’t know this writer and bought it at Quais du Polar, attracted by the cover and the publisher. (You can’t go wrong with Rivages Noir) After a quick read of his biography on Wikipedia, I see that John Harvay has written more that 100 books and his best known for his Charlie Resnick series. Have you ever read this series? Is it good?

Gone to Ground is a standalone novel, though. In this one,  Inspector Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker have to investigate the murder of Stephen Bryan. His murderer beat him to death in his bathroom. There’s no trace of someone breaking in. Grayson and Walker will follow several leads at the same time. Bryan was gay and had just broken up with his last partner, Mark. Is it a homophobic crime? Did Mark not take the breakup well and kill Stephen?

Is it work related? Indeed, Stephen was working on the biography of Stella Leonard. She died in the 1930s and belonged to a rich and powerful family. They don’t want to hear about this bio. Is there something to hide in Stella’s past?

We follow the investigation as the two inspectors try to find out what happened to Stephen Bryan. I have to say that I didn’t expect the ending. Harvey knows Cambridge and Nottingham pretty well and Gone to Ground has a good sense of place. The writing is fluid, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.

The police team is a bit too staged, in my opinion. The contrast between Will Grayson and Helen Walker is convenient to feed the narration. Grayson is married to Lorraine and they have two children, a toddler and a baby. They have just moved out of the city to live in a house and the commute weighs on Grayson’s days. Helen Walker is single, lives in the city and has a complicated love life. The two have a solid friendship, though and manage to have real discussions.

To be honest, Grayson’s misogynistic side annoyed me. We’re in 2007 and he’s fighting with his wife because she wants to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children? I wanted to tell him “If you think it’s so enviable, why don’t YOU be a stay-at-home father and your wife will have her career?” Helen sides with Lorraine and talks him into accepting the idea that his wife will go back to work. Thanks Helen, for getting through to him.

Despite this minor annoying trait, Gone to Ground was entertaining, a good story to take your mind off something else and we seem to be in dire need of this kind of books now.

PS: I include the covers of the French and English versions of the book. Same book, totally different vibe. Both are accurate. The French one puts the stress on the cinema thread, the story about Stella, the 1930s actress. The English one shows the homophobic violence in Nottingham, which is another side of the story. I find the difference between the two editions absolutely fascinating and I wonder what made each publisher choose this cover instead of another one.

PPS: John Harvey is British, I wonder why it’s written ‘translated from the American’ in my book, just like I wonder how Folio could write on the back cover of The Guards (upcoming billet), that its author Ken Bruen, an Irishman from Galway, is one the most talented British writer of his generation. *sigh*

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2014) French title: Funny Girl. Translated by Christine Barbaste

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby opens on a pageant contest in Blackpool, UK. We are in the early 60s and Barbara Parker becomes Miss Blackpool. She ended up in this competition after her aunt suggested it. As soon as Barbara realizes that being Miss Blackpool means a whole year of service as a ribbon cutter to the city of Blackpool, she steps out and refuses her title.

Barbara is a fan of I Love Lucy and she wants to be like Lucille Ball, to make people laugh. She leaves Blackpool to go to London and becomes Sophie Straw. Her agent helps her find auditions even if he thinks she has better chances as a model than as an actress.

One of her auditions takes her to the BBC where the director Dennis Maxwell-Bishop is looking for an actress for a new TV show. The screenwriters are the duo Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner who were successful with a previous radio show. Clive Richardson will play the male character of this new venture, a sitcom about a couple and their domestic life. Tony and Bill struggle with the scenario, they cannot make the characters sound genuine.

Sophie arrives for the audition and boldly challenges them. She has charisma, a mix of innocence and ambition. She’s a natural comic. Her personality and suggestions are inspiring to Bill and Tony. The four of them make a great team, their working together boosts their creativity.

The adventure of the TV series Barbara (and Jim) can start.

Funny Girl is centered around Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill’s lives. Clive is present too, but not as much as the others.

Tony and Bill are both homosexual. They met after they were caught by the police as it was still a criminal offense at the time.  Tony chooses security, marries June and lives a middle-class life. Bill remains true to himself and is involved with the London gay scene.

Dennis is married to Edith, who works for a publisher. She’s at ease with the literary world and her friends have no respect for Dennis’s job. It creates frictions in their couple.

Barbara/Sophie loves her job and her life. Hornby created a lively character, class-conscious and hardworking. Success doesn’t change her. Sure, she can afford a different lifestyle but she never becomes snotty. She’s a very loveable character who learns to navigate in her new environment.

We follow the seasons of Barbara (and Jim) and they give rhythm to the characters’ lives. Nick Hornby ambitions to bring back London in the 60s, the change in the British society and how it is reflected in TV shows. It’s a quick and entertaining read about a turning point in the country: more personal freedom, first commercial TV, end of criminalization of homosexuality, music…It’s also the clash between “classic culture” and “pop culture”, with intellectual looking down on TV producers and even more on comedy shows. Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill belong to the pioneers of television series, a genre that is currently thriving.

I imagine that if you’re British and old enough to have known that time, it must be a wonderful trip down memory lane. For me, it was a fun read but nothing more.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent – The Famous Five in the corporate world

December 10, 2019 9 comments

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent. (2018) French title: Le Club des Cinq part en séminaire. Translated and adapted by Anne-Laure Estèves.

I belong to a generation who fell in love with crime fiction by reading The Famous Five (in French, Le Club des Cinq), Nancy Drew (in French, Alice), Fantômette, a French series with a female super-hero, The Secret Seven (in French, Le Clan des Sept) and Les Six Compagnons, a French series set in Lyon. I remember devouring these books and requesting frequent trips to the library.

These are wonderful reading memories, books that led me to Agatha Christie and many other crime fiction writers.

So, when I saw Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, just before going to one of those myself, I couldn’t resist the impulse to discover how the Famous Five would deal with modern management techniques. It’s a small vintage publication that plays well on the nostalgia felt by readers like me. They replicated the original feel of the covers, the illustrations inside. The translation technique is the same as well: everything is adapted to the French setting, the theme song, the metro and train rides, the food. That’s what translators used to do and sometimes not only for children literature.

Our five friends Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timothy (respectively in French, François, Claude, Mick, Annie and Dagobert) work for the same firm –well, not Timmy, obviously—and are going on a strategy away day. They go to Normandy, in a remote farm and are welcome by consultants who are going to manage the various activities of the day. We found there all the common team building techniques that everyone working in the corporate world at a management position has experienced. The relaxation consultant, the blind-you-teammate-and-make-them-reach-point-A-to-point-B-without-bumping-into-objects, the post-its moments to note down ideas, the personality tests whose result will help you know who you are and help you communicate efficiently with colleagues and team members and the inevitable race in the woods to bring flags home.

All of it is described quickly and accurately as we see our childhood fictional friends navigate the corporate sea. It’s not the book of the year but it’s a nice journey-into-the past experience laced with a healthy dose of self-mockery. It reminds you that management techniques are useful but one needs to keep their critical mind and use them wisely.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

April 7, 2019 40 comments

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

Theatre : a crime fiction vaudeville and a musical fantasy

February 24, 2019 8 comments

I just love going to the theatre. There’s something incredible about seeing actors perform live and imagine all the practice, constant organization and talent to direct a play and be on stage night after night. I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon but I also go to other theatres when I have the chance.

 

I had the opportunity to go to Paris and stay a night. I booked a seat at the Théâtre Le Palace to go and see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. (2016) translated into French as Le gros diamant du Prince Ludwig. This comedy originally created in London won the Molière prize for Best Comedy in 2018.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a crime-fiction vaudeville. Yes, this genre exists. Its playwrights have also written The Play That Goes Wrong, a disaster whodunnit I had the pleasure to see at the Théâtre Saint-Georges, also in Paris. At the time, it helped me realize what a well-oiled machine a theatre play must be.

Set in Minneapolis in 1958, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery has a rather simple plot. The Prince Ludwig of Hungary is coming to Minneapolis to retrieve the big diamond he left in the custody of the city’s bank. The perspective of this huge diamond whets the appetite of the local criminals, confirmed or amateur. Take Mitch, who escapes from prison with Cooper in order to steal this priceless diamond. His first stop in Minneapolis is for his lover Caprice, the daughter of the bank’s director. She’s a crook who lives off her charms, not as a hooker but more as a kept woman. When Mitch arrives, she had just sunk her claws into a new prey, Dave. He’s a lowly pick-pocket whose mother Ruth works as a teller at the bank but she thinks he’s rich and has a bright future.

Imagine a play where Dalton-like characters try to rob a bank. Ruth looks like a provincial Marylin Monroe. She and Caprice are the femmes fatales of the play, Ruth using of her charms on the bank security team and Caprice manipulating Mitch, Dave and her father’s long-life intern.

The whole thing is farcical with all the usual tricks of a laugh-out-loud comedy. The production was innovative, especially for the scene where Mitch, Cooper, Caprice and Dave are in the ventilation ducts, trying to find out where the strongroom is. It’s fast-paced, funny, full of mistaken identities and people hiding in faulty fold-up beds and cupboards. It respects the codes of crime fiction with the guy embarked in criminal activities for the sake of a woman (Dave), a hardened criminal on the run, ready for anything except failure and going back to jail. (Mitch) The parallel work of two femme fatales from two different generations, middle-aged Ruth and young Caprice, keeps the action going. You never get bored with this entertaining play, its twists and turns and characters that are so stupid that they are hilarious.

Highly recommended if you’re looking for an evening of fun. It’s still on at the Théâtre Le Palace in Paris and it’s on tour in Ireland and the UK. It’s appropriate for children too.

The week after, I booked seats to see Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat by and with Ivan Gouillon, produced by the Théâtre Comédie Odéon in Lyon. (I looked it up, there are more than fifty theatres in the Lyon area).

According to its program, Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat is a musical fantasy. Accompanied by a pianist, Igor the Magnificent tells his story as an artist on transatlantic cruises, starting with how he survived the Titanic shipwreck. Our mythomaniac but friendly narrator takes us through the twentieth century, mentioning Proust, Churchill, Fitzgerald and others. He seems to have survived all the great shipwrecks of the century, befriended people who became famous and unintentionally inspired masterpieces and political events. I bet you didn’t know that The Great Gatsby was meant to be The Great Igor but since Igor and Fitzgerald had fall-out, Fitzgerald eventually changed the character’s name. The whole show is like this, taking us down memory lane with a pleasant character who obviously lies but is still charming. There are a lot of famous songs in the show illustrating the times Igor is telling us about. They are standards the public knows well and we spend quite a pleasant evening in Igor’s company. He’s a cabaret artist, mixing singing and comedy.

It’s a feel-good show. Igor’s story is unrealistic and his adventures are deliciously farfetched. He’s probably nothing more than a bathroom singer who dreams a little too much. But he takes us with him on this fanciful journey, leaving our worried at the theatre door to sing along with him.

Next theatre episode will be: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

April 14, 2018 31 comments

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for exampla that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polsih of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah & Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

November 24, 2017 19 comments

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014) // Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James. (2011)

I usually don’t write about two books in the same billet but this time I’ll make an exception for these two crime fiction novels that I’d qualify as fan fiction books. I’m not particularly attracted to ersatz of classics or spin offs. I received The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah with my subscription to Quais du Polar and I put it on the shelf, not particularly attracted to this new investigation featuring Hercule Poirot, even if it’s been published with the consent of Agatha Christie’s heirs. I got tempted by Death Comes to Pemberley because it was written by PD James and I thought there was enough sass and wits in Elizabeth Bennet to change her into a funky amateur sleuth.

How wrong I was.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah turned up to be an easy and rather pleasurable read. Hercule Poirot is hiding in a boarding house in London to make everyone believe he left the country. He wants some rest but also some familiarity and decided to play tourist in London. In his lodgings, he gets acquainted to Inspector Catchpool, a young policeman from Scotland Yard. When a peculiar triple murder is committed in the hotel Bloxham, Catchpool is overwhelmed by the investigation and Poirot offers his services. Follows a typical whodunnit plot.

Now Death Comes to Pemberley. *rolling my eyes and smacking my forehead* What was PD James thinking when she wrote this?

We’re at the eve of Pemberley’s great ball when Lydia arrives in a rush and cries that Wickham and his friend Denny disappeared in the woods and that she heard the sound of bullets. She’s hysterical and Darcy, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam brave the night and the wind to go and find Wickham and his friend. When they arrive on the scene, they discover that Denny is dead and Wickham is prostrated on his friend’s body and repeats that he killed him. Now, what really happened in these dark and hunted woods? I bet you’re dying to…read something else. And you would be right.

While The Monogram Murders was pleasant read, Death Comes to Pemberley was totally ridiculous. Elizabeth Bennet must have been brainwashed on her wedding day. She lost all her spirit and her sparks to become a dull and dutiful mother and wife. Yuck. A loving doormat in admiration with her husband, that’s what she is. She has the psychological depth of a moth, Darcy sounds like a carpet, if carpets could talk. The book is peppered with unnecessary reminders of the original story, as if this could have other readers than Jane Austen’s fans.

These two books have something in common though: none of them manages to recreate the magic of the originals. They lack of warmth, they’re not realistic. The Monogram Murders doesn’t bring you back to the London of Agatha Christie’s time. And Hercule Poirot is not smug enough. I missed the slightly outdated tone of Agatha Christie’s novels, this special tone that sends you back to a time when boarding houses were common. Sophie Hannah resuscitated a passable Poirot, but you couldn’t mix him up with the original if you were reading this blindly, without knowing the writer’s name. And Death Comes to Pemberley kills more than Denny, it kills the original characters and morphs them into weak and sad puppets. Lizzie had the potential to be a fantastic sleuth, exasperating her husband by playing amateur detective and breaking out of social conventions. What a disappointment! And I will spare you the mawkish passages about her and Darcy’s marital bliss. Gag. Poor, poor Jane Austen! This is not crime fiction, it’s a crime against fiction.

The good news is your TBR is not going to grow after reading my billet. Count your blessings. We should just reread Pride and Prejudice.

%d bloggers like this: