Archive

Archive for the ‘British Literature’ Category

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 13 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

June 12, 2021 35 comments

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017) French title: Eleanor Oliphant va très bien. Translated by Aline Azoulay-Pacvoň

With June starts my 20 Books of Summer challenge and what do I do? Read a book that is not on the list. Oh well, Cathy said we could switch some books.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman came in my Kube box for June. It sounded like an easy read and what I needed when I collapse on the couch after a challenging day at work. It fit the easy bill, no worries about that. For the rest… See by yourself.

Eleanor Oliphant is a young woman who lives in self isolation and like a robot. Go to work from Monday to Friday, have a weekly chat with mother, spend the weekend alone, drink some vodka, read books, do housework, rinse, repeat. She’s an introvert, avoids contact with people and doesn’t interact with her colleagues. When she does, she tends to speak her mind and disregard social conventions.

Two things happen at the same time and derail her life from her routine.

She wins concert tickets in a raffle in the office and asks her colleague Billy to go with her. They go and she develops an instant crush on Johnny Lomond, the lead singer of the local band who was playing that night. Eleanor is now convinced he’s her HEA and that she needs to metamorphose into a “normal” woman to be ready when he’ll notice her and obviously fall for her.

Then her computer breaks down and Raymond, the new IT guy in the office, comes to fix it. That day, she stumbles upon Raymond after work, they are walking together on the street when an old man collapses on the pavement. They rescue him and this leads them into a tentative friendship.

Eleanor is weighed down by a personal tragedy that is slowly unveiled as the story progresses. She’s opening up to life and other people, driven by her crush and pushed by Raymond who tricks her into attending social events.

I guess it’s supposed to be a feel-good novel about how much we need other people in our lives, how loneliness is not a life sentence if we make efforts and how we bloom under other humans’ love and friendship. You know, a book full of pearls of wisdom.

Actually, I thought it was a whole necklace of pearls of clichés.

The characters’ jobs cliché: Socially inapt Eleanor is an accountant and awkward Raymond is IT support staff. As a CFO, in the name of the different teams of accountants I managed along the years, I resent the stupid cliché of the mousy female accountant who loves numbers more than people because they are safe. And not all IT people are nerds who spend time at their mom’s and dress poorly.

The socially inapt character. Eleanor aims to be like Grace in Addition by Toni Jordan or like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion She doesn’t know how to behave in pubs, at concerts, at weddings… She has no filter… Her colleagues think she’s weird…

The terrible secret. Eleanor has survived a personal drama that shaped up her whole life. She’s a survivor and built her coping mechanisms. Now is time to stop coping, go to the shrink and start living.

The lives-under-a-rock cliché. Eleanor lives in downtown Glasgow, goes to work every day in public transports, shops at Tesco and reads a newspaper daily. And yet she sounds like she’s been dropped from the planet Mars. She’s clueless about almost everything. How is that possible? We are surrounded by information, even when you don’t care about something, you know about it if it’s popular enough. Think of football. You can’t help knowing the names of players or of the national team coach.

The makeover cliché. To conquer her rock singer, Eleanor reads women magazines, goes to the hairdresser and has her long hair cut, gets her nails done and goes to the beautician for a waxing.

The you-don’t-see-what-under-you-nose cliché. Actually, Eleanor’s colleagues really like her, Raymond wants to be more than a friend and she’s more loveable than she thinks.

You get the drift.

I finished it because I was tired, it didn’t require a lot of brain power and it was pleasant enough. I understand why readers find it uplifting but I thought it was clichéed and implausible. Usually, I’m rather an easy audience for light romance books once in a while. But they need better characterization and style than that.

For positive reviews, read Kim’s here and Claire’s here.

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

May 16, 2021 28 comments

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

April 17, 2021 19 comments

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936) French title: Et Vive l’aspidistra!

The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell is my second read for the #1936Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Gordon Comstock lives in a boarding house in London. He’s almost thirty, works at a bookshop for two pounds a week and has declared war to the money-god. He barely survives on his wages.

He earns enough to support himself but has no money left after he pays for his essentials. He’s very proud and doesn’t accept any help from his friends. For example, his good friend Ravelston is rich and he’d rather not go to the pub than let Ravelston pay for a pint.

Gordon has a girlfriend, Rosemary, who also lives in a boarding house. Neither of them can invite someone of the other sex in their room. They are condemned to meet outside and stay outside since Gordon doesn’t have any money to invite Rosemary even to a tea-shop and of course, he won’t let her pay for them. As Orwell sarcastically points out:

It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

So, Gordon is sexually frustrated and Orwell has a go at the Nancy Mitfords of the world. It’s not easy to be in a relationship when you can’t invite your partner to your home or go anywhere.

Gordon used to have a ‘good job’ in an ad agency where he showed some talent as a copywriter. But he despises capitalism and doesn’t want anything to do with money making. He fancies himself as a poet, has published some pieces in several newspaper. He’s rather live off literature but when did poetry ever paid off?

The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet – the conventional poet-in-garret.

It also means a hungry poet. With principles. Strong enough to hate his ‘good job’, quit and take a lesser-paid but nobler job in a bookstore.

Gordon doesn’t want to succeed. At all. It would mean that the money-god won and he’s pig-headed to the point of stupidity. He’s prideful and won’t accept help. He’s prejudiced against the middle-class, represented by their aspidistras. He loathes the middle-class and doesn’t want to partake in their way-of-living.

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ – the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B.B.C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate!

Aspidistra

He’s almost thirty and still thinks as a rebelling teenager, when you think you won’t have the same life as your parents and then reality catches up on you. Gordon has some growing up to do and I found him exasperating and immature.

It is true that Gordon has a point about capitalism and money as the goal for life.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.

So, he sticks to his principles even if they make him sink further into poverty. Orwell has a very graphic way to make the reader understand what it means to be poor, to count every penny. Soon, Gordon understands that he cut his income himself in order not to yield to the money-god only to be tied up to it by poverty.

Money again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness of failure – above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything but lonely on two quid a week?

Orwell shows how worrying about money takes all one’s mental space and Gordon realises that fighting the money-god is not as freeing as he thought it would be.

The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success.

Orwell portrays a Gordon who wants to be noble but his going against the flow is counterproductive. He loves Rosemary (a saint, IMO, to be able to put up with him) but their relationship is in a dead-end because they can’t afford to get married. Well, at least, according to middle-class standards. Orwell hints that if they were working-class, they’d get married and see afterwards how they’d get by.

Gordon enjoys Ravelston’s company but he can never get past their difference of income and social class. Ravelston doesn’t mind but Gordon lets it become a barrier between them.

Gordon thinks he’s over the middle-class way of thinking but it’s hard to escape the mental frame in which you were raised into. He struggles to set free but the ties are strong and his refusal to go Dutch on meals with Rosemary or to let Ravelston pay his beer show that he’s not free from the middle-class minset.

It’s exactly the same for Ravelston who comes from the upper-classes and claims that he’s a socialist while he secretly dislikes poor people.

The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

He tries to play down his wealth but his social origin speaks up as soon as he’s caught off guard.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying mocks the English class system and its stultifying codes. It shows that it’s hard to change of social class, to shed one’s education and become someone else.

From the beginning to the end, Gordon got on my nerves. I was amazed at Rosemary’s patience with him and at Ravelston’s steady friendship. They don’t give up on him and he should be grateful for them. Disliking the main character doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book. Orwell gets his point through and shows the mechanism that changed the 1968 revolutionary students in what we call in France the “caviar left-wing”.

Something else. Each time I read a British book, I come across singularities that remind how not-British I am. In Barbara Pym, you’ve got all the subtle differences between churches and who goes to which. In several books, I noticed derogatory remarks against Welsh people and digs at Scotchmen.

‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

And somewhere else.

Mr McKechnie wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was reasonably free from avarice – his most distinctive trait seemed to be laziness.

I find this pretty harsh but what do I know, right?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well-worth reading, Orwell’s prose is witty, cutting sometimes but always excellent.

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – The #1936Club

April 14, 2021 28 comments

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. (1936) French title: Cartes sur table.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie is my first read for the #1936 Club hosted by co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I bought it during my stolen escapade to an English bookstore in Paris last February.

Mr Shaitana collects various objects but puts his life on the line when he decides to invite to diner four sleuths and four murderers who got away with it. After the meal is over, the guests are split into two rooms to play bridge.

The four sleuths are Superintendent Battle from Scotland Yard, Colonel Race from the Secret Service, Hercule Poirot, a private detective and Mrs Oliver, a crime fiction writer.

The four murderers are Dr Roberts, a middle-aged and jolly GP, Mrs Lorrimer, a very clever widow and skilled bridge player, Major Despard who seems to have been to every corner of the British Empire and Miss Meredith, a rather poor young lady who works as a paid companion.

Mr Shaitana stays in the room where the four criminals play bridge and is murdered, stabbed with one of his own daggers.

Scotland Yard opens an investigation and Superintendent Battle handles it in his official capacity. However, he decides to involve the other three. Each has their own method to dig out the truth and of course, Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells is always ahead.

Agatha Christie draws a very clever plot, full of suspense and with original premises. Colonel Race is less involved in the investigation than the three others but Christie shows three different and yet complementary ways to search for the culprit.

Battle has his official position and the means that go with it: he’s all about clues and interviews.

Poirot takes the psychological route and asks left-field questions to understand the murderer’s mindset and deduct who did it.

Mrs Oliver uses her literary clout to befriend Miss Meredith’s friend and collect gossip about the past. I suspect that Mrs Oliver is a sly caricature of mystery fiction writers like Agatha Christie herself.

When I was in my teens, I read a lot of Christie books, all in French. It’s the second time I read a book with Poirot in the original. It’s a delight to read Poirot’s English and its French ring. Poirot never makes too many blatant grammar mistakes but here and there, his turn of phrase sounds French. Like here:

Je crois bien – a Grand Slam Vulnerable doubled. It causes the emotions, that! Me, I admit it, I have not the nerve to go for the slams. I content myself with the game.

It causes the emotions implies an improper use of the, something French native speakers struggle with when they learn how to speak English. When do we have to use nouns without articles? That’s a tricky question for us.

The I admit it is the literal translation of Je l’admets, which is often used in French but sounds weird in English. It’s the same about I content myself with the game, which stands for Je me contente de jouer and means I only care about the game. I’m not a native speaker myself but I don’t think one would use sentences that include it causes emotions, I admit it or I content myself with.

Here’s another example:

It is not my business – no. But, all the same, it offends my amour propre. I consider it an impertinence, you comprehend, for a murder to be committed under my very nose – by someone who mocks himself at my ability to solve it!

In this passage, you comprehend is the literal translation of vous comprenez which, in this context, means, you see. And someone who mocks himself comes from the French se moquer, which is reflexive. Poirot means either that someone makes fun of his ability to find out the murderer or wants to test it.

It amuses me to spot the things in the text. However, the language I certainly didn’t understand in this book is the one regarding bridge. I don’t know how to play bridge and I was totally lost in the explanations of the game, like in the first quote. I get the general meaning but not the subtelties that helped Poirot solve the crime.

Cards on the Table is an entertaining book, published in 1936 but it is timeless. Nothing from the outside world and its political affairs interferes in the characters’ lives. It is a good Beach and Publish Transport book. Un roman de gare, quoi!

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

April 4, 2021 21 comments

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953) French tile: Jane et Prudence.

After reading Ravage, I needed to read something nice, clean and proper and turned to Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

Jane and Prudence met in Oxford when Jane tutored Prudence. Despite their age difference, they remained good friends. After Oxford, Jane married Nicholas, a clergyman. They have a daughter, Flora who’s going to Oxford in the fall. Prudence does editing and secretarial work for Arthur Grampian, a professor. When the book opens, Jane is about to move to a new parish in the countryside, near London.

Prudence is twenty-nine, lives in London in a flat and works to support herself. She’s unmarried but has had several admirers in the past. She cleans up well, is charming but never managed to find a husband. She has a crush on her boss, Arthur Grampian. Jane hopes that Prudence forgets about married Arthur Grampian and finds a suitable candidate in her new parish.

Jane and Nicholas move into their new vicarage and through Jane’s eyes, we see how they settle down in their new life. Jane used to research seventeenth-century poets but abandoned any attempt at a career when she married Nicholas. And now, she always feels like a failure even if Nicholas seems to love her the way she is.

Jane is not cut out for being a clergyman’s wife, of what she thinks a clergyman’s wife should be. She can’t cook, she never can say the right thing at the right time, she can’t be bothered with parish work and she’s not very religious.

They rose to their feet and bowed their heads. Jane tried very hard to realise the Presence of God in the vicarage drawing-room, but failed, as usual, hearing through the silence only Mrs Glaze running water in the back kitchen to wash up the supper things.

With Flora leaving the nest, Jane reflects on her marriage and the passing of time:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this was what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded into mild, kindly looks and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

I felt sorry for Jane and her lack of career. This is not the life she would have chosen for herself. No wonder she feels like a failure. However, she never loses her sense of humour:

‘I’ve been such a failure as a clergyman’s wife,’ Jane lamented, ‘but at least, I don’t drink; that’s the only suitable thing about me.’

She’s invested in Prudence’s future and sets her up with Fabian, widower in her parish. They start seeing each other and the two ladies hope for marriage…

Life at the vicarage has this sepia set of characters with churchgoers and goody-two shoes. It describes life in the early 1950s, the food restrictions have only come to an end. There are several mentions of how much men need meat and eggs, hinting that it’s still rare. (Jane tends to think women need them too and I agree with her on principle) Nicholas mentions a can of something and Jane replies that it’s American food and that it’s not available anymore, reminding us of the American food program for Europe after WWII.

Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of humour, as always. She describes all the little quibbles in the village, the gossip around the vicarage, the not-totally-sincere charity work and all the kind of village quirks you expect.

As in other books by Pym, she doesn’t praise married life too much. Prudence is 29 and, as one of her spinster friends points out, it’s time to make a choice: look for a husband (at any cost, I might say) or settle down as a contented and active spinster. Prudence is still undecided. Does she really want to be a wife and give up her independence? Pym describes Prudence’s life in London and it sounds a lot more fun than Jane’s life as a country clergyman’s wife. No wonder Prudence is in no hurry to tie the knot.

Jane and Prudence is loosely based on Emma by Jane Austen. There’s a direct allusion to it at the beginning of the novel:

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

I guess that Jane is Emma and Prudence is Harriet. Nicholas has Mr Knightley’s kindness and humour. Fabian is Frank Churchill and you’ll need to read the book to look for the other characters!

This was my fourth Barbara Pym after Excellent Women, about Mildred, the spitfire spinster, Some Tame Gazelle, featuring Belinda, the clever spinster, and The Sweet Dove Died with Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Other reviews by Jacqui here and by Simon here.

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

March 16, 2021 14 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

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

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – Subtle, poignant and balanced

February 28, 2021 16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo’s vision is summed up here:

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

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

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

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

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym – meet Leonora, the manipulative spinster

December 13, 2020 7 comments

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (1978) French title: La douce colombe est morte.

‘Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other.’ ‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’

My reading of The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym was sandwiched between fluffy Patricia Brent, Spinster by HG Jenkins and nightmarish The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower. Writing this billet after the others makes me realize that The Sweet Dove Died is a middle ground between the two.

Humphrey is a widower who has taken his orphaned nephew James under his wings. James is in his twenties and has started to work at Humphrey’s antique shop. His uncle is showing him the ropes, James works with him but has no artistic background, no real interest in the industry. It’s easy, that’s all. (James was not yet sure what he wanted from life, and had so far tended to avoid violent extremes of any kind.)

Humphrey and James meet Leonora at an antique book sale. She’s a middle-aged single woman. She’s attractive, old-fashioned, enamored with the Victorian era and the three strike an odd relationship. Humphrey hopes to woo her and win her over. On paper, she’s perfect for him and he’s perfect for her.

The problem is Leonora is attracted to James, who is charming and extremely handsome. She doesn’t act on it but she takes up all his attention.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers. It is an interesting story to read as Leonora is a mix between a praying mantis and a pretty poisonous mushroom. Under her fragile appearance (“At the last minute she slipped a bottle of smelling salts into her bag – one never knew, there might be unpleasantness.”) is a cold hard and egoistic woman. She’s ageing, lonely and James is a satisfying toy to have:

Sometimes it seemed almost as if she had created him herself – the beautiful young man with whom people were always falling in love and who yet remained inexplicably and deeply devoted to her, a woman so much older than he was.

Leonora stages her life, her décor, her clothes and is performing as soon as someone might watch her. (She herself preferred crème de menthe; she had changed into a green chiffon dress which gave her a feeling for that drink.) She loves being the center of attention. It wouldn’t be an issue if she didn’t start manipulating James’ life to secure his attention.

And James in all this? Contrary to Clemency in The Catherine Wheel, he never stood a chance against Leonora or other people who want his attentions. He’s got a weak mind, doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s not sure about his sexuality either. He goes with the flow because it’s easy.

Leonora is always put together and her old-fashioned vibe suits him. For example, Leonora wears gloves. In the summer. In 1978. And like Jenkins’s characters in Patricia Brent, Spinster, she thinks that Tea is a panacea for all ills and a liquid for all hours. She likes Victoriana antiques and loves Tennyson’s poetry. (I’m not British, I’ve never studied British poetry but to me, Tennyson is Miss Silver’s favorite poet and he’s associated to old ladies who love to knit sweaters for their armful of grand-nephews or nieces. What does Tennyson evoke to a British reader?)

James is a pawn between several characters in the book. All are charmed because he’s very handsome, polite, kind and never makes a fuss about anything. He got on my nerves because I get irritated by spineless characters. While reading The Catherine Wheel, I was desperate to see Clemency fall into Christian’s net, I wanted her mind to win and set her free. Here, I was watching James be a toy and I never pitied him because he was weak from the start and rather happy to go with the flow and not have to make any decision by himself. It’s not really charitable of me, but I thought he deserved his fate.

The Sweet Dove Died could be as suffocating as The Catherine Wheel but it’s not, thanks to Pym’s constant and light sense of humor. She deflates the tension with amusing remarks (The young waiters darted about, responding with charming politeness to the halting holiday Italian some of the diners felt obliged to practise on them.) or with Humphrey’s clumsy attempts at wooing Leonora.

The Sweet Dove Died is an odd tale, very different from the other Pyms I’ve read. Excellent Women starred Mildred, the spitfire spinster. Some Tame Gazelle was all about Belinda, the clever spinster. The Sweet Dove Died pictures Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Three unmarried women who have a different reaction to their spouseless status. Mildred decides that she’s better off without a husband, Belinda accepts to live with her unrequited love for Henry. Leonora decides she wants James as a companion and that the end justifies the means.

Highly recommended.

Three good entertaining books by Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Christin and HG Jenkins

November 22, 2020 15 comments

Let’s face it, my TBW is out of control, the end of the year is coming and with the second lockdown, I keep reading. I’m not used to mixing several books in a billet but I’m doing it today, mostly focusing on light and entertaining books. See it as an attempt at taming the TBW.

First, we’re going on a trip to Japan with Dominique Sylvain. Her crime fiction novel Kabukichō takes us to Tokyo’s red-light district.

Kate Sanders works in a hostess bar, Club Gaia, and shares an apartment with a coworker, Marie. One night, Kate doesn’t show up for work. Her father in London receives a text message, a photo of his daughter with the caption “She’s sleeping here”.

A few days later, Kate is found dead. Captain Yamada is appointed to the case. He and his lieutenant Watanabe will investigate Kate’s life in Kabukichō. She was very good friend with Yudai, a charming young man who owns a host bar, the male version of the hostess bar.

I’m not familiar with Japan and I found Kabukichō fascinating for its description of the functioning of this red-light district. The crime plot was well-drawn, mixing the private lives of Kate, Marie and Yudai. Captain Yamada, old school compared to his lieutenant was an attaching policeman. All the characters have cracks in their souls, minor but irritating like a never healing small wound or major rifts that make them cross-over to the side of craziness.

It was a quick read, entertaining and enlightening with a stunning ending. It would make a wonderful film. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

Obviously, Kabukichō is exotic for a French reader. For me, the setting of Little Crimes Against Humanities by Pierre Christin was almost as foreign as Tokyo. The whole book is set in the French academic world and there’s a specific vocabulary related to positions and to the French university system. I’ll use American terms, as best as I can.

In Little Crimes Against Humanities, we’re in the small university of Nevers, in the center of France, basically the French equivalent of Iowa.

Simon Saltiel wrote his PhD thesis about Death in Art. Think about vanity paintings and such things. At the moment, he’s a teacher at the Humanities department but without a tenured post. He’s friend and roommate with an older teacher, Etienne Moulineaux. Their dean is Goulletqueur, notorious for preferring local candidates to others and this is why Simon has failed again to get a permanent position. The dice are loaded.

Léon Kreisman, a famous academic, art and book collector, collapses on the university stairs after a lecture. Fatal heart attack. He has no wife or children, only a pit bull secretary Madame Danitza.

Simon was among the first people on the premises and is dragged in spite of him, in the intrigues coming after Kreisman’s death. People want to put their hands of Kreisman’s collections. Goulletqueur wants to have a new library and hope that these resources will attract foreing academics and finally put the Nevers university on the international map of universities. L’Hours, a big man in the ministry of Education in Paris wants the collection to fill a new museum he will inaugurate. A private collector wants this collection for himself.

A mysterious poison-pen letter writer sends vengeful messages to several members of the faculty. The police get involved. The poor commissaire has his hands full with this foul business at the university on top of agricultural happenings from the Confédération Paysanne, a radical agricultural union that doesn’t have the decency to follow the usual methods of demonstration of the established union, the FNSEA.

Mild-mannered Simon finds himself in the middle of all this and with the help of two other colleagues, things won’t pan out as expected for the hot-shot and ambitious academics.

Besides the plot about Kreisman’s heritage, this is a satirical picture of the French universities, a milieu Christin knows from inside out. He shows the bureaucracy, the lack of money, the pettiness and the ambitions. An institution whose tenured posts are trusted by people who were young the the 1970s, a time when the Humanities were polarized, Trotskyists or not in the aftermath of 1968. He also shows an institution that, at local level, tries their best for their students. Their janitor is a genius at repairing anything with little means and teachers remain invested in their job.

Very humoristic about universities, small town France, Parisian centralization and the Ministry of Education but also about international academic relationships and symposiums. It’s almost as if David Lodge had written cozy crime.

Still on the lookout for easy and entertaining reads, I asked for recommendations to fellow book bloggers. Jacqui came up with Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. Published in 1918, it’s in the same vein as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a way to spend a moment in a bubble far away from 2020.

Patricia Brent is 24 and works as a private secretary to a “rising MP”. She lives at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, in other word, a boarding-house.

One night, she overheads the other tenants talk about her and commiserate that she was lonely and never went out with young men. Piqued, Patricia invents herself a fiancé, tells them that she won’t be there for dinner the next day because she was to meet him at the Quadrant. She plays along, actually shows up to the restaurant, intending to dine there on her own when she realizes that the Galvin House gossipmongers are there to spy on her. She plops herself on a chair at a man’s table and asks him to play along. This is how she meets Lt.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, DSO.

The outcome of the book is a given from the first chapters but Jenkins draws a colorful picture of the guests at the boarding house, the MP’s family and Lord Bowen’s circle. It’s a great comedy, the light plot designed to cast an amused glance at the different classes of the London society. I loved Jenkins’s sense of humor. Today, he’d write TV shows. His characters are quick at repartee, here’s a sample:

“Can you, Mrs. Morton, seriously regard marriage in this country as a success? It’s all because marriages are made in heaven without taking into consideration our climatic conditions.”

And

Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi. “Where to, sir?” enquired the man. “Oh, to hell!” burst out Bowen savagely. “Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?”

He’s also extremely funny in his descriptions of places, people and manners.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays.

The whole book is a fast paced comedy. Patricia Brent, Spinster did the job. Easy to read, entertaining and good escapism. Much needed this year but as Jenkins writes, When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game.

PS: I have the Jenkins on kindle with a bland cover so I added the cover of the original edition that I found on Goodreads. It’s terrible, isn’t it? These eyes seem ominous.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – good fun, most welcome at the moment.

November 7, 2020 22 comments

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. (1945) French title: La poursuite de l’amour.

‘I don’t want to be a literary curiosity,’ said Linda. ‘I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it’s too dismal to have been born in 1911.’

I was looking for a book I was sure I’d enjoy and turned to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. I had really fond memories of Christmas Pudding, its funny tone, Mitford’s witty prose, its eccentric characters and its entertaining plot.

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford takes us to Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family estate. The narrator is Fanny Wincham, a niece of the Radletts who spends her holiday at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie have seven children and Linda is the one closest in age to Fanny. They have a close relationship, built during the holidays at Alconleigh. Fanny tells us Linda’s story.

Raised by a father who uses his children as baits instead of foxes for fox hunting, the children are homeschooled under the supervision of a dubious French governess. The boys go to Oxford, the girls stay home since they don’t need education according to their father.

Uncle Matthew loathed clever females, but he considered that gentle-women ought, as well as being able to ride, to know French and play the piano.

Fanny’s mother had no inclination for motherhood and it was decided that little Fanny would be raised by Aunt Emily, Aunt Sadie’s sister and her mother’s sister as well. Aunt Emily had a more modern and conventional vision of girls’ education.

While Linda grew up with little structure and no formal education, Fanny went to school. She also led a quiet life with Aunt Emily who later remarried to Davey. Linda and Fanny grew up in a very different atmosphere.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.

The two cousins are quite opposite but their bond is solid. Linda is fanciful, her goal in life is to have a full romantic life. She’s a sort of Emma Bovary. No solid education, expecting Great Love and unable to settle for less and bear the quotidian. Fanny, who married a scholar named Alfred muses, comparing her life to Linda’s:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.

We follow Linda in her pursuit of love and Nancy Mitford takes us on a vivid tour of the upper-class milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia and it’s clear her own life, family and friends inspired her.

I don’t want to spoil the plot and tell too much about Linda’s love tribulations. You’ll have to discover by yourself what happens to her.

Linda is an attaching character with a dazzling personality. People are drawn to her, despite her lack of any useful competence. Even if she tries to do something by herself, she fails spectacularly, has no qualms about it and recounts her endeavours with disarming ingenuousness. Here she is, playing house:

‘But oh how dreadful it is, cooking, I mean. That oven – Christian puts things in and says: “Now you take it out in about half an hour.” I don’t dare tell him how terrified I am, and at the end of half an hour I summon up all my courage and open the oven, and there is that awful hot blast hitting one in the face. I don’t wonder people sometimes put their heads in and leave them in out of sheer misery. Oh, dear, and I wish you could have seen the Hoover running away with me, it suddenly took the bit between its teeth and made for the lift shaft. How I shrieked – Christian only just rescued me in time. I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.’ She sighed.

I guess everything is a question of perspective and upbringing, right. (Athough I dislike vacuum cleaners too. They stink, they’re noisy and make you sweat. *shudders*) Linda seems perfect for partying and chatting with friends and nothing else.

Besides Linda’s story, I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love for the picture of the British upper-class in the 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, it made me think of Brexit. Nancy Mitford’s characters react like the upper-classes of the time and she discloses their view of the world. Uncle Matthew hates foreigners.

‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’

Like in The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, I sometimes felt in the book an ingrained distrust for non-English things. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just built-in certainty that the English civilization tops everything else and that there’s “us” and “them”. I’m not sure that 40 years in the EU are enough to erase that feeling from a people’s psyche. Just wondering if it helped the Leave side of the campaign, pushing the right buttons.

At some point, Linda ends up in France and Nancy Mitford writes:

She looked out of the window and saw chateaux, lime avenues, ponds, and villages exactly like those in the Bibliothèque Rose – she thought she must, at any moment, see Sophie in her white dress and unnaturally small black pumps cutting up goldfish, gorging herself on new bread and cream, or scratching the face of good, uncomplaining Paul.

Being a middle-aged French, I perfectly understand what she means. But what do non-French readers make of this quote nowadays? There were also a lot of French sentences or expressions in that part of the book. Mitford’s readership probably knew French well-enough to understand but what about now? There were no footnotes to help a modern reader. It’s not the first time I notice passages in French without any translation. It’s easy for me but how do other readers feel about it? Is there a rule in publishing that says that these passages shouldn’t be translated?

After these random observations, I’ll leave you with this quote about Paris, one that still rings true and makes me long for my Parisian escapades to wander in neighbourhoods and visit art exhibitions.

Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself.

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 28 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.

 

%d bloggers like this: