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20 Books of Summer #13 : Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia – A masterpiece

August 22, 2020 13 comments

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (1971) French title: Le Contexte. Translated from the Italian by Jacques de Pressac, revised by Mario Fusco.

After my trip to Sicily and after reading The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia, I bought his novel Equal Danger. (Il Contesto, literally translated as Le Contexte in French) This book was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi, with Lino Ventura as the main character. Equal Danger made a lot of noise when it was published. It is a thinly veiled attack towards the Italian political scene, on both side, the party running the country and the opposition.

Inspector Rogas investigates a series of murders. All the victims are judges. The more Rogas digs into the judges’ personal lives, the more he unveils muddy relationships between the judges and the political milieu. Nothing is fully honest, nothing is clean. The dice of the political game are loaded, just like they are in Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu.

Equal Danger is built as a crime fiction novel and written as a parody. It is a mix between Candide and political crime fiction. Sciascia blends the two genres perfectly and his book is like a literary bombshell thrown at the Italian ruling class.

The beginning is humorous, as we see Rogas start his investigation, tackle politics and navigate between what he wants to do and what his hierarchy wants him to do. We root for him and hope he’ll beat the system at its own game. But will he?

In the afterword, Sciascia says that he kept this book in his drawer for two years before publishing it, probably because when he started to write it, he was amused but when he was finished, he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. And that’s how I felt as a reader too.

Very highly recommended.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini – crime fiction in the Italian Alps

August 2, 2019 10 comments

Black Run by Antonio Manzini (2013) French title: Piste noire. Translated from the Italian by Samuel Sfez

Rocco Schiavone had an entirely personal hierarchy up and down which he ranked the pains in the ass that life senselessly inflicted on him every day. The scale actually started at 6, which covered anything that had to do with keeping house: grocery shopping, plumbers, paying rent. The number 7 included malls, banks, medical clinics, and doctors in general, with a special bonus for dentists, and concluded with work diners or family diners, though all his living relatives, thank God, were down south in Rome. An 8 on the hierarchy began, first and foremost, with public speaking, followed by any and all bureaucratic procedures required for his job, going to the theatre, and reporting to chiefs of police or investigating magistrates. At number 9 came tobacco shops that weren’t open when he needed a pack of cigarettes, cafés that didn’t carry Algida ice cream bars, running in anyone who wanted to talk and talk endlessly, and especially stakeouts with police officers who needed a bath.

Topping the hierarchy, the worst and the most dreaded, was a rating of 10. The top, the worst, the mother of all pains in the ass: the investigation he wasn’t expecting.

Translated by Antony Shugaar

Black Run by Antonio Manzini is an Italian crime fiction novel set in the Italian Alps, near the French border, in the Valle d’Aosta. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone is the one who has the scale to rank up pains in the ass in life. This quote describes his grumpy self. He’s been sent from Rome to this valley against his will and he likes nothing there. The weather, the people, his staff, the atmosphere, everything rubs him the wrong way.

Black Run starts with a dead body found on a ski slope. Amadeo Gunelli drives a snowcat and prepares runs for the upcoming ski weekend at the Champoluc ski resort when he collides and drives over a corpse. Needless to say, the body is hard to recognize after that.

Schiavone is woken up in the middle of the night to drive up in the mountain and go to the crime scene. That’s were we learn about his rating of life’s pains in the ass and his methods to lead crime investigations.

I will not write about the plot itself, it’s a straightforward police investigation with financial and love interests intermingled in a close-knit community. The case was OK but I was only looking for entertainment when I bought this book.

My problem was that I totally disliked Schiavone. He’s obnoxious. He’s unhappy to have to go to the mountains and cares more about style than practicalities. That’s why he walks around in Clarke shoes in a ski resort: he wouldn’t want to be caught wearing ugly snow boots. He truly despises his team and treats them like they are morons.

He’s callous with women, objectifying them, flirting with everything that has a skirt and that he finds relatively attractive. He always appraises their worth according to their looks. This macho attitude could be tolerable from a writer born a century ago but not from a contemporary writer.

And, he’s also a corrupt cop, having illegal activities on the side. He had his own personal drama when he was still in Rome but I didn’t like him enough to care.

I know that you don’t have to like the characters of a book to enjoy it. But it’s different with crime fiction series. You need to like the main character enough to want to stick with him or her and follow him or her in her other investigations. Here, I didn’t like Schiavone and I won’t be reading any other book from this series.

Has anyone read a book with Schiavone too? If yes, what did you think about it?

Me, You by Erri de Luca

December 10, 2017 12 comments

Me, You by Erri de Luca (1998) French title: Tu, mio. Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.

C’était l’été, et même si nous vivions des années difficiles, des années d’après-guerre, ces mois sur l’île étaient une zone franche. Des libertés impensables étaient permises et les caractères de chacun pouvaient se révéler, s’affirmer. Nous sommes devenus des adultes après ce temps-là, nous sommes le fruit d’une île plutôt que d’une terre ferme. It was the summer and even if we were going through difficult years, post-war years, these months on the island were a free zone. Unbelievable liberties were allowed, our personalities could blossom and strengthen. We became adults after this time. We are more the product of an island than of dry land.

My clumsy translation.

When Me, You by Erri de Luca opens, we’re on a fisherman’s boat with our narrator. He’s sixteen and he’s spending the summer on an island near Naples, where he lives the rest of the year. We’re in the 1950s, it’s post-war Italy. The narrator spends his time fishing with his uncle and a local fisherman, Nicola. His free time is spent with his cousin Daniele. Daniele is older than him and the narrator tags along when Daniele meets his group of friends. This is how our narrator meets Caia, a mysterious young woman. He has a big crush on her and observes her from afar. On her side, she’s drawn to this silent adolescent. Unrequited young love and teenage fascination for the other sex could be the aim of this story. But it’s not. It explores these new emotions teenagers experience at sixteen but the post-war context brings a new depth to the story.

Caia is Jewish and the narrator soon understands that she escaped the worst but that her family was murdered by the Nazis during the war. The horrors of the Shoah bring a shadow over this sunny summer.

WWII also invites itself in the narrator’s summer through Nicola, the fisherman. He went to war in Yugoslavia and the narrator makes him talk about his war time. Nicola reluctantly unveils bits of his years in service. Ugliness seeps into the narrator’s sheltered life.

That summer, our narrator tries to confront two witnesses of the war, an unintentional participant and a victim. He wants to understand. The island is also a touristy place and when he sees German tourists, he wonders about their actions during the war. Who are these tourists under their summer clothes? Former active supporters of the Nazi regime or people who just tried to survive?

Our narrator questions the immediate past and wonders: what have the people of the different camps become? You, Me explores the coming of age of a teenager and the scars left by war in a country. We always think about war time, how awful it must have been and so on. This explores what happens when people from opposite camps have to live together, how victims try to survive, how demobilized soldiers slip into peace time routine.

As always, Erri de Luca masters deep questioning about the human condition with gentleness. He’s never bitter but never naïve either. And his style is sumptuous and poetic.

Le soleil est une main de surface, un papier de verre, qui, l’été, dégrossit la terre, la nivelle, la lisse, sèche et maigre à fleur de poussière. Il fait la même chose avec les corps. The sun is a smoother of surfaces, a kind of sandpaper that during the summer smooths down the earth, evens it out, polishes it, leaving it thin and dry, a film of dust. With the body it does the same thing.

Translation by Beth Archer Brombert.

I think part of the poetry is lost in translation here. In French, the sun is compared to a hand that smoothes the landscape with sandpaper and the hand has disappeared in the English translation. The “à fleur de poussière” is also more poetic and evocative than the “film of dust” used in English. The French gives the impression that the sun is a giant manual worker who shapes the landscape with the expertise and love of a skilled artisan.

Camouflaged in a coming-of-age story is the frightening question of how to live together after the ugliness and crimes of WWII. It shows mankind’s ability to move on after this awful war and how nobody really wanted to face the events. The criminals want to live under the radar. The victims want to move on but may be confronted to their torturers. The soldiers have to go back to civilian life. It’s as if everyone had gone out of the usual envelope of their self and now they have to put this outgrowth back into the initial self. And of course, it won’t fit. Our narrator is perceptive and guesses these struggles. He wants these outgrowths to express themselves before being tamed into their newly found normalcy.

This is a 140 pages novella and yet Erri de Luca managed to resurrect life on this Mediterranean island in the 1950s, to describe teenage angst and the discovery of love and to explore the aftermath of WWII in people’s everyday life.

Highly recommended, just as one of his other books, Three Horses.

PS: I wonder why the Italian title Tu, mio became Me, You in English instead of the literal You, Me.

Three Horses by Erri De Luca

June 25, 2016 40 comments

Three Horses by Erri De Luca (1999) French title: Trois chevaux. (Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.)

Une vie d’homme dure autant que celle de trois chevaux. A man’s life lasts as long three horses’ lives.

De_LucaThree Horses is a novella by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. The book opens with a foreword about Argentina to remind the reader of its geography and of few facts about its recent history. Argentina welcomed 7 million of immigrants before 1939 and half of them were Italian. From 1976 to 1982, it was governed by a lethal military dictatorship and 40 000 persons went missing. It ended in 1982 when they failed to invade the Falkland Islands, a territory under British rule and as big as half of Sicily.

The narrator is a fifty years old man who works as a gardener for an old friend. After the introduction, we know that the narrator something to do with Argentina. He’s a quiet and literate man who keeps to himself. He’s contemplative and seeks solace in books. It’s clear from the start that he wants a quiet life made of physical labor, simple food and lots of reading. We slowly learn about his past, discovering how he ended up as a meditative gardener. He’s Italian and fell in love with an Argentinean woman, Dvora. He followed her to Buenos Aires and married her. They settled there and were caught up by history; Dvora was killed during the dictatorship and he survived.

The narrator’s past, his beliefs and his personality slowly come to life through delicate sentences. He enjoys nurturing plants and takes pleasure in gardening. He befriends other lonely souls and immigrants and meets Làila who brings Argentina back into his life.

Elle ne s’efface pas de mon corps, l’Argentine, peu de poils ont repoussé sur l’ulcère de la guerre et des assassins. Argentina cannot be erased of my body. Little hair has grown on the ulcer of war and murderers.

He’s a survivor from grief and violence. He’s not healed and still lives in a survivor mode. It’s difficult to go further in describing the narrator’s life or his state of mind without spoiling the novel. So I’ll leave it at that.

It is a slim novel written in a luminous and poetic prose. I have a lot of quotes, all due to De Luca’s unique way with words. Here’s the narrator walking in the wilderness…

J’apprends à ne pas craindre les serpents, des bêtes sages qui lèchent l’air.

I learn not to be afraid of snakes, these wise beasts who lick the air.

…or waking up in his apartment

Oui, je me lève à cinq heures, mais volontiers. L’air de la mer fait parvenir ici un peu de son odeur.

La maison craque à cette heure-là, pierre, bois, bâillements. Puis elle se tait au parfum du café. Une cafetière sur le feu suffit à remplir une pièce.

Yes, I wake up at five a.m. but willingly. The air coming from the sea brings a bit of its scent here.

The house creaks at this hour, stone, wood and yawns. Then it goes quiet with the perfume of coffee. A coffeepot on the stove is enough to fill a room.

I could picture his early mornings in a waking house.

Three Horses is a deeply Mediterranean book. The narrator is in osmosis with his environment and he’s like a living part of the scenery. The setting is almost a character in the novella. The sun, the sea, laundry pouring out of windows and basil in pots. De Luca’s writing appeals to all the reader’s senses. It brought back memories of holidays in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Greece. The scent of the sea is like an olfactory background melody. The sun heats up the vegetation and makes it exhale puffs of perfumes. Pine trees, wisteria or rosemary. De Luca makes you feel the sea breeze on your skin and the burning heat of the sun at noon. The reader hears the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seagulls. The narrator cooks and it reminds you the taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and smooth cheese. Each time I’m in a Mediterranean region, I feel content. Each time I read a book set somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, I long to be there with the characters. This one is no different with its powerful sense of place. I also enjoyed the slow pace of the narrator’s life, so far from my own.

Above all, I loved the narrator’s relationship with literature and books. Literature plays a central role in his life and I could relate to it.

Les jours se passent comme ça. Le soir, chez moi, j’écrase des tomates crues et de l’origan sur des pâtes égouttées et je grignote des gousses d’ail devant un livre russe. Il rend mon corps plus léger.

C’est ce que doivent faire les livres, porter une personne et non pas se faire porter par elle, décharger la journée de son dos, ne pas ajouter leurs propres grammes de papier sur ses vertèbres.

Days go on like this. Home at night, I mash raw tomatoes and oregano on freshly drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book. It makes my body lighter.

That’s what books are for. They should carry a person, not be carried by them. They should take the day’s load off one’s back, not add grams of paper on one’s vertebras.

Isn’t that the best thing after a long day? To unload the day’s thoughts and events on the wharf of a book cover and to sail away to the wind of a writer’s prose?

He also made me question my relationship with physical books.

Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire de livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère. I read used books because pages turned many times and branded by fingers have more weight to the eyes, because each copy of a book can belong to several lives. Books should stay unattended in public places to move around with passersby who would take them for a while. And then they should die like people, used by tragedies, contaminated, drowned after falling off bridges with people who committed suicide, stuffed in a woodstove in winter, torn apart by children to make paper boats. In other words, books should die of anything but boredom and private property or condemned to serve a life sentence on a shelf.

Thought provoking, huh? Why do I keep all my books? Is it selfish to keep them on the shelf instead of giving them away? Most of them I will never read again anyway. Food for future thoughts.

Three Horses is a slim novel laced with the horrors of war, a man who still look for a way to live and thinks that literature is a wonderful crutch. Highly recommended.

PS: Update after first publication. I forgot to mention Caroline’s review of Three Horses. Her review made me buy it and you can see why here.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sicily2

The Dance of the Seagull by A. Camilleri. Thoughts about the unusual French translation

May 1, 2016 27 comments

The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.

Camilleri_mouetteI went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.

In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.

It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.

The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.

For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.

Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.

Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.

Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.

The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.

Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.

Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.

But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.

The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.

The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.

In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.

For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.

I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.

Sicile

 

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

February 8, 2016 12 comments

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1945) Translated from the Italian by Marie Canavaggia

Moravia_AgostinoI’m late to post about January’s Book Club choice. It was Agostino by Alberto Moravia.  We had already read Contempt and decided to read another one. Agostino is a novella about adolescence. Agostino is 13 and he’s spending his holidays at the beach with his widowed mother. We don’t know how his father died. The war, maybe. Agostino’s mother is never named. She’s still young and attractive. At the beginning of the holidays, she’s centered on her son and he enjoys spending his time with her. They take a boat and go swimming and he’s proud to be seen in her company.

Then she meets a young man and he accompanies her to her daily boat tours and swimming sessions. Agostino becomes a third wheel and he resents his mother for it. He witnesses the change in her behaviour: she’s flirting with the young man and has attitudes he’d never seen in her. Agostino starts seeing his mother as a woman and not as a mother only.

Agostino is terribly upset not to be his mother’s first interest any longer. He needs to share but mostly, he needs to accept that she’s a woman, that her life as a woman is separate from her life as a mother. She’s no longer asexual. He notices her body and starts feeling uncomfortable in situations that were normal to him before. He’d like her to be more modest when he comes to her room. She’s unaware of his uneasiness and she should change her behaviour to take into account that her boy is turning into a young man.

This holiday forces on Agostino the separation that needed to happen. He’s growing up, it’s also time for him to have a life independent from his mother. This first attempt at autonomy is done through joining a gang of young local boys who hang out around the beach.

This will be educational on several levels. First, they don’t come from the same social background. Agostino comes from a rich family; he lives in a mansion and has no idea of how privileged he is. He takes money for granted and when he mixes with these local boys coming from poor fishermen families, he’s confronted to other social references. They don’t have the same vision of life. They don’t live by the same rules. Violence is part of their life, fighting with each other, struggling to survive and starving attention. They’re more comfortable with their bodies.

Second, they are less sheltered, more mature and more knowledgeable about facts-of-life. They will reveal to Agostino what relationship his mother has with the young man. They will make fun of his innocence but will still do his sexual education. They will be eye-opening for him and trigger his leaving his childhood behind.

13 is a delicate age with a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts. Agostino still wears short pants but his mind is moving on. He’s puzzled and innocent at first but he catches on quickly. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life and that affects his relationship with his mother. (Hints at psychoanalysis are rather obvious in the novel) It explains why he’s suddenly discovering that she’s more than a mother, that to other men, she can be a lover. He was content; this new awareness disturbs the harmony of his life. This summer is about finding a new equilibrium to go forward.

I won’t tell too much about this incredible novella. I’m amazed again at how much Moravia can pack in a hundred pages. The style is subtle and evocative. I was there, on the beach, imagining the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the sun, the heat, the cabins on the beach, the little boats. It’s very cinematographic with short but spot-on descriptions. The quick change in Agostino is masterfully described. He’s 13, on the fence between childhood and adolescence. The invisible hand of time pushes him to the side of adolescence. That doesn’t go without scratches on his soul.

Honestly, seeing how short this is, there’s no excuse for not reading it. If you need further assurance that this is an amazing read, please have a look at reviews by Guy and Jacqui.

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi

March 8, 2015 29 comments

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi (1997). French title: La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro, translated by Bernard Comment.

Tabucchi_DamascenoManolo, an old Gypsy living in a shanty town near Porto discovers the corpse of a headless man. Where is the head of the victim? Who is it? Who was so interested in hiding the identity of the dead man? Acontecimento, a popular newspaper of Lisbon sends a young reporter to Porto to investigate and write about the affair. The mystery of the beheaded corpse is right up their alley. Their reporter is Firmino who’s studying literature in Lisbon and writes as a sensation journalist for a living until he finishes his thesis about post-war Portuguese literature.

Firmino is not exactly happy to go to Porto. It interrupts his work on his thesis, his girl-friend is in Lisbon and he dislikes Porto as the city is attached to childhood memories of a boring aunt. But duty calls and he goes anyway. The newspaper has booked him a room in a boarding house managed by Dona Rosa. Soon, mysterious callers fill our young reporter with leads to help him with his articles and he finds himself more and more involved as an investigation reporter. He will get back up from a lawyer known as Loton. He’s a quirky man, coming from old money and willing to work pro-bono if it helps justice. Firmino and Loton engage in literate conversations and help each other on the case. As the investigation leads to incriminate the authorities, Firmino and Loton make a good pair. Firmino gets scoops for the newspaper and since details are published in a national newspaper, they can’t be buried which in return helps Loton.

The starting point of The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is a true story. In 1996, Carlos Rosa was killed in similar circumstances in the suburb of Lisbon. However, the novel is a lot more than a crime investigation. It also pictures Portugal after 20 years of democracy, the fragility of its institutions and the inequalities. While the reader wants to know how it will end, Tabucchi discusses the idea of justice and its transcription in law. To be honest, I’m not sure I was able to follow these parts. Abstract thinking is not my forte and I was lost in the literary references.

I liked Firmino a lot. For me, he’s the embodiment of the concept of saudade. I enjoyed following him in the streets of Porto, looking at buildings, going to restaurants (The poor guy can’t stand tripe and it’s Porto’s special dish) and meeting with people. He’s young and full of doubt about his writing and at the same time full of hope for the future. Loton the eccentric loner could become a mentor to him, someone to have challenging conversations with.

ManoloThe novel also opens with a poignant chapter about Manolo the Gypsy, his living conditions and his being a pariah. Tabucchi recalls how the Gypsies used to live in Andalusia at the time they were still breeding horses. Manolo is old and the weight of the years eroded his pride. The nostalgia seeping through this chapter reminded me of a childhood story, Le voyage de Manolo by Chantal de Marolles. It was about a little Gypsy whose parents traded the caravan and horses for a car and a trailer. He missed the old way of life. I loved this story.

It’s hard to say more about the book without spoiling the plot for others. I can’t say I was thrilled by The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro. It is an excellent novel and it shows that the boundaries between literary and crime fiction can be blurry. (Like in Incidences by Philippe Djian). However, I lacked cultural references to understand the intricacies of the conversations between Loton and Firmino and this is why I can’t leap from like to love when I think about this book.

Recommended anyway.

Chapters of the Fall by Stefano Massini

February 16, 2014 26 comments

Chapters of the Fall. Saga of the Lehman Brothers by Stefano Massini.

chapitre_chuteStefano Massino is a young Italian playwright and his Chapters of the Fall details in three chapters the saga of the Lehman brothers. The first chapter Three Brothers, covers the years from 1844 to 1867. The second one, Father and Son relates the span of 1880-1929 and the last one The Immortal, goes from 1929 to 2008. The first chapter describes the arrival of Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded a store selling fabric and clothes. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon emigrate to America too and they join their forces to develop their business. Soon they start selling raw cotton to  Northern businessmen and settle in New York. The second chapter describes how Philip Lehman, Emanuel’s son develops Lehman Brothers, which is now a bank. The third chapter is about Robert Lehman, the last member of the family to operate the bank and the subsequent change in management eventually leading the bank to its fall.

Apart from the saga of this specific family, the play recounts the history of capitalism in America. Sure, there aren’t many details. But still, the big moves and changes are visible. The Lehman Brothers start by selling cloth and goods needed in plantations. It’s tangible. Then, they accept raw cotton as payment for goods and start selling raw material. They shift their profit towards a trading activity, working as middlemen between the North and the South. The Civil War destroys this business but they manage to float and come out of it unscathed. They relocate in New York because the trading is done there. They participate to the creation of Wall Street, know Mr Dow and Mr Jones who will create the Dow Jones. They accompany the changes in the economy. They turn from revenues from agriculture to revenues from industries and then from financial markets. They turn their back to the South and invest in the West through railroads. Philip Lehman will be the one to invest in railroads and to forever change the company into an investment bank. Supporting weapon industries helped the bank surviving several crisis and the Lehman involved the bank in financing innovative parts of the economy. (Cinema, television, electronics)

The first chapter is very clear. The second shows well the modernization of society and how the economy bolted and crashed in a wall in 1929. It pictures how greed and easy money turned people into madmen wanting more. The New Deal was voted and the State started to regulate the economy, to Robert Lehman’s dismay. The third chapter is more blurred. After Robert Lehman’s death, the bank is more and more driven by stock markets and traders take control of the company. Robert Lehman died in 1969. To me, the 1970s were the decade that paved the road to power to politicians who deregulated everything, at least in the USA. The 1929 crisis was a bit forgotten and greed was again a way of living. Until the fatal crisis of 2008.

When the theatre warned us that Chapters of the Fall would last 3:50 hours, I thought “Oh, dear, I hope it’s gripping.” And yes, it is. If you ever have the opportunity to watch this play, go for it. It’s entertaining and educational. It gives a good overview of the construction of capitalism. It’s not judgemental. It states facts and pictures how a family turned a growing business into an empire by adapting quickly to the changes in their environment. The play is really well written. The story is told by the brothers in a light tone. They are storytellers, using repetitions in the text like magic phrases in a fairy tale. It was directed by Arnaud Meunier and he managed to create the right atmosphere and he picked wonderful actors. It lasted 3:50 and my attention never failed. The stage set was sober and the images on a screen behind the stage brought the spectators to New York, to Wall Street and to a trade room. Societal changes seep through the text when the men evoke their marriages and wives. Emanuel and Mayer simply fall in love. Philip chooses a wife like he’s doing a merger or picking a good horse. Robert marries three times since divorce is accepted. The progressive loss of rituals when a Lehman dies pictures the loss of values. When Henry dies, the business is closed for a week and all the Jewish rituals are respected. When Emanuel dies, Philip doesn’t imagine closing the bank for more than a day. Life doesn’t stop on stock exchanges, even for the death of a founding partner.

I’ve read L’Argent by Zola and he describes exactly the same mechanism. Money calls for more money. People are focused on stock exchanges and stock rates. They put more money than they should in stocks and follow anxiously the outcome. They lose sight with the brick and mortar economy and live on the illusion that the market can rise forever, and of course it can’t. Robert Lehman had seen the 1929 crisis coming but Philip Lehman was in too deep to act and prevent the catastrophe. It seems we are unable to learn from our past mistakes and keep on believing in illusions. There were severe downturns in the stock markets in the 19thC too. The 1929 crisis brought havoc to the world and still, we forgot. I always wonder how we can be so forgetful. History recalls what it wants and the human mind accommodates their memories until they are liveable. But wait, that’s for the billet about The Sense of an Ending…

Love autopsy

January 4, 2014 20 comments

Contempt by Alberto Moravia (1954) French title: Le mépris

Contempt was our Book Club choice for December. (I know, this billet is late) It managed to push Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh out of my list of favourite books for 2013. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

During the first two years of our married life my relations with my wife were, I can now assert, perfect. By which I mean to say that, in those two years, a complete profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness –of should I say silence?—of the mind which, in such circumstances, causes an entire suspension of judgment and looks only to love for any estimate of the beloved person. Emilia, in fact, seemed to me wholly without defects, and so also, I believe, I appeared to her. Or perhaps I saw her defects and she saw mine, but, through some mysterious transformation produced by the feeling of love, such defects appeared to us both not merely forgivable but even lovable, as though instead of defects they had been positive qualities, if of a rather special kind? Anyhow, we did not judge: we loved each other. This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia, on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.

Moravia_meprisThis is Riccardo speaking and analysing the end of his marriage to Emilia. Contempt a first person narrative and it never switches to another point of view. Riccardo and Emilia have been married two years when their relationship starts to deteriorate. Riccardo is an aspiring playwright and he’s been doing odd jobs to support his wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they were renting rooms in a house as they couldn’t afford more expensive accommodation. Now, Riccardo has just bought an apartment, which changed Emilia’s status from aspiring to official housewife. She’s delighted with the new flat and her ambition is fulfilled.

When the novel opens, Riccardo has just landed an interesting contract to write a screenplay for the film director Battista. It comes as a relief since he’s struggling financially to pay the mortgage of the apartment. Just when he can stop worrying about money, Emilia’s behaviour towards him changes. Without any obvious reason, she starts distancing herself from him. He feels that she no longer loves him but he doesn’t understand why. His first move is to pressure her until she acknowledges that she fell out of love with him. Then he wants to figure out what changed her heart and he will not let go until she eventually blurts out that she despises him. He would have recovered better if she had slapped him.

Everything goes downhill from there. Relocating from Rome to Capri to work on another screenplay for Battisti won’t help. Riccardo knows that Battisti is attracted to Emilia, it was clear from the first evening they had diner together. How does his presence in their lives influence their couple?

Moravia_contemptMoravia is a fantastic writer. He combines Proust’s analytical skills with Maupassant’s style and lucidity. There is something of Swann and Odette, of the Narrator and Albertine in this relationship. Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is a cerebral who feels too much. He over analyses everything, pays attention to tiny details and elaborates theories to explain Emilia’s behaviour. He breaks down her every move, her words and tries to decipher what she meant exactly and why she said this or that. As Riccardo describes Emilia, it becomes clear that they have very different interests and ambitions in life. Riccardo is an intellectual. Emilia loves her home and is content with taking care of the house. She isn’t interested in Riccardo’s job. She’s pretty, he loves her but they don’t seem to have much in common. After the honeymoon stage, how can this relationship blossom?

Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is well-aware of Emilia’s limits. She’s not well-read, she’s a bourgeois and her mind bears the marks of her upbringing. But, as Riccardo says There is in love a great capacity, not only of illusion but also of forgetting.

Like in Notre Coeur by Maupassant, Moravia shows how difficult it is to love someone who doesn’t love you back or not enough. More than unrequited love, Moravia pictures the damage done by contempt. It destabilises Riccardo because it nibbles his self-esteem. Losing Emilia’s love is painful but that kind of wound heals, eventually. Arousing Emilia’s contempt shatters his peace of mind. He wonders what he did to deserve this and more importantly if she’s right.

Contempt is a fascinating read on several levels. Moravia’s style is close to perfection, lucid, matter-of-fact and yet full of emotion. He manages to build a bridge between opposite notions. The reader reads with detachment and yet reaches out to Riccardo’s pain. He explains everything with logic and yet stirs an illogic sense of dread. He’s analytical and warm. Riccardo explains:

I have noticed that the more one is overcome with doubt, the more one relies on a fake lucidity in the hope to clarify though reasoning what emotions have muddled.

He’s centred on Riccardo’s turmoil but doesn’t neglect to picture the beautiful landscapes of Capri. He manages to connect the reader to Riccardo’s inner mind and to his surroundings.

We were quickly driving down the hills to the sea among pine trees and magnolias, the blue gulf as a setting. I was feeling drowsy and exhausted like an epileptic whose body and soul have been wrecked by a violent and uncontrollable convulsion.

Very Proustian, this to-and-fro between the scenery and the emotions of a character. It reminds me of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs when the Narrator rambles about Albertine and her girlfriends and the landscapes of Balbec.

The construction of the book is impeccable. Moravia builds the tension masterfully and plays his score of words like a gifted pianist. Cherry on the cake, his take on the place of scriptwriters in the film industry was interesting. This is a short book, my copy is only 152 pages but it encapsulates universal and profound notions in the unique story of two indivuals. As the cover of my copy recalls us, Contempt has been made into a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Highly recommended.

PS: The opening quote is translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson. I’ve read the book in French and I translated the other quotes myself from the French. At least you have the rather long first quote to sample Moravia’s wonderful prose.

PPS: I find the English cover a bit creepy.

Pellizzari’s change of life

August 27, 2013 14 comments

Il padre degli orfani by Mario Soldati. 1950. The orphans’ father. French title : Le père des orphelins.

soldati_orphelinsI’ve mentioned this before but I like to discover new writers through Folio’s 2€ collection. They publish short texts by writers in a 100 pages format. Either the book is composed of short stories or it’s a novella. For me, it’s an opportunity to read someone I’ve never tried without starting with a long book. I picked up Il padre degli orfani because its cover caught my eye. Mario Soldati (1906-1999) is an Italian writer and film maker. His most famous book is Le lettere a Capri, published in 1954. Il padre degli orfani is included in A cena col commendatore, a book composed of three stories (La giacca verdeIl padre degli orfani and La finestra)

We’re in Italy in the 1950s, not far from Milan. The narrator has received a letter relating that his friend Antonio Pellizzari, director of the Scala had quit his functions to start and run an orphanage in his villa in the countryside near Milan. The narrator has known Pellizzari for a long time and although they are friends, he judges him as rather cold, selfish and living a private but scandalous love life. He never married. The narrator wonders what prompted this abrupt change in his friend’s attitude and interests. He decides to go and see by himself. When he visits the orphanage, Pellizzari is rather happy to see him and show him the place. The boys are well-kept, Pellizzari is very committed to his new mission and he hired nuns and a priest to educate the children. He takes care of their schedule, outings, games…The narrator is impressed by Pellizzari’s work, his dedication to his cause but is still puzzled at the sudden change. Deep inside, he doesn’t believe that a man can change that much at that age.

Pellizzari explains with eyes full of tears how a poor and sick little boy on a train moved him so much that he decided to help him. When he eventually looked for him, it was too late, the boy was dead. If Pellizzari had come earlier, he could have purchased the medicine the boy needed and he would have been saved. The orphanage is a way to redemption. Still, the narrator remains sceptical. Just when he’s about to leave and grant his friend the benefit of the doubt, he notices his cufflinks on a side table. The narrator knows that these are his cufflinks as they are a family jewel that was stolen from him a couple of months before. It’s unlikely that his friend has the same cufflinks as him, which means they are his. When he asks his friend where he got them, Pellezzari obviously lies. The narrator confronts him and eventually drops the subject but he’s intrigued and this outright lie confirms that he shouldn’t trust his friend’s good intentions.

The novella focuses on Pellizzari, the narrator and the cufflinks. Who is Pellizzari? Is he genuinely interested in these children? Is his interest selfless? When the narrator describes him in all the years he’s known him, he seems like an arrogant man, not the devoted Christian he is in his orphanage. Has he really changed or has he just switched from one role to another? His lie about the cufflinks ties him to his past and tips the narrator off: Pellizzari is not to be trusted.

It’s an interesting questioning about who we are, who we are in the eyes of others and who we’d like to be. Aren’t we all playing roles from time to time? Pellizzari caught himself in his game. He’s always reinventing himself and for now, he’s set on being a Good Samaritan. The narrator would like to unmask him but is it worth it? Isn’t he actually doing a good job with these children? Does it matter if he does it for the wrong reasons?

And what about the narrator? What pushes him to dig into his friend’s life, to probe Pellizzari’s motivations as if he were an insect under a microscope? Why is he so eager to find flaws in this man? Is it jealousy?

The novella tackles important themes like identity, good conscience and more importantly our capacity to change for the best. Can a selfish man turn into a saint? Are we able to change deep inside? While I think it’s a well written and intriguing story, I liked it but nothing more.

Do you know Mario Soldati? As a film director maybe?

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni

May 30, 2013 11 comments

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni 1753 English title: The Mistress of the Inn. Directed by Marc Paquien.

Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) is an Italian playwright who wrote 159 plays and 83 operas. I still wonder why I’d never heard of him before watching La Locandiera last month.

goldoni_locandieraLa Locandiera is a comedy with a rather simple plot. Mirandolina is the mistress of an inn. She’s a pretty coquette and enjoys being wooed by men. She currently has two suitors, the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita. The first comes from impoverished nobility. He tries to put forward his nobility and his title to seduce Mirandolina. The second is of minor nobility but he’s very wealthy and tries to ravish her with expensive gifts. They fight for her, each of them convinced that his assets give him the best chance to win her heart. Both men are guests at Mirandolina’s inn and have stayed there before. Mirandolina doesn’t fancy any of them; she’s just a flirt and she enjoys the attention. As a single woman running a business, the society expects her to get married to rely on a husband. She’s not so eager to give up her freedom for marriage and for a man so she keeps them at arm’s length.

This time, a third man stays at the inn, the Knight of Ripafratta. He’s a confirmed bachelor who loathes women. He thinks they are useless creatures, too high maintenance for him and that he’s better off without a wife. In other words, he enjoys his freedom and openly makes fun of the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita for being smitten with Mirandolina. He mocks their attitude, their devotion and their petty fight over her.

On her side, Mirandolina resents Ripafratta’s attitude and decides to seduce him, just to defend her sex. Instead of being coy, flirtatious or fulfilling his expectations of the female behaviour, she acts exactly the opposite. She offers sensible conversation, makes blunt comments and lets him understand she’s not on the market for a husband. He starts thinking she’s different. He seeks her company and quickly falls for her.

Goldoni admired Molière a lot and his master is present in this comedy. Mirandolina uses her charms to get something from men, like Béline in The Imaginary Invalid. Ripafratta is as grouchy and disenchanted with women as Alceste in The Misanthropist. His illogical distaste of women sounds like Arnolphe in The School For Wives. Like Arnolphe, he shapes his life around a misconception of women and a hasty generalization of their nature.

Goldoni’s characters are caricatures, something Molière excelled at painting. A conceited marquis thinks that nobility can forgive miserliness and justifies looking down on people. A rich count behaves like a nouveau riche and is firmly convinced that money can buy him love. All these elements link Goldoni to Molière and the tradition of the comedia dell arte.

LA LOCANDIERA (Marc PAQUIEN) 2013But Goldoni doesn’t belong to the 17thC. In Molière, characters don’t toy with other people’s feelings. They lie, they use their charm, they play on seduction to have power or marry a rich man or go around a father’s choice of a husband. They don’t play with emotions to prove a point, they play tricks to get something for themselves but not to harm someone else. The tricks are mostly to serve a cause that the spectator supports. It’s Scapin helping with a marriage between two young people in love and preventing the girl’s father from marrying her to an older man. It’s not cruel. Moreover, Molière always strives to point out the trials of his contemporaries. I don’t think Goldoni has this intention in his play.

In La Locandiera, Mirandolina is a little cruel and doesn’t mind hurting Ripafratta for the sake of her argument. This is where Goldoni joins his century and sounds like Marivaux in The Game of Love and Chance or Laclos in The Dangerous Liaisons. In Marivaux, characters play dangerous games where feelings are involved and people can get hurt.

Goldoni is a mix of Molière and Marivaux and since I love both playwrights, I had a great time watching La Locandiera. It was directed by Marc Paquien who has also directed Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and The Learned Ladies by Molière which I found very good too. I enjoyed what he’s done with the play. He respected traditional clothes, but the text could have been transposed in today’s world. Dominique Blanc played Mirandolina and it was a pleasure to see her on stage. She’s as excellent as you could imagine. André Marcon was a wonderful Ripafratta, frowing at the right places and genuinely at loss when his heart betrays him and goes to Mirandolina.

Have you ever watched or studied Goldoni?

To the revolution in a Citroën 2 CV

December 23, 2012 14 comments

Alla rivoluzione sulla Due Cavalli by Marco Ferrari 1995 French title: En 2CV vers la révolution. I didn’t find it in English.

April 25th, 1974. When Vasco, a Portuguese young man who studies cinema in Paris hears about the uprising in Portugal, he runs to his best friend Victor and talks him into driving to their native city, Lisbon. So the novella is a road trip in a decrepit 2 CV from Paris to Lisbon, through the quiet of the French countryside, through a Spain closed up in fear, full of policemen along the roads and to the disquiet in Lisbon. Communists or revolutionaries or separatists? Who are they, the ones who help Vasco and Victor cross the border between France and Spain through the Pyrenees?

What struck me is how French people seem to live in a bubble:

A quatre heures de l’après-midi Poitiers n’est qu’un jeu d’ombres et de lueurs, la moitié des toits embrassée par le soleil, l’autre moitié obscurcie par Notre-Dame-La-Grande. Les gens se promènent dans les rues piétonnes, discutent dans les cafés, les hommes boivent le Pastis, les femmes le thé, les enfants mangent des tartes : on dirait un monde à l’écart, intangible, sans émotion au regard de ce qui se passe autour, le garrot franquiste, la révolte portugaise, les assassinats en Espagne, les bombes italiennes, les lamentations du Chili, les cris de l’Europe de l’Est. At 4pm, Poitiers is only shadows and lights, the sun set half of the roofs aglow while Notre-Dame-La-Grande shadows  the other half. People stroll in the pedestrian streets, chat in cafés, the men drink pastis, the women drink tea and children eat pies. It seems a world apart, intangible, without any emotion regarding what happens next door. The pro-Franco gag, the rebellion in Portugal, the murders in Spain, the bombings in Italy, the lamentations in Chile, the cries in Eastern Europe.

Ferrari_2CVThis was certainly true there and it is still true now. How little we hear about the economic situation in Spain, Portugal or Ireland. I’m not talking about statistics or complicated negotiations in Brussels. I’m thinking about people’s everyday life. I was in a meeting in Madrid recently and I arrived earlier than expected. No traffic jam. My host explained that with the high level of unemployment, more people staying at home means…less cars on the roads. Reading regularly collides with reality. The same week I read this book, I read an article about Portuguese students and their attitude towards recession. The journalist mentioned the irony of these young people emigrating again to find a job. He also pointed out incomprehension between today’s youth and their parents who grew up under the dictatorship. Vasco’s children, I thought.

Marco Ferrari is Italian; I don’t know why he chose to write about that particular spring in Portugal. I’m too young to remember about the time Europe included dictatorships; this novella made the dictatorship in Portugal more tangible. I realized I didn’t even know the name of the political police in Portugal, the PIPE and I wondered how it is possible to ignore such a thing about a European country. It reminded me how I felt after watching The Lives of Others; to think it happened so close to home without a real consciousness of it was unsettling. Perhaps I understand better why the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU now. Troubled times are not that far away.

This book put me face to face with my ignorance of the history of other European countries. In addition to these thought-provoking details, this novella is full of encounters with more or less nice, serviceable, crazy, nasty human beings. Ferrari’s prose is rather funny and strong emotions pervade through the text. For Vasco, memories of the past mingle into his present, interrupted by his internal monologues to François Truffaut. There are beautiful passages about cinema. And the 2 CV is a character in itself. A classic car by now, a cheap, reliable popular car by then.

Sur la route, la 2 CV est une cible toute désignée pour les policiers. Selon eux, les propriétaires de 2 CV jaunes sont des exhibitionnistes, et, pour cette raison, ils les ont à l’œil. Une 2 CV couleur sable est tolérable, passe encore pour une anonyme 2 CV blanche, ou bien violette, style féminin, mais cette couleur si évidente, si particulière ou recherchée, presque provocatrice, ne peut être que la marque d’une excentricité certaine. Les flics la coincent au fond de l’avenue : ils l’ont repérée pendant qu’elle doublait la file de camions qui semblent presque endormis après la pause du repas chez Les Routiers. On the road, a yellow 2CV is an easy target for policemen. According to them, owners of a yellow 2CV are exhibitionists and for this reason, they keep their eyes on them. A sandy 2CV is tolerable, so is an anonymous white 2CV or a purple one, feminine style. But this showy colour, odd or studied, almost provocative can only mean powerful eccentricity. The cops corner her at the end of the avenue: they have noticed her as she was overcoming the long line of lorries who seemed almost sleepy after their lunch break at Les Routiers.

Note: Les Routiers is a kind of cheap restaurant where lorry drivers (un routier) go. They serve traditional and filling food.

Vasco praises the qualities and the endurance of his 2 CV, how these cars are involved in treks and rallies. Once she breaks down and they find help in a member of the local 2 CV club. (Note to foreigners: there isn’t a widespread automobile club in France like The AA in England) This car is a symbol of these years, it’s the car Mafalda’s father buys in Quino’s comics. It reminds us the time when owning a car meant social status and freedom.

I bought this novella in a second hand bookshop (the French word for this is bouquiniste, like bookish-shop, isn’t that nice?) The title caught my eyes and the blurb hooked me. Of course, the irony of a writer named Ferrari writing about a road trip in a 2 CV wasn’t lost on me. Sometimes compulsory book buying leads you to funny and unexpected books.

Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

Teen with spirit

June 30, 2012 11 comments

Mentre dorme il pescecane by Milena Agus. 2005. French title : Quand le requin dort. Not translated into English. It means When the shark is asleep.

Chez nous, chacun court après quelque chose : maman la beauté, papa l’Amérique du Sud, mon frère la perfection, ma tante un fiancé.

Et moi j’écris des histoires, parce que quand le monde ne me plaît pas, je me transporte dans le mien et je suis bien

At home, every one runs after something: Mom after beauty, Dad after South America, my brother after perfection and my aunt after a fiancé.

And me, I write stories because when I don’t like the world I live in, I move away into mine and I feel fine.

This is in a nutshell the flavor of this odd little book, Milena Agus’s debut novel. She’s Italian and her other novel Mal di Pietre was a success in France and this is how I discovered her.

Mentre dorme il pescecane is a first person narrative and our narrator is a high school teenager. She tries to figure out who she is and that’s not easy when you live in such a weird family as hers. The father is a militant who’s into helping others but forgets to help his own children. His dream is to immigrate to South America. Meanwhile, he takes trips there for humanitarian purpose. He has a strong and lively personality. He’s the kind of person who always gets forgiven no matter what he does because when you interact with him, he makes you feel special. You know the type?

The mother is a strange and shy little thing. Her family thinks she’s fragile and protects her from everything. Like our young heroin says:

Nous aimons voir le monde derrière une couche de miel et papa dit que nous allons nous faire un diabète du cerveau.

We enjoy seeing the world through honey and dad says we’ll get brain diabetes.

She lives in a sort of fantasy world, shielded against real life, growing flowers on the rooftop and painting. She’s a mousy type with too much sensitivity for her own good.

The brother is a piano lover. He wants to be a professional pianist and spends all his time in his room, practicing, shutting his family out, avoiding the world. He’s bullied at the high school by fellow students and he evades from reality through music.

The aunt is a beautiful woman whose clock is ticking and who does her best to find a husband. The problem is she has a bad taste in men. She’s in love with Mauro the womanizer and tries to forget him by finding other men specimen afraid of commitment.

Our narrator is into a sadomasochist sex relationship with a married man and all the while being quite innocent and candid. She doesn’t enjoy it very much but the physical pain distances her from her other pains. It’s a way to try not to fall in love, not to let feelings take the best of her. All the while, she observes and analyses her strange family with the growing awareness of the adolescent.

We follow all this little world during these month that are worth years. Our narrator observes, keeps a mental scrapbook of her understanding of grown-ups and patches up for herself philosophy of life, her personal guidebook for the future.

The narrator’s voice is funny and unusual, poetic and black at the same time. She’s always moving on, she’s never desperate even when things turn horribly wrong. She’s a mix of candor and realism, of romanticism and cynicism, of acceptance and rebellion. She’s an attaching character, a bit extreme sometimes. All the characters are loveable in their way, even the selfish father or the libertine Mauro.

It’s a coincidence but I’m into teen narrators these days. Tino in Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino, David in Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, Watanabe in Norwegian Wood and now an unnamed girl in Mentre dorme il pescecane. It just happened but it’s nice to read several books like this in a row and compare the voices of the character. All books are first person narrations, either writing as the events happen (Arpino, Agus) or a lot later when a need to tell memories becomes pressing. (Watson, Murakami) The writers managed to either recreate the puzzlement of young adults entering adulthood and understanding what’s behind the facade. The novels are less poignant when the narrator relates something from their past rather than showing their inner minds as the events happen. Contrary to the other books I read, Mentre dorme il pescecane is the only one not constructed around a life changing event that threw the narrator into the world of adults.

Milena Agus’s character is an odd girl, seeking good sun, proper water and enough intellectual and emotional nutriments to be in full bloom. After her, Exit Ghost with its seventy-one-years old Nathan Zuckerman and his incontinence problem is quite a change…How odd too that this book will be sitting on my shelf between the depressing Novel with Cocain by M Agueev and the cult Money by Martin Amis.

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