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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.

Dante’s Inferno: Veni, vidi, vici

May 28, 2012 28 comments

Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri. circa 1317.

On a crazy impulse of optimism, I started to read Dante’s Inferno. OK, a trip to Florence prompted it as well. To be honest, before reading it, Dante’s Inferno meant little to me, a poem with horrible descriptions of hell and some vague notions about Dante’s true love Beatrix. Nothing more. You can say I started it with an open mind, not enough cultural references and a little apprehension about how much I’d get from the book. Let’s face it, I’m not able to discuss Dante’s work and I bet thousands of scholars did it thousand times better than anything I could write. I’m just able to relate my response to it.

I read the French translation by Rivarol which dates back to the 1780s. I didn’t choose the translation, I just went for the free kindle version and it happened to be by Rivarol, with many typos. But it’s free, I can’t complain. Then I checked an online book store, Rivarol’s seems to be a famous translation. I suspect it’s not always faithful to the text but when it comes to a book written in Toscan in the 14thC, I don’t mind that it’s a bit unfaithful as long as it helps me read the book. And Rivarol is good to make Dante’s masterpiece accessible to a naïve audience: the language is light and easy, the footnotes are relevant and helped a lot. It’s in prose, I don’t think I could have read a version in verses anyway. Now, the book.

Dante is visiting the inferno with the Roman poet Virgil as a guide. The Inferno is composed of 33 canti and each one describes a torture inflicted on souls who committed the sin aimed at that specific circle. The sins are various from gluttony to sodomy, via hypocrisy, ruse, bribery, corruption, deception, betrayal and all kinds of religious and political misbehaviours or crimes. In each canto, Dante gets to talk to one or several souls stuck there to atone their sin.

In my ignorance, I didn’t expect this strange mix of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Christianity. For example, three characters are by Satan’s side: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. One Christian reference and two from Ancient Rome. Virgil guides Dante through his journey and it places the young poet under the protection of this monument of poetry. The inferno resembles the Hades. We encounter Charon, Cerberus and some tortures reminded me of the ones from the Greek mythology. It’s the be-attached-with-your-liver-eaten-by-a-bird kind of torture. But it’s mingled with Christian themes and references. For example, one circle imprisons fortune-tellers. Virgil says:

On est sans pitié pour des maux sans mesure. Ne sont-ils pas assez criminels, ceux qui osèrent être les émules d’un Dieu?

Here pity most doth show herself alive,

When she is dead. What guilt exceed his,

Who with Heaven’s judgement in his passion strives?

It’s a strange condemnation in Virgil’s mouth since the Roman people believed in auspices, oracles and couldn’t make important decisions without consulting priests, magicians and fortune-tellers.

What I didn’t expect as well is the political aspect of the book. In each circle Dante meets and talks with people he recognises. He wrote The Divine Comedy in exile. He’s incredibly upfront: he gives names of various famous people and make them end up in hell in the appropriate circle according to their past life (war crimes, abuses, political fights) In Canto 19, he meets Pope Boniface in the third valley, where he condemns the wealth and greed of the Church.

Oh! si l’antique respect pour vos ombres pontificales n’enchaînait ma langue, elle vous poursuivrait bien plus âpre ment encore, pasteurs mercenaires! car votre avarice foule le monde ; elle est amère aux bons et douce aux méchants. C’est de vous qu’il était prédit à l’évangéliste, quand il voyait celle qui était assise sur les eaux se prostituer avec les rois ; celle qui naquit avec sept têtes, et dix rayons qui s’éclipsèrent avec les vertus de son époux. C’est vous aussi qui vous êtes fait des dieux d’or et d’argent; et si l’idolâtre encense une idole, vous eu adorez mille. Ah! Constantin, que de maux ont germé, non de ta conversion, mais de la dot immense que tu payas au père de ta nouvelle épouse

If reverence of the keys restrain’d me not,

Which thou in happier time didst hold, I yet

Severer speech might use. Your avarice

O’ercasts the world with mourning, under foot

Treading the good, and raising bad men up.

Of shepherds, like to you, th’ Evangelist

Was ware, when her, who sits upon the waves,

With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld,

She who with seven heads tower’d at her birth,

And from ten horns her proof of glory drew,

Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.

Of gold and silver ye have made your god,

Diff’ring wherein from the idolater,

But he that worships one, a hundred ye?

Ah, Constantine! to how much ill gave birth,

Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower,

Which the first wealthy Father gain’d from thee!”

I didn’t know you could speak so freely in the 14thC without risking your life. I can’t imagine it in the France of that time but perhaps I have misconceptions about freedom of speech in the Middle Ages. After all, I’m not a specialist.

There are constant references to Florence and the politics of his time. Thank you, Count Rivarol, for all the explanations included in the footnotes. They helped.

I have little to say about the style, especially for English-speaking readers. You wouldn’t read the same version as me and the quality of the translation is crucial. Dante does create powerful images and poetic metaphors.

Vers le retour de l’année, jeune encore, où déjà le soleil plonge son front pâlissant dans l’urne pluvieuse : quand le jour s’accroît des pertes de la nuit, et que les voiles transparents de la gelée imitent au matin la robe éclatante de la neige, le pâtre qui n’a plus de fourrages se lève et regarde autour de lui ; mais voyant partout blanchir la plaine, il se bat les flancs, et troublé par son malheur, il rentre sous ses toits, court, s’écrie et se désespère. Il sort enfin, et renaît à l’espérance lorsqu’il voit qu’un temps si court a changé l’aspect des champs: déjà la houlette en main, il chasse devant lui son troupeau, qui bondit sur la verdure.

IN the year’s early nonage, when the sun

Tempers his tresses in Aquarius’ urn,

And now towards equal day the nights recede,

When as the rime upon the earth puts on

Her dazzling sister’s image, but not long

Her milder sway endures, then riseth up

The village hind, whom fails his wintry store,

And looking out beholds the plain around

All whiten’d, whence impatiently he smites

His thighs, and to his hut returning in,

There paces to and fro, wailing his lot,

As a discomfited and helpless man;

Then comes he forth again, and feels new hope

Spring in his bosom, finding e’en thus soon

The world hath chang’d its count’nance, grasps his crook,

And forth to pasture drives his little flock:

So me my guide dishearten’d when I saw

His troubled forehead, and so speedily

That ill was cur’d; for at the fallen bridge

Arriving, towards me with a look as sweet,

He turn’d him back, as that I first beheld

At the steep mountain’s foot.

But it’s hard for me to say what comes from Dante and what comes from Rivarol’s interpretation. However, I did get the gory details I expected:

Un homme se présenta d’abord, ouvert de la gorge à la ceinture: ses intestins fumants pendaient sur ses genoux, et son cœur palpitait à découvert.

As one I mark’d, torn from the chin throughout

Down to the hinder passage: ‘twixt the legs

Dangling his entrails hung, the midriff lay

Open to view, and wretched ventricle,

That turns th’ englutted aliment to dross.

Nice vision, isn’t it?

So after struggling to read it, what’s my opinion? I’m glad I read it but I guess I won’t remember more than what is in this billet. I don’t have enough education in literature and history to fully grasp the beauty and the innovation of this text.

PS: I used the free English translation by Cary. I hope I found the right passages corresponding to the French version. Honestly, I hardly understand that kind of English, I did my best.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

May 21, 2012 18 comments

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. French title: Soie 1996

I’d heard of Silk before and as I was in an Italian literature mood, I figured I’d try it. According to the blurb at the back of my edition, it’s a cult novel by one of the most gifted Italian writers of his generation. Hmm. Not my kind of literary religion then.

The novel is set between France (the Vivarais, in Ardèche) and Japan around 1860. Let me tell you the thin plot. Hervé Joncour lives in a village whose main industry is silk. When European silkworms die from an unknown disease, Hervé Joncour is sent to Japan to bring back larvae for the business to survive. The villagers pay for his trip and he needs to come back with living larvae.

Silk is hard to describe. Hervé Joncour goes back and forth between France and Japan. Discovering Japan is a life-changing experience, probably but nothing is said. You just assume. It’s a novel with a strange character you don’t get attached to. He’s always called Hervé Joncour, never Hervé. It gives the impression of a man who never loses his tie and walks with a broom in his back. There are some descriptions of Japanese customs but you watch them without a clue, just like the main character.

The style is ristretto like an Italian coffee. I guess it’s supposed to be powerful. It didn’t work for me although I’m usually a good audience for this. I love short sentences with an unusual use of the language. The writer needs to be very good for me to enjoy paragraph-long sentences. Short books composed with short sentences can hit you like a fist. But it’s the prerogative of excellent writers as it is hard to say a lot in a few pages. Here, the effects seem fabricated. For example, each time Hervé Joncour travels, Baricco writes the same paragraph to describe his itinerary, like in fairy tales. Great idea on paper but it sounded fake like a trick learnt in a writing class. See:

Il passa la frontière près de Metz, traversa le Wurtemberg et la Bavière, pénétra en Autriche, atteignit par le train Vienne puis Budapest et poursuivit jusqu’à Kiev. Il parcourut à cheval vingt mille kilomètres de steppe russe, franchit les monts Oural, entra en Sibérie, voyagea pendant quarante jours avant d’atteindre le lac Baïkal, que les gens de l’endroit appelait : mer. Il descendit le cours du fleuve Amour, longeant la frontière chinoise jusqu’à l’Océan, resta onze jours dans le port de Sabirk en attendant qu’un navire de contrebandiers hollandais l’amène à Capo Teraya, sur la côte ouest du Japon He crossed the border near Metz, walked through Württemberg and Bayern, entered in Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, rode twenty thousand kilometers through the Russian steppe, crossed the Ural mountains, entered in Siberia, and traveled forty days before reaching the Baikal lake that local people called: sea. He flew down the Amour river along the Chinese border till the Ocean, stayed eleven days in the Sabirk harbor until a ship of Dutch smugglers brought him to Capo Terya, on the West coast of Japan. 

I didn’t buy the Japanizing paraphernalia either. I found it a bit clichéd, the landlord, the geisha, the secret traditions. I also thought the double silent love story really hard to believe. Two women silently pining for dull Hervé Joncour? Come on!

I suppose it’s a go/no-go kind of book, like a Paulo Coelho. Either you fall for it or you don’t. Well, I didn’t but I understand that some do. I felt no emotion when it is clear that its aim was beauty and emotion. I expected better than that from such a praised writer. Has anyone read it?

A lost soul by Giovanni Arpino

May 15, 2012 19 comments

Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino. 1966. French title: Une âme perdue. Not translated into English.

Il me semble que je ne pourrai aborder aucun autre secret, que rien d’autre ne m’arrivera, sinon la répétition plus ou moins identique de cette histoire, la seule que le monde des adultes a su m’offrir en guise d’apprentissage. It seems I will never be able to take another secret, that nothing will ever happen to me other than the repetition more of less identical of this story, the only one the world of adults gave me as a coming-of-age experience.

Tino is 17. It’s Turin, the first week of July in the 1960s. Tino is an orphan who usually lives in a boarding school. Now he’s staying at his aunt Galla’s house for a week because his taking his maturita. (Baccalauréat in French, A-Level in English). Tino is a good student, he’s not really worried about the exam. He’s a sensitive teenager though and aunt Galla’s house makes him nervous. This novella is the journal of this decisive week, the week he finishes high school, enters adulthood with forceps and without anaesthesia.

Indeed, Aunt Galla and her husband Uncle Serafino are an odd pair. She’s the typical 1960s housewife:

Tante Galla voue une véritable adoration à son mari. Elle ne l’appelle jamais par son prénom, mais par son titre d’ingénieur, elle le suit, le surveille, le regarde de bas en haut tel un gros chien fidèle, toujours prêt à lui faire fête, qui jappe et agite les breloques que son maître lui a attachées au cou. Aunt Galla worships her husband. She never calls him by his Christian name, only by his title, engineer. She follows him, hovers over him, watches him from down to top like a big faithful dog, always ready to greet him eagerly, a dog who yelps and shakes the charms her master hung on her neck.

I can easily imagine her waiting for him to come back from work, holding his slippers and the evening paper. She has no mind of her own, she sees life through the adoring eyes of the obedient wife. But Tino doesn’t share his aunt’s blinded admiration for Uncle Serafino:

Oncle Serafino ne m’a jamais semblé être un homme.Comment m’expliquer? On dirait un être humain encore inachevé, un acteur arraché à son masque, à ses fards, à ses déguisements. Ou alors un homme qui brûle secrètement de sortir de lui-même et qui n’exhibe sa personne, les fragments minuscules de son cocon mortel dans lequel on l’a enfermé, qu’au prix d’une douleur et d’une humiliation constante. To me, Uncle Serafino never seemed to be a man.How can I explain? He looks like an incomplete human being, an actor broken off from his mask, his make-up, his costumes. Or a human being who secretly burns to come out of himself and who only shows his self, the minuscule fragments of his mortal cocoon in which he has been locked at the price of a constant pain and steady humiliation.

Not keen on meeting Uncle Serafino, are you? From the start, the reader is caught in the strange atmosphere of the household. Tino knows that Serafino’s twin brother has been locked in a room in the top floor of the house for the last twenty-five years. He’s the professor and only Uncle Serafino takes care of him. He takes into account all his needs: he bathes him, buys him clothes, brings him food, distraction and even hires a prostitute every week. When Uncle Serafino is at work, Aunt Galla spies on her brother-in-law through the peep-hole. Tino is invited to have a look too and he almost feels sick. The scene is poignant and a bit chilling. I thought “That’s the sequel of The Metamorphosis, although the professor isn’t a beetle. But it’s what Gregor Samsa would be after twenty-five years locked in a room, hidden away from the outside world”.

The house plays a role in the story too. It’s well-described and I saw the painting by Henri Magritte, L’empire des lumières. A strange feeling comes from this house full of corridors, unused spared rooms filled with broken objects and detritus. One description also reminded me of the room Malte Laurids Brigge used to go to in his family house. It’s disturbing. The garden is unkempt, the veranda is rusted, plants have grown wild and hide the door from the garden to the street. It’s like a beast that swallows things and human beings and doesn’t gives them back. Aunt Galla seldom goes out and never receives anyone. Tino is tempted to lock himself in his room at night, especially now that he knows that the professor’s room is right above his. Poor sleepless Tino.

L’heure de dormir avait tourné comme un aliment aigre. Pour éviter le lit, pour réprimer toute régurgitation de peurs et de pensées, j’ai repris mes livres et ouvert une page ça et là.

Bed time had turned sour like damaged food. To avoid my bed, to repress any regurgitation of fears and thoughts, I grabbed my text books and opened a page here and there.

I thought Arpino’s style excellent. Like here, he has a way to make you feel Tino’s emotion and angst.

De nouveau, le silence.Je ferme les yeux. Mes paupières ne me protègent pas de la lumière, le sommeil chemine dans mon corps mais se dissipe une fois parvenu à la hauteur de mes tempes. Cependant, je suis si fatigué que la peur n’a plus de prise sur moi: on dirait qu’elle m’a abandonné; et puis, ce n’est plus cette peur qui m’assaillait le cœur et les nerfs, c’est une peur dilatée qui stagne dans l’air de la chambre, dans toutes les fissures de cette maison. And again, the silence.I close my eyes. My eyelids don’t protect me from the light, sleep walks along my body but dispels once it reaches my temples. However, I’m so tired that fear has no hold on me: it seems it abandoned me. And also, it’s no more this fear that assailed my heart and my nerves, it’s a dilated fear that stagnates in the air of the room, in all the cracks of this house.

It reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, the unsettling mixture of detachment and terrible circumstances. I haven’t read a lot of Italian literature but it seems to me that heat is always an important side character. Here it is too. It distorts Tino’s perception, it slows his mind, it disturbs his sleep and makes him tired and thus more vulnerable to events.

I won’t tell you the secret of this house but it’s lurking. It’s the story of a teenager who came to the big city full of expectation, willing to see the world and who faces disappointment and ugliness. There is no fairy tale, no gold, only lead. He is thrown to the other side of the mirror, to the world of adults, without clues and there is no coming back.

It’s only the fourth of Arpino‘s novels to be translated into French. It’s not available in English, sorry, but another of his books, Scent of a Woman was translated by Anne Milano Appel.

The Tartar Steppe: from book to play

May 10, 2012 15 comments

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati French title: Le désert des Tartares.

Once again work gave me the opportunity to go to the theatre in Paris. Before discussing the play, let me tell you about the emotion of small Parisian theatres. This time, I attended a play in a theatre Boulevard des Batignolles, Le Petit Hebertot. In these small theatres, the usherettes get only tipped and have no wages – Note for American readers: this is very unusual in France – and you can feel it’s not a show with a big budget but mostly enthusiastic actors and staff who play and run the theatre because it’s their passion and not to make money. It’s an atmosphere Beryl Bainbridge relates well in An Awfully Big Adventure. We were barely fifty spectators in the room, I was seated in the second row, the actors were about five to ten steps from me. Sometimes I was under the impression that the main actor looked straight into my eyes when he was on stage. It’s a strange feeling, the actors are there, so near you could almost touch them and yet far away from themselves, in their characters.

That night, I’d decided to attend the play version of The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. It’s a novel I read a long time ago and the memory I had of it came more from reading Guy’s review than from my own reading. It was made into a play by Xavier Jaillard, who had also made La Vie devant soi into a successful play in 2008. The Tartar Steppe relates the life of the officer Giovanni Drogo. At the beginning of the novel, he is just out of the military academy and sent to Fort Bastiani, a remote place at an undefined border near the Tartar steppe. The place is desolated, isolated. Nothing happens there, it’s near a “dead border”, a border where there is no real danger. It’s in the mountains, there is no city in the vicinity, no distraction at all. Drogo wants to get away from there immediately but his officer convinces him he’d better stay four months before asking for a transfer.

Days pass, a routine settles, life is within a frame of military duties and there is always the hope of an attack from the Tartars and the chance to be useful. Years pass by and the more he stays, the more Drogo is incapable of living in the “normal” world.

It’s a strong text. It reminded me of reportages on prisoners who stay in jail for years and are eventually released. It may be hard for them to leave the prison adjust to their new life. You’d think they’d be happy to be free but they don’t always know what to do with their freedom if nobody waits for them.

The Tartar Steppe also shows the power of hope. How hope can make you stand up and live and at the same time prevents you from acknowledging the truth, cut your losses and run. Drogo always hopes the D-Day will be tomorrow, that he will have an opportunity to fight the Tartars nobody has ever seen. From day to day, sustained by hope, time flows and his life goes by. He doesn’t make the decision to leave because it could happen tomorrow. He’s like a gambler in front of a gambling machine, unable to leave in fear that the next coin will be the one that will make the difference and they will win the lottery. In this, I recognize Romain Gary and his ambivalence towards hope, poison and source of life at the same time.

The Tartar Steppe criticizes the absurdity of military life. Lives sacrificed to keep a stupid border where nobody goes. Blind obedience to discipline, deathly routine that kills any willpower left. Last year I visited the Fort de l’Essaillon in the French Alps. We did a kid tour with questions and heard lots of explanations about military life at the time. Fort Bastiani reminded me of this place. The Fort de l’Essaillon was never used; it kept the border between France and Italy in the 19thC and nothing happened there.

Furthermore, Buzzati points out the absurdity of life, the way you start on a road by chance, keep walking, try to turn away sometimes only to realize that the gate closed behind you and that there is no turning back. You can only keep on walking the same path. It’s a desperate book in a way and it surprised me that I had the same reaction as the first time I read it as a teenager. I wanted to shake Drogo, to urge him to react, to tell him “Do something!” Passivity is something I can understand with my brain but not with my guts. And yet, I do know it’s not easy to make a radical change in one’s life.

The novel was well adapted into a play, I think. The décor was simple but I could imagine easily the Fort and its life of duties. The novel is worth reading.

Interview with Paola Calvetti

November 2, 2011 8 comments

Paola Calvetti, author of PO Box Love: A Novel in Letters accepted to do a interview via e-mail after we had selected her book for our book club. So we wrote down a list of questions after discussing the novel.

Thanks again, Paola, for taking the time to answer our questions!

How did you imagine Emma’s bookstore? Does her shop exist somewhere or is it your dream of a bookshop?

Paola Calvetti: Emma’s bookshop is the sort of bookstore I dream of discovering. I miss that sort of independent bookshop and there are so few of them. I dreamed it up because I felt the need to go there in my head, to dream and to discover books. Every time Emma goes to her shop and I describe it I felt at home there, nostalgic. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found it in real life…but I am still looking!

Why did you choose the renovating of the Pierpont Morgan Library as a central “character” of the book?

Paola Calvetti: I chose the Pierpont Morgan Library because it is an absolutely extraordinary place, in many ways. It is more than just a building. John Pierpoint Morgan, was a man who loved beauty and wanted to surround himself with it. I find it very symbolic that his Library was transformed by a modern day genius, Renzo Piano, such that it has now been transformed into a place of extraordinary vitality, where people go to exchange thoughts, ideas, perhaps even meet for the first time, or just enjoy a silent moment. You can have a coffee and meet Jane Austen together.

Why the epistolary form?

Paola Calvetti: Federico chooses to write letters and through those letters he reflects on his life, his marriage and his work. The Morgan Library and Emma’s bookstore are two places that serve as metaphors where the two lovers “use” to recount their lives, their passions, their thoughts, and project their future….Writing a letter by hand allows you the time which an email does not. It is “slow” communication as opposed to the two lines of an sms or an email which is the literary equivalent of Fast Food.

Did you intend to place this book on the path of great love stories?

Paola Calvetti: I see the novel as a on the path of great love: romantic love but also a love of books, of family, of time, friendship…all those values which are eternal and keep us alive.

 Before opening her bookstore, Emma spent time in Lapland to think about her life. In Paolo Giordano’s novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mattia accepts a position in Sweden to leave his personal problems behind. Is there an Italian myth of going North to find isolation and think?

Paola Calvetti: I was born on January 10th. I love snow and Northern countries in both Europe and North America. Montreal for example is one of my favorite cities, marvelous, truly.

Have you read all the books listed in the novel?

Paola Calvetti: Yes I have. A true bookseller reads all the books she recommends. And I would never dare write about anything I didn’t know.

How do you use Internet to promote your books?

Paola Calvetti: I use facebook, and in France the publisher organized a blogger meeting, where I met with a group of bloggers. For the US editions, there is a fabulous marketing plan in place which will begin in January in which the book itself will be the protagonist talking about how excited it is to be in the bookstores in the States.

How is the situation of independent bookstore in Italy ?

Paola Calvetti: The general trend is not in favour of the independents but I love them and they (thankfully) love Emma. Amazon just arrived in Italy, so the readers still depend on the bookstores, but unfortunately, over half of sales are in the chains or supermarkets.

Who’s you favourite author ?

Paola Calvetti: I have so many, please don’t ask me to choose one. It would be like asking you to pick your favorite child. Some of my favorites are : Cunningham, Cameron, Foer, Tolstoy, Austen, Woolf. And I am always looking for new authors.

PO Box Love: A Novel of Letters by Paola Calvetti

October 27, 2011 10 comments

Noi due come un romanzo by Paola Calvetti. 2009  

  • French title: L’amour est à la lettre A.
  • English title : P/O Box Love: A Novel of Letters (will be published on January 31st 2012)
  • German title: Und immer wider Liebe: Roman
  • Dutch title: Voor liefde zie de letter L

This is the second book we had chosen for our book club and we met last Sunday night to discuss the book.  In November, we are reading Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. If you want to join us, it’ll be a pleasure. As this one wasn’t translated into English, you can also read The Roots of Heaven or Promise at Dawn if you want to discover this brilliant French writer.

Back to Paola Calvetti. I wrote my review of before our meeting and I’ll tell you what the others think of her novel.

My review

Emma, a fifty year old executive has inherited of a shop in the city center of Milan. She’s divorced and lives with her teenage son Mattia. She decides to leave her old life and open a bookstore specialized in love stories. It’s named Rêves et Sortilèges in French (Dreams and Charms) One day she gets in touch with her high-school sweetheart Federico. He’s married, has a daughter and works as an architect for Renzo Piano in New York on a big project, restoring the Pierpont Morgan library in Manhattan. The old flame kindles and as Federico now works in New York, they start writing to each other, using a PO Box. I won’t tell more about the plot, it would give away too many things.

The novel alternates between Emma’s everyday life in Milan and the letters she receives from Federico. She’s the narrator and Federico’s voice is only heard through his letters. We follow her adventure with her bookstore and how she develops her business. I enjoyed her shelves: the broken hearts section, the mission impossible shelf, the love and crime shelf, the traitors’ shelf, the cosi fan tutte one…There’s a lot of book suggestions in the novel, I started to write them down but there were too many of them, I gave up. Guess what? There’s a web site Rêves et Sortilèges and if you visit it, you’ll discover Emma’s bookstore, the shelves and the corresponding books, a video of Emma and Federico writing, the décor of the book. Have a look at it, it’s funny.

I liked Emma a lot, especially because we have things in common. Like her, I love spying on people’s books in trains, in the metro, in parks, everywhere. I’m always curious to see what other people read. She doesn’t drink wine and has to face people who just can’t understand that someone doesn’t like wine. (Is that as hard in Italy as it is in France?) She loves reading in bed and I’d like her to give me a “Shhh I’m reading” mug too. She made me want to visit Milan.

I also enjoyed Federico’s letters. I so want to go back to New York to visit his quiet places where he writes his letters.  I thought his voice was convincing, but can you really ride a Vespa in New York? Federico isn’t a reader but the researches he makes for his project slowly build a bridge between him and Emma. She gets interested in architecture and he starts enquiring after books. I liked to read about “his” project. (“his” because Renzo Piano really renovated the Pierpont Morgan Library in 2006)

The novel has flaws though. I thought that the side characters lacked craziness. I would have liked a whacked salesperson when Alice is so banal. Some literary coincidences may sound fake but they are used in many classic love stories too. I think about Mr Rochester being already married or Elizabeth Bennett stumbling upon Mr Darcy while visiting Pemberley.

In my post about book covers, I wrote “it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature.” So what’s the verdict? It’s a good read in the same category as Daniel Glattauer or Katherine Pancol’ animal trilogy. It’s lovely but it’s not for everyone. I had two charming evenings reading it and I enjoyed the moments I spent with this book as I have a thing for books about books, for the story of a bookstore and for epistolary novels. It is a novel about literature, about all the pleasure and comfort a reader can find in a book. That spoke to me.

After the book club meeting: what the others thought.

We all enjoyed reading it, although I was the one who liked it most, maybe because opening a bookstore is something I’d do if it paid the bills.

J. enjoyed following the development of the bookstore more than the love story and was a little bored by the parts about architecture. C&J both thought Federico wasn’t convincing and that he was speaking a lot of himself, that his feelings weren’t obvious. However, his letters after 09/11 were sober and moving. J also thought that everything runs too smoothly for Emma, that there aren’t enough obstacles.

On Emma herself, we thought it was nice to read about mature love. There’s a great acceptance of getting old, of solitude in these pages. In the span of years described in the book, Emma accepts aging. Her son leaves home, opening a new page of her life. We would have wanted more information about her past and more psychological insight.

We all liked the tribute to literature, as Emma’s customers also come after a break-up or a personal problem. They find comfort in books. I had chosen that quote:

Pour se sauver, on lit. On s’en remet à un geste méticuleux, une stratégie de défense, évidente mais géniale. Pour se sauver, on lit. Un baume parfait. Parce que peut-être, pour tout le monde, lire c’est fixer un point pour ne pas lever les yeux sur la confusion du monde, les yeux cloués sur ces lignes pour échapper à tout, les mots qui l’un après l’autre poussent le bruit vers un sourd entonnoir par où il s’écoulera dans ces petites formes de verre qu’on appelle des livres. La plus raffinée et la plus lâche des retraites. La plus douce. Qui peut comprendre quelque chose à la douceur s’il n’a jamais penché sa vie, sa vie tout entière, sur la première ligne de la première page d’un livre? C’est la seule, la plus douce protection contre toutes les peurs. Un livre qui commence. We read to save ourselves. We rely on a meticulous movement, a defence strategy, obvious but awesome. We read to save ourselves. A perfect balm. Perhaps it’s because for everyone, reading is a way to stare at something and avoid looking up at the confusion of the world. Eyes locked up on these lines to escape from everything, one by one the words push the noise towards a deaf funnel in which it will trickle out in these little glass shapes we call books. The most refined and the most coward of all shelters. The sweetest. Who can understand anything to sweetness if they have never bent their life, their entire life over the first line of the first page of a book? It’s the only and the softest protection against all fears. The beginning of a book.

as it speaks to me, until C pointed out that it comes from Lands of Glass by Alessandro Barricco, as Paola Calvetti indicated in the acknowledgments. Anyway, it’s a beautiful quote. Literature as a balm, an oblivion pill or a place to find answers.

To Paola Calvetti.

If you read this, I have a request:

It would be just great if you asked your publishers to include the list of the novels referred to in your book. There’s such a list in Katherine Pancol’s book, Un homme à distance and it was most convenient for compulsive readers like me. I LOVE that the web site of Rêves et Sortilèges exists and shows the Emma’s bookshop.

Paola Calvetti, book club and covers

October 12, 2011 40 comments

I wanted to remind you that our book club Les copines d’abord is currently reading Paola Calvetti’s book Noi due come un romanzo. It will only be published in English in January 2012 but it is available in French (L’amour est à la lettre A) and in German (Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman). Join us if you’re interested. I’ll post the review on October 27.

After reading Litlove’s post NOT chick-lit about how books are marketed for women and sometimes make look good novels like Harlequins – Sorry Litlove for summarizing so harshly your thoughtful post – Paola Calvetti’s novel came to my mind. Before reviewing the novel, I thought her book was a perfect illustration of how books are marketed differently according to the country and according to the supposed gender of their readership. The novel is the story of Emma, 50, who lives in Milan and quits her former life to open a bookstore. She also starts a correspondence with her former high school sweetheart Federico. If you only read the pitch I’ve just written, it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature. (You’ll have to wait for the review to know where it stands between the two.)

Here is the original Italian cover. The title means “The two of us like a novel”. I think it’s good, not too cheesy and puts forward the most important thing in the book: the letters. The colors are mostly black and white, nothing supposedly feminine. Nothing screams “I’m a novel for women only”

 

 

The French title is L’amour est à la lettre A. (Love is at the A letter), not at all the translation of the original title, which always bothers me. However, it refers to the letters and the bookstore, which is good. The French cover of the hardcover edition looks like the Italian cover. The paperback version shows Emma, but not her face. Is it because she’s 50? A picture of a young woman would be lying. Does that mean that an elegant fifty-year-old woman isn’t good for sales? I have another problem with this cover, it forgets Federico, who does have a voice in the story.

The German title is Und immer wieder Liebe: Roman, something like “And love forever: a novel”. The two German covers are quite opposite. I absolutely loathe the one with the bouquet in pastel tones. It looks like a Victorian novel. I don’t understand where the country setting comes from, most of the book is in Milan or New York. When I see a cover like this, I expect the stupidest romance. The other cover is better, but the red and black colors look sexy and somehow recall the Twilight covers. Where is my urban fifty-year-old Emma? Where’s the bookstore? Where is reading?

 

The English cover could be good without that rose. At least, there are books and letters. There’s nothing with a rose in that book. But look at all this pink!! An overdose of pink: pink background, pink rose, pink books, pink ribbon. It tastes like a stupid romance too. Seeing this cover, do you imagine a divorced active bookseller in Milan? I see a stay-at-home woman in the country in the 19thC.

 

If I’m in a positive state of mind, I’ll think that it will mislead romance readers and help them discover something else. If I’m in a ranting mind, I’m sorry for Paola Calvetti… This summer, I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. This is the adult version of Princesses and pink toys. A book for women? Pink. Cheesy. Corny. Flowers. Homes. Country. Long skirts. These covers forster the idea of women as romantic, interested in “girly” books and also tells men that these books aren’t for them. Honestly, can you imagine a man in a train carriage with a book with that cheesy book-letter-rose cover? He’d want to put a brown bag on it.

I don’t fit the description of the female reader these publishers imagine. I bought Paola Calvetti’s book because of her publisher, 10:18. I know that most of the time, I enjoy their books. If it had been published by J’ai Lu, with a cover like that and such a title, it would have stayed in the bookstore.

 

 

The weight of consequences

August 30, 2011 16 comments

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.

___________________________________________________________________

(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

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