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Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

July 18, 2021 21 comments

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 Leave a comment

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan – excellent

March 31, 2021 15 comments

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (2018) Original French title: Les Loyautés.

Les loyautés.

 

Ce sont les liens invisibles qui nous attachent aux autres –aux morts comme aux vivants—, ce sont des promesses que nous avons murmurées et dont nous ignorons l’écho, des fidélités silencieuses, ce sont des contrats passés le plus souvent avec nous-mêmes, des mots d’ordre admis sans les avoir entendus, des dettes que nous abritons dans les replis de nos mémoires.

Ce sont les lois de l’enfance qui sommeillent à l’intérieur de nos corps, les valeurs au nom desquelles nous nous tenons droits, les fondements qui nous permettent de résister, les principes illisibles qui nous rongent et nous enferment. Nos ailes et nos carcans.

Ce sont les tremplins sur lesquels nos forces se déploient et les tranchées dans lesquelles nous enterrons nos rêves.

Loyalties.

 

They’re invisible ties that bind us to others –to the dead as well as the living. They’re promises we’ve murmured but whose echo we don’t hear, silent fidelities. They’re contracts we make, mostly with ourselves, passwords acknowledged though unheard, debts we harbour in the folds of our memories.

They’re the rules of childhood dormant within our bodies, the values in whose name we stand up straight, the foundations that enable us to resist, the illegible principles that eat away at us and confine us. Our wings and our fetters.

They’re the springboards from which our strength takes flight and the trenches in which we bury our dreams.

This is the foundation of Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan. Through four characters, she will explore this notion of loyalties and how they affect our vision of the events we live and our decision-making process.

Hélène is a science teacher in a Parisian collège (middle school in France) and she has Théo and Mathis in her class. When the book opens, she has noticed that something is wrong with Théo but, based on her own experience, she makes the wrong conclusion. She thinks he’s molested at home.

She’s right in her observation, though. Théo is on a dangerous path. His parents are divorced and he’s split between his loyalty to each parent. Her mother is embittered by the divorce and doesn’t want to know anything about the weeks Théo spends with his father. Théo’s father is unemployed, broke and depressed. He barely makes it out of bed. Théo has promised not to say anything to his paternal grandmother. He remains silent. Théo has discovered that alcohol brings a welcome numbness and experiments drunkenness.

Mathis is Théo’s best friend and they’re each other’s only friend. Mathis drinks with Théo, in a hidden spot at the collège. As Théo’s drinking increases, Mathis feels more and more ill-at-ease with their games. But talking to an adult means betraying his friend.

Cécile is Mathis’s mother. She notices that something is different with Mathis and she doesn’t like Théo. She’ll make a discovery about her husband that will shatter her life and destroy the personality her husband shoed her in.

Delphine de Vigan explores how Hélène and Cécile’s pasts shaped them and still influence who they are and how they react to problems. As they got older, a new web of loyalties added to the one they weaved in childhood. When things go wrong, which loyalty will be the wings and which one will be the fetter?

Théo and Mathis are bound by their loyalties to their parents and to each other.

Hélène turned the loyalty to the frightened little girl she was to a loyalty to her students. She knows something is seriously wrong with Théo, even after the school nurse has examined him and assured her that there was no trace of violence on his body. She still watches him, tries to talk to his mother, shows that she cares, even if her actions are sometimes over-the-top and put her at odds with her hierarchy.

Will Théo get the help he needs? That’s for you to discover in this excellent novella. Delphine de Vigan expertly explores the concept of loyalty through a plausible story.

Highly recommended.

PS : Sorry, I haven’t found out how to insert a book cover with a proper layout with the new WP editor. I’m going to ask for help…

Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 11 comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

January 20, 2021 37 comments

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark (1959) Not available in French (sadly)

This week is Bill’s AWW Gen 3, which means Australian Women Writers from Generation 3 and their books published between 1919 and 1960. See Bill’s explanations here

Since I don’t know much about Australian literature, Bill kindly made me a list of books that met the GEN 3 criteria. After checking out which ones were available on the kindle, I settled on Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark.

Great choice, if you want to know.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

You know what pineapples look like and this is lantana, a thick bush of weed:

Dark calls her characters the Anachronisms because they like farming and their small farms are against the flow of progress. Farming isn’t a well-esteemed profession.

We are not affluent people in the Lane. As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of the Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much.

This hasn’t changed much over the last decades, has it? They work a lot and their income is uncertain and low. As Dark cheekily points out the three sections of the community which always keep on working whatever happens (namely, farmers, artists and housewives), are liable to get trampled on. Note the little feminist pique and the spotlight on housewives.

Only a few of farmers were actually born in Lantana Lane, several came from the city to live their dream of farming. We get to meet everyone, the adults, the children, the dogs, the utes and another weird vehicle named Kelly and finally Nelson, the communal kookaburra.

Each chapter is a vignette that either describes a family and their history, a special episode in their lives or a specificity of this part of Queensland. And what characters they are!

Cunning Uncle Cuth manages to stay with his nephew Joe without taking on a workload. Herbie Bassett let his contemplative nature loose after his wife died for there is no need to work for the material world when you can unclutter your life and enjoy gazing at nature. Gwinny Bell is a force of nature, a master at organization and obviously a superior intelligence. As the omniscient narrator points out, her skills are wasted in Lantana Lane.

I loved Aunt Isabelle, the older Parisian aunt of the Griffiths, who arrives unannounced, eager to live the pioneer life. Our communal aunt is an active, vivacious and extremely voluble lady of sixty-eight., says the Narrator, in the chapter Our New Australian. I loved her silly but kind behaviour. Her speech is laced with French mistakes in her English and French expressions (All accurate, btw. I seize the opportunity to tell my kind English speaking readers that the endearment mon petit chou refers to a little cream puff and not a little cabbage.) The most noticeable clue of her assimilation as a true Australian is that she will cry gladly: “Eh bien, we shall have a nice cupper, isn’t it?” Tea addict.

I laughed at loud when I read the chapter entitled Sweet and Low, about young Tony Griffith, his fife and his parents’ outhouse. I followed Tim and Biddy’s endeavours to grow things on their land and slowly take into account their neighbour’s agricultural recommendations.

The Dog of my Aunt is about Lantana Lane’s barmy characters, Aunt Isabelle’s arrival and her friendship with Ken Mulliner and I felt I was reading a written version of a Loony Tunes episode. Eleanor Dark has such a funny and vivid description of Aunt Isabelle’s travels to Dillillibill, her arrival at top speed on a Kelly driven by a wild Ken Mulliner that you can’t help chuckling.

Between the chapters about the people, Eleanor Dark inserted chapters about the place. There’s one about lantana and pineapples, one about the climate and cyclones, one about the serpents and one about the kookaburras and Nelson in particular. I wonder where the chapter about spiders went.

We understand that this tightknit community is in danger. The authorities are taking measurements to built a deviation, a bitumen road that will put them on the map. Pesticides invade agriculture, the trend is to create big farms. Eleanor Dark has her doubts about all these new methods and wonders what they will do to nature.

But this is a labour-saving age, and chipping is now almost obsolete. The reason is, of course, that Science has come to the rescue with a spray. The immediate and visible effect of this upon the weeds is devastating, though what its ultimate, and less conspicuous effects upon all sort of other things may prove to be, we must leave to learned research workers of the future.

Well, unfortunately, now, we know.

Eleanor Dark has a great sense of humour and Lantana Lane is a comedy. She mixes irony and humorous observations. She has knack for comedy of situation. She writes in a lively prose, a playful tone, shows an incredible sense of place and a wonderful tendency to poke fun at her characters. She points out their little flaws with affection and pictures how the community adapts and accepts everyone’s eccentricities. But behind the comedy, the reader knows that this way-of-living is condemned.

As usual, reading classic Australian lit is educational, vocabulary-wise. I had to research lantana, paw-paw, Bopple-Nut, pullet (although, being French and given the context, I’d guessed it was the old English for poulet) and all kinds of other funny ringing ones (flibbertigibbet, humdinger, flapdoodle…)

Visiting Lantana Lane was a great trip to Queensland, a journey I highly recommend for Dark’s succulent prose. For another take at Lantana Lane, read Lisa’s review here.

Note for French readers: Sorry, but it’s not available in French.

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 11 comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm – A Book You Mostly Won’t Know How to Put Down

December 20, 2020 22 comments

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm (2019) French title: La vie en chantier. Translated by Juliane Nivelt.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Taz and Marnie are in their later twenties and live in Missoula, Montana. They’re married, deeply in love, settling in life. Taz works as a cabinetmaker for a contractor, Marko. Money is tight but they’re happy, enjoying the nature around them, spending time with friends and renovating the old house they bought, room by room. When Marnie announces that she’s pregnant, they couldn’t be happier to have a baby, become parents and start this new chapter of their life.

Then the unthinkable happens: Marnie dies in childbirth. And from one day to the other, Taz finds himself without his soulmate and with a newborn little girl.

The first chapters of the book show us the young couple preparing for their baby’s arrival. They decorate her room, Taz builds her a bed. They rush into finishing other rooms as well, to be as ready as possible. They enjoy their last picnics and swimming in the river days at two, or so they think. They love camping and flyfishing and upon Marnie’s insistance, their baby girl’s name will be Midge.

And then, the horror on Day Zero. Midge is born and Marnie dies.

From then on, we follow Taz through his days as he struggles to get up, to take care of his baby, to go back to work. Grief takes him to an inner place where the echoes of the world barely come to him. He’s a living robot, lost in his bubble of silence. His parents emigrated to in New Zealand and won’t come back to help him. Marnie’s mother comes to help, crushed by her own grief but thinking of her grand-daughter. His best friend Rudy takes care of him and the community rallies around Taz. His freezer is filled with casseroles, he gets stocks of diapers and baby formula. Clients add a nice tip to his checks. His friends make sure he doesn’t drown in sorrow.

His friends are there, pulling him out of his underwater tunnel, forcing him to resurface and take a breath. Rudy helps him find a babysitter for Midge and that’s how Elmo enters into Taz’s and Midge’s life.

Each chapter is named after the day after Taz’s personal ground zero and Pete Fromm takes us until Day Five Hundred and Nine to Day One of a new life. The title A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do refers to parenthood and Taz is distraught and helpless. How can he raise Midge on his own? Thankfully grandma Lauren visits from time to time, Elmo goes beyond her babysitting duties, Rudy has his back and his employer Marko is understanding.

Fromm makes grief palpable and real for the reader. There’s no pathos, no long internal monologues dissecting Taz’s feelings. He shows us Taz’s life in his long tunnel to the beginning of recovery. Marnie’s with him at all times, he mentally seeks her advice. He takes Midge to their favorite places by the river and tells her stories about her mom. Sorrow grips him at the throat at the oddest moments, because a tiny detail triggers a memory of his former life with Marnie.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do is sad but hopeful. It’s the opposite of grandiloquent pain you’d find in other kinds of literature. It’s the pain of ordinary people who brutally lose a loved one.

Pete Fromm finds the right words to make us feel Taz’s pain. There’s no direct description of it but his picture of Taz’s quotidian is an oblique way to show the reader how he feels. How he’s slowly winning the battle against despair. Step by step. How people around him are there along the way, catching him when he stumbles from the heavy pain that he carries with him at all times. How life and hope win, in the end.

I wish I had quotes to share but I read it in French. The French title, La vie en chantier, is spot-on. It means Life as a Work in Progress and Life as a Job Site at the same time. Taz’s life is under construction and he works in construction too. The way he slowly, thoughtfully crafts wood is a metaphor of how he slowly rebuilds his life. Usually, in that case, I download a sample from the American Kindle store or use the “Look Inside” function on Amazon to find a quote from the first pages. But there is no such thing for this book, I suppose that it’s not bankable enough. That’s a shame. Surely the disastrous English covers got in the way of promoting this sensitive novel.  Look at them! They are so stupidly Women Fiction (A term I despise) that they betray the book. 

Well. Taz felt true-to-life to me and will stay with me for a long time because he’s one of us and all of us at the same time. I would love to meet the author who wrote such a beautiful and universal piece of literature.

A book I very very highly recommend.

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

November 7, 2020 22 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – Chateaubrilliant, I should say

October 18, 2020 11 comments

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1849) An Anthology Original French title: Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Anthologie. 

I bought this anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave during my literary escapable to Combourg in July. Jean-Claude Berchet, a literary critic specialist of Chateaubriand, selected the texts of this anthology. I trust him to pick the best parts of the forty-two books of Chateabriand’s Memoirs for lazy readers like me.

This billet will not bring anything to literary critic of the Memoirs, I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that. It’ll be my experience as a reader, which is personal and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of this monument of literature.

When Chateaubriand writes about his birth and childhood, he mentions that his mother inflicted life upon him and he wasn’t happy to live. Karma is a bitch, he’ll be on this Earth during eighty years. (September 4th, 1768-July 4th, 1848) and what eighty years! Here’s a little historical digest of the times.

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

08/1830-02/1848 July Monarchy Louis-Philippe

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

Chateaubriand was a soldier in the Revolutionary wars (on the monarchy’s side), fled the country, stayed in England, came back and occupied various political capacities. (deputy at the Chambre des Pairs, minister of Foreign Affairs…)

I was really interested in his childhood, the passages related to his travels to America and his life during the French Revolution and his exile in England. He endured hardship with stride and never complained. I found the last books interesting too as he reflects upon France and democracy. The other books were about his political career and as you can see in the table before, the political scene is very complicated. All the explanations about where he stood and why he supported this or that side went over my head, due to the my lack of historical knowledge. I’m sure that the Memoirs are invaluable material for historians.

I was disappointed that there was almost nothing about his personal life. There’s a nice book about his wife, very polite. It was an arranged marriage that lasted until 1847. They rarely lived together and had no children. (I guess living apart is an efficient method of contraception.) Chateaubriand had mistresses and I hope his wife had lovers too.

Everything was centered on him and History. There were some passages about his books and their success but nothing about his literary life. Nothing about literary salons, only mentions about Mme de Beaumont and Mme Récamier, in passing. Not a word about the battle of Hernani. Almost no literary reference except Lord Byron, and a passage about George Sand. No description of Paris, its people, its changes. He lived in the Paris of Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Nerval and Stendhal and he says nothing about it. What a disappointment! (Or Jean-Claude Berchet cut all these passages)

I enjoyed reading his thoughts about political regimes, though. He was in favor of a controlled monarchy, thinking that the ultimate regime for France would be a Republic but that the country needed a transition period with a constitutional monarchy. It’ll take until 1870 for the republic to be the stable political regime for France but he foresaw that trying to reinstall a full monarchy was a pipe dream. The French population had moved on. There are fascinating thoughts about the public stance a royal family should have that could interest British readers. (Book 37)

There’s a book set in Switzerland, where he’s on holiday, walking in the mountains, trying Rousseau and Lord Byron’s paths, I suppose. And I thought, “Here we go, Romanticism and the bliss of hiking in the mountains.” And no, dear Chateaubriand surprised me with this ironic statement:

Au surplus j’ai beau me battre les flancs pour arriver à l’exaltation alpine des écrivains de montagne, j’y perds ma peine.

Au physique, cet air vierge et balsamique qui doit réanimer mes forces, raréfier mon sang, désenfumer ma tête fatiguée, me donner une faim insatiable, un repos sans rêves, ne produit point sur moi ces effets. Je ne respire pas mieux, mon sang ne circule pas plus vite, ma tête n’est pas moins lourde au ciel des Alpes qu’à Paris. J’ai autant d’appétit aux Champs-Elysées qu’au Montanvert, je dors aussi bien rue Saint-Dominique qu’au mont Saint-Gothard, et si j’ai des songes dans la délicieuse plaine de Montrouge, c’est qu’il en faut au sommeil.

Au moral, en vain j’escalade les rocs, mon esprit n’en devient pas plus élevé, mon âme plus pure ; j’emporte les soucis de ma terre et le faix des turpitudes humaines. Le calme de la région sublunaire d’une marmotte ne se communique point à mes sens éveillés. Misérable que je suis, à travers les brouillards qui roulent à mes pieds, j’aperçois toujours la figure épanouie du monde. Mille toises gravies dans l’espace ne changent rien à ma vue du ciel ; Dieu ne me paraît pas plus grand du sommet de la montagne que du fond de la vallée. Si pour devenir un homme robuste, un saint, un génie supérieur, il ne s’agissait que de planer sur les nuages, pourquoi tant de malades, de mécréants et d’imbéciles ne se donnent-ils pas la peine de grimper au Simplon ? Il faut certes qu’ils soient bien obstinés à leurs infirmités.

For the rest, it is vain for me to exert myself to attain the Alpine exaltation of the mountain authors: I waste my pains. 

Physically, that virgin and balmy air, which is supposed to revive my strength, rarefy my blood, clear my tired head, give me an insatiable hunger, a dreamless sleep, produces none of those effects for me. I breathe no better, my blood circulates no faster, my head is no less heavy under the sky of the Alps than in Paris. I have as much appetite in the Champs-Élysées, as on the Montanvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on the Mont Saint-Gotthard, and, if I have dreams in the delicious plain of Montrouge, the fault lies with the sleep.

Morally, in vain do I scale the rocks: my mind becomes no loftier for it, my soul no purer; I carry with me the cares of earth and the weight of human turpitudes. The calm of the sublunary region of a marmot is not communicated to my awakened senses. Poor wretch that I am, across the mists that roll at my feet I always perceive the full-blown face of the world. A thousand fathoms climbed into space change nothing in my view of the sky; God appears no greater to me from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. If, to become a robust man, a saint, a towering genius, it were merely a question of searing over the clouds, why do so many sick men, miscreants and fools not take the trouble to clamber up the Simplon? Surely, they must be very obstinately bent upon their infirmities.

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Chateaubriand. He is the perfect blend of the Age of Enlightenment with its Voltairean irony and the angst of the first half of the 19th century. He’s a French spirit to the core. Born in the Britany aristocracy, he embraced democracy as the final target for France. His intelligence brought us insightful thoughts about politics and the way to lead a country. Many of analyses are still up-to-date. He was true to his beliefs all his life, not compromising for a position. It left him poor sometimes but with his integrity. Freedom of speech was not something to be trifled with and he understood that King Charles X willing to suppress it contributed the 1830 July Revolution. To be honest, I expected someone a lot more conservative than he was.

Chateaubriand writes beautifully, as the quote before displays it. I wish he had dropped the frequent Greek and Latin comparisons though, because I think they weigh his sentences down. And of course, but that’s not his fault, they are mostly obscure to the modern reader.

So, what’s the verdict? I’m on the fence. I really struggled with some passages that I found truly boring. His speeches, the passage on Napoléon but I’m curious about the missing passages because I wonder if they have descriptions of his personal life. Thinking of reading the whole Memoirs is daunting, it’s more than 3500 pages. Perhaps I should just download a free ebook edition and read what interests me.

I’m happy I read this anthology as I met a great writer and a man with an exceptional intelligence. He surprised me with his modern thinking and how relevant some of his assessments are.

Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer – fatherhood and a new side of Colorado

October 14, 2020 3 comments

Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer (2014) French title: Cry Father. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Patterson Wells is a broken man. He never recovered from the death of his child, Justin. Now he works as a tree clearer. He travels to the sites of catastrophe and helps removing the fallen trees to restore power or clear roads. Hear him describe his job

This year’s work season was the roughest I’ve had in a while. There was a tropical storm that hit Texas in August and it took out most of the power in the southern half of the state. They were offering double time clearing power lines, which I couldn’t pass up, but it was the worst kind of work. Eighteen-hour days, with six hours off to try to get a little sleep in the tent city they’d set up for us, no hot meals but what we could cook on campfires. But I figured since I started early maybe I’d knock off in March. Not that it worked out that way, of course. It never does. I ended up in Missouri, South Dakota, Virginia, and then, after a freak spring storm, down in Florida. Which is why it’s now May and I’m just setting free.

Now he’s on his way back home to Colorado, where he owns a cabin on the mesa. He’s dreading coming home, seeing his ex-wife Laney, being where he used to live with her and their son. He tries to make detours to avoid the inevitable and hoped to go on a two-weeks fishing trip with Chase, a coworker.

When he arrives at Chase’s home, two weeks after they parted on a job site, it’s to find him transformed into a meth baron. He says his girlfriend Mel set it up when he was away and that he found her cheating on him with a biker when he came home. His house is filthy, his girlfriend is tied up in the bathroom and Chase is high on meth, booze and lack of sleep. He’s in a dangerous mode.

Patterson frees Mel after fighting with Chase and they leave the house separately, Mel deciding that stealing Chase’s truck was a good enough payback.

Patterson finally reaches his cabin in Colorado, a place that has no electricity and no running water. (These cabins never cease to amaze me, coming from a country where electricity is a public service and the right to access to the electricity network is written in the law.) Patterson is inconsolable and still grieves his son’s death. His therapy is to write him letters, which allows the reader to get into Patterson’s mind. He also tries to drown himself in booze.

Back on the mesa, he reunites with his friend Henry, an odd man who lives in an isolate place and has a poor relationship with his grownup son Junior. Junior is a driver, in a James Sallis meaning of the word. He drives, that’s all he does, transporting drugs between Colorado and Mexico. Junior has a daughter with Jenny who lives on the same street but in another house. Junior hates Henry and wishes to be better father to his young daughter Casey.

Patterson and Junior are two men who have a thing with fatherhood. They are both poor father figures, one has lost any chance to improve and doesn’t recover from it and the other knows nothing about parenting. Both are hurting.

Patterson and Junior strike an odd friendship, ignited by circumstances and fueled by their common feeling that they are screwups and have nothing to lose. From one bad decision to another, with alcohol, drugs and weapons at their disposal, their lives become an unstoppable train of despair and destruction.

The women in Whitmer’s novel try to bring some normalcy, some peace. They have to maintain a routine as they have to take care of children, Casey for Jenny and a son from another man for Laney. Motherhood grounds them.

Fatherhood is the crux of the novel. Henry would like to mend his relationship with Junior but it’s too late. Patterson mourns the father he could have been. Junior dreams of the father he could be. Patterson’s letters to Justin are poignant and we get to know the depth of his pain.

Whitmer describes a harsh side of Colorado. We’re a far cry from Aspen and its socialite tourists. He takes us to Denver’s back alleys, to the poor and dangerous neighborhoods. He drives us on the backroads of the mesa, where the only radio station available is Father Joe’s, who goes on about the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and who delights in spreading the most extravagant fake news. And people like Henry listen to him with rapt attention. Whitmer pictures a state where the police are absent. People rely on themselves on the mesa, Patterson carries a gun at all times. (He started it to protect himself on his clearing jobs, since he’s always in the wilderness) There are places where people can bury a body in absolute discretion. It reminded me of this quote from The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson:

It was big country in the thunder basin, a place where a person could get away with a lot and had. Like a giant, high-altitude frying pan in summer, it heated up during the day to well over a hundred degrees, but then, in accord with the extremes of its nature, plummeted past freezing at night. If you were going to kill, it seemed like the place for it.

Cry Father is a stunning book about a broken man whose life turns for the worst. There’s no redemption like in The Lost Get Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. It’s closer to Joe by Larry Brown. These fathers got booze and violence as a legacy from their fathers and don’t know how to break that mold.

Cry Father is my second Benjamin Whitmer, after Pike. It is published by Gallmeister in an outstanding translation by Jacques Mailhos. I’m under the impression that Whitmer’s other books, Old Lonesome and The Dynamiters are available in French translations but not in the original, as if they had not been published in English at all. If that’s the case, it’s such a shame because Benjamin Whitmer is a talented writer.

The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 34 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo – A poet writes hardboiled.

October 4, 2020 3 comments

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. (1981) French title: La mort et la belle vie. Translated by Michel Lederer

Death and the Good Life is the only crime fiction book written by Richard Hugo. He was better known as a poet. Unfortunately, he died in 1982, before he had even the chance to write another polar.

Al Barnes is a former police detective of the homicide brigade in Portland who decided to leave the grim life of a city cop behind to become a deputy sheriff in Plains, Montana. Al is nicknamed “Mush-Heart” due to his natural empathy. That makes him unsuited for most police work but a good investigator because people confide in him.

Al thought he had switched to a quiet life when two men get axed. Ralph McGreedy and Robin Tingley work for the Plains pulp mill. It belongs to the Hammer siblings, Lee and Lynn. They live eight months of the year in Portland and four months in Plains. McGreedy and Tingley run the mill for the Hammers, wealthy investors who saved the pulp mill and its jobs. They are well-acquainted with the locals and well-accepted in Plains. Who would want to kill McGreedy and Tingley?

At first, it seems that a serial killer is in action. Red Yellow Bear, the sheriff and Al’s boss decides to take advantage of Al’s experience with homicides. He will follow a lead to Portland and discover that twenty years ago, a murder happened during a party thrown by the young Lynn and Lee. Al starts digging. He meets with his former colleagues and gets the informal help he needs to push the investigation and see what’s behind the Hammers’ posh façade.

For a first, Hugo, who was a fan of hardboiled fiction, wrote an excellent polar. I was fond of Al, a man I would love to meet in real life. The plot is well-paced and peppered with little thoughts and remarks as Al navigates through the ups-and-downs of a police investigation. There’s a strong sense of place, the descriptions of Montana sound genuine and it’s the same for the parts in Portland. The sheriff is an Indian and I remember Craig Johnson say that writing a book set in Wyoming or Montana without Indians in it was not realistic as they are part of the local communities.

I read Death and the Good Life in French, in a mass paperback edition. I don’t think there’s an ebook version in English and no sample is available online, so I have no quote. I wish I had some to share. It seems that this book is a bit forgotten by its English-speaking readers. It’s too bad because it’s an excellent book to read by a rainy afternoon, by the fire, under a plaid.

After reading Death and the Good Life, I decided to check out Hugo’s poetry and browse through the first pages of his Selected Poems. Look at the first one:

Trout fishing again! I’m cursed! 😊

Trout aside, it’s a reminder that my English isn’t good enough to truly understand poetry. And once again, I have this issue with genders in English. In French, trout is a feminine word. In my mind, Trout is not a he, it’s a she. When I read in English and the gender remains neutral, it’s not a problem because I don’t think in French anymore and nothing special pops out of the sentence. But when an animal is described with a gender in English, it attracts my attention. If it’s not the same one as in French, it’s confusing. Is it the same for people who speak German and read in English? And what about speaking French, German and English?

PS: The book covers. *sigh* The French one screams ‘Montana cliché’ and it’s the wrong season. The American one looks like Gatsby is around the corner. None really reflects the atmosphere of the book…*double sigh*

PPS: Don’t let my ramblings detract you from reading Death and the Good Life.

Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

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