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Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

I’ve been on a theatre binge

January 19, 2020 10 comments

It’s time to have a little chat about theatre as I’ve been on a theatre binge lately. I’ve seen four plays in a month.

The first one was Vie de Joseph Roulin by Pierre Michon, directed and played by Thierry Jolivet.

I’ve never read Pierre Michon but I know he’s a praised French writer. When I picked this play, I thought it would be the opportunity to discover a new author. The theme of the book is interesting: Joseph Roulin is the postman in Arles who befriended Van Gogh. (His portray is now at the Boston Art Museum) Michon explores the friendship between the two men, who were drinking companions at the local café. Roulin was not an educated man and knew nothing about art. Van Gogh was his friend and a painter, a poor one. He didn’t know he was living next to a genius and the text questions who gets to decide that an artist is good or not and when. That’s the idea and it’s a fascinating topic to explore.

Unfortunately, Michon’s text is too bombastic for my taste. It could have been a vivid succession of scenes from the postman’s life and its interaction with the artist and his art. Jolivet chose to tell the text on a monotonous tone, like  rap music without the rhythm. Behind him, pictures of Van Gogh’s painting were projected on the wall.

Photo by Geoffrey Chantelot

It was supposed to be hypnotic, I guess it worked since I kept dozing off and so did my neighbor in the theatre. Such a waste of a good idea. The text and the direction were a lethal combo for me, I disliked both.

Fortunately, the second one was Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï by Fabcaro, directed by Paul Moulin and it was a blast.

How do you make a BD* into a theatre play? Paul Moulin did it marvelously. Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï is a man hunt in a dystopian world. A BD author, Fabcaro’s doppleganger, forgot his loyalty card at the supermarket. Before security takes him away, he runs away and becomes the most wanted man in France. Everything about this man hunt is absurd and huge fun. (For more details, see my previous billet here.)

Paul Moulin used a very efficient trick to transpose the BD into a play: it becomes the recording of a radio show. The actors are behind lecterns, with headsets and play the different roles as if they were recording it for the radio. On the side of the stage, actors do the sounds effects, again, as if they were recording.

It is an excellent way to transpose the atmosphere of the BD and it is hilarious. It lasts 50 minutes and the public had huge grins when they came out of the theatre. It was a wonderful moment and highly recommended to anyone and especially to teenagers, as it is a way to show them that theatre plays are not always stuffy Corneille affairs.

The next play I went to was Le Porteur d’Histoire written and directed by Alexis Michalik.

The title means The History Carrier and it was tagged as literary treasury hunt. How could I resist? It’s a contemporary play that won two Molière awards in 2014. The play opens on Martin Martin getting lost on his way to his father’s funeral. They were estranged and he never visited his father’s new house in the French Ardennes. When he takes care of his father’s belongings, he finds a mysterious notebook and an extraordinary quest will take him across continents and History.

It’s a wonderful text inspired by Alexandre Dumas and his compelling stories. I can’t tell much about the plot because it would spoil the story and the biggest charm of the play is to let yourself be taken away by the storytelling. It’s like a fairytale where some djinn takes you on a magic carpet to travel the world and live fascinating adventures. The text is an homage to the 19th century novels that were published in newspapers as feuilletons, with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter to push the reader to by the next newspaper. And it works.

The direction is a tour de force. The spectator is thrown in different places, in different times and follows the story with eagerness, wondering where it will take them to. It lasts more than one hour and a half and I was captivated from the beginning to the end. This is another the kind of play to take teenagers to, to give them the theatre bug.

The next play scheduled in my theatre subscription was Lewis versus Alice, adapted from Lewis Carroll by Macha Makeïeff. The play is a succession of scenes that alternate between key passages from Lewis Carroll’s works and moments of the writer’s life. Macha Makeïeff showed us how Carroll transposed some of his life’s traumatic experiences into literature. The show went back and forth between his literary world and his life, including his sad years at Rubgy, his questionable attachment to Alice Liddell and his work as a teacher. The play showed Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man hidden behind his penname Lewis Carroll.

Lewis versus Alice is tagged as musical show but it’s not a musical. The cast of actors were French and English speaking natives, all speaking in both languages. Some passages were in English, repeated into French. There were songs and acrobatics. Among the cast was Rosemary Standley, the singer of Moriarty who sang two of their songs. The text used some excerpts from Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. The staging was clever, taking us from Alice’s wonderland to England in the 19th century.

Photo by Pascal Victor

It was delightful and brightly played and well-served by excellent actors/dancers/singers/acrobats. It’s a joyful show, a wonderful homage to Carroll’s imaginary world and an attempt to better understand how this man ended up telling these stories.

What’s next? Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. I expect it to be good as I’ve heard about the book and Eribon’s take on it. (It’s available in English under Returning to Reims.) I’m looking forward to it.

And guess what! There’s a new theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary and directed by Stéphane Freiss! I’d love to see it but it’s in Paris…

PS: Glossary for new Book Around the Corner’s readers: BD is a French acronym for Bande Dessinée. It is a generic word which covers comics and graphic novels.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 12 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

Book Club 2015-2016 : The list

June 21, 2015 39 comments

book_club_2We will be reading our last book from this year’s Book Club. It’s Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin. If you want to join us, I’ll post about it at the end of July and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you.

This week-end we’ve selected twelve novels for our 2015-2016 Book Club and a bonus book for July 2016. Our tour starts in August 2015 and ends in July 2016. We’ve tried to pick books from different genres, different times and different countries. This year, we have four French novels and mostly European writers.  Now, what you want to see: THE LIST.

Book_Club_1The Last Frontier by Howard Fast is published by Gallmeister, gem-finder extraordinaire. Fast relates the story of the Cheyenne Indians in the 1870s, and their bitter struggle to flee from the Indian Territory in Oklahoma back to their home in Wyoming and Montana. I expect unpleasant scenes but it seems a good and enlightening read.

After this journey to the West, we’ll be back in France to read Heureux les heureux by Yasmina Reza. I loved her play Comment vous racontez la partie and Guy enjoyed Happy Are the Happy which is a good omen for me.

Lebanese writer’s Toufic Youssef Aouad is spelled Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad and I loved his excellent Deat in Beirut. Le pain (Bread) is set in 1916 and is considered as the first “real” Lebanese novel. It has just been translated into French by Fifi Abou dib, Awwad’s grand-daughter.

Book_Club_2I don’t need to present Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach, it’s been reviewed a few times already. I discovered him through German Lit Month and I will be reading it for this year’s German Lit Month if it is organized.

Moriarty will be another genre and I expect an easy and entertaining read. Let’s hope it will meet my expectations.

I’m happy to have Agostino by Moravia on our list. I loved Contempt. Guy’s and Jacqui’s reviews confirmed I’ll probably like Agostino. I’m also curious to see how it compares to Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day.

Book_Club_3I’m excited to have Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Hungarian literature never let me down and I enjoyed The Pendragon Legend.

Our next book will be another journey, quite different from Szerb’s, though. N’aie pas peur si je t’enlace by Fulvio Ervas isn’t available in English, sorry. It relates the trip a father takes with his autistic son for his 18th birthday. They will travel through the USA and South-America on a Harley Davidson. It’s based on a true story.

After our little adventure in America, we’ll be back in Hungary for Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. This novel was published in 1912 and it reveals the life of women at the time in Hungary and it has a feminist ring which appeals to me.

Book_Club_4In Un barrage contre le Pacifique, Marguerite Duras tells us a story based upon her life in Indochina. Life is tough for a woman in the French colonies, in a society made by men and for men.

Un beau ténébreux by Julien Gracq will be made into a play in a few months. It drew our attention to the novel. I’ve never read Gracq, I don’t know what to expect but I’m happy to try a new writer.

For July, Jacqui inspired me with Le rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant. When I read her review, I knew I wanted to read it and explore the connection I felt to Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann. I’m glad my fellow Book Club members agreed to it.

Her review of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald gave me another reading idea. It’s the bonus read for the year. As an avid reader, I have a fondness for books about bookshops.

That’s all folks.

If you’ve read some of these books or want to read them, share your thoughts in the comments. If you want to join us one month or the other, feel free. There’s no rule, just read whatever you want and post about it (or not) whenever you want. Here’s the schedule:

Liste

Candide. If that’s the best of possible worlds…

March 1, 2015 43 comments

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

I had tickets to a stage version of Candide by Voltaire and it prompted me to re-read this conte philosophique. (It means philosophical tale and Candide is filed under that genre in French. In English, I believe it’s a satire and although the French word satire exists as well, it is not used in this case.) Candide is perhaps Voltaire’s best known work. For those who wouldn’t know about it, Candide is a young man who lives in a castle in Vestphalie. He’s allegedly the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister. He’s been raised with the baron’s children, Cunégonde and her brother. Their tutor is Maître Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches the metaphysico–theologo–cosmolonigology and the basis of his education is that

Il est démontré (…) que les choses ne peuvent être autrement : car tout étant fait pour une fin, tout est nécessairement pour la meilleure fin. Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes ; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. It is demonstrable,(…) that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles

Candide truly believes in Pangloss’s education and he’s convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. One day, Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde behind a curtain and is thrown out of the castle. Here starts his journey around the world, pushed from one place to the other by events and still hoping for a happy ending with Cunégonde. His belief in Pangloss’s teaching is repeatedly attacked by what he sees in other countries. His travels lead him through Europe and South America. He’s confronted to wars, earthquakes, Inquisition, fights for power, greed and desolation.

I see three layers in Candide. The first one is the obvious Leibnitz-bashing dripping from Pangloss’s ridiculous philosophy. The second one is the strong criticism of hypocrisy, obscurantism and institutions. The third one is on a more individual level and questions our personal way to give our life a meaning in such a world.

I haven’t read Leibnitz and I don’t know to what extend Voltaire distorted Leibnitz’s thoughts but I find Pangloss’s philosophy ludicrous and harmful. If we all think like this, then we never rebel against anything. We’d still be living in caverns since improving our living conditions is futile; after all, we live in the best of all possible worlds. With that line of thinking, we never discover vaccination, Martin Luther King preaches acceptance of your fate as a black person and women never get to become doctors or astronauts because they’ve always stayed at home. I refuse to think things can never change, especially institutions or mentalities. It’s too depressing.

Then Voltaire shoots at everything that looks like an institution. The descriptions are coated with lethal irony. Armies look full of morons but still able to joyfully kill each other, murder and assult populations, especially women. The baron is full of aristocratic contempt and unable to detach himself from his snobbish ways. Candide saves Cunégonde, loves her, wants to marry her after she’s become poor, battered and ugly and still, the baron thinks Candide’s unworthy of her because he doesn’t have the right degrees of noble decent. Smart guess from Voltaire here: inability to let this go and accept equality among men will cost a lot to the French aristocracy during the French Revolution.

Religious institutions and their representatives are exposed as hypocrites and deviant from the real message of their faith. The Protestant pastor preaches about love being the basis of everything and won’t help Candide who needs food and water. The Catholic Inquisition in Portugal hangs and burns people who dare stray from a floating and blurry line of conduct imposed by the Church, blatantly ignoring the Thou shalt not kill command. The Muslims are at war against each other and awful massacres are conducted in the name of God and yet they never missed the five stated times of prayer enjoined by their prophet Mahomet. In South America, the Jesuits are more a political force than a religious congregation. Voltaire never mocks or criticizes personal faith in any God. He points out the way humanity translates honest faith into religious codes and rules and rebels against using other people’s faith to achieve personal, greedy and very earthly goals through religious institutions.

After all these travels, Candide and friends come to the conclusion that the best way to live is to work without disputing and that it is the only way to render life supportable. And Candide concludes with the famous Il faut cultiver notre jardin (Let us cultivate our garden) Although I’ve been taught that this statement should be taken literally, I want to see it differently. In French, we often have one word for something concrete and its related concept. Example: maison means house and home. Etre cultivé (to be cultivated) means to be farmed and to be educated. I want to see Candide’s garden as one’s brain and cultiver as to educate. I strongly believe in education to fight efficiently and long-term against obscurantism. That’s the only way to the best of all possible worlds.

When I tweeted my Friday Read last Friday, I wrote “I wonder what Volaire would write today.” After re-reading Candide, I know. Sadly, he would write Candide again since everything is still valid. The text was adapted for the theatre by Kevin Keiss and Maëlle Poésy, who also directed the play. It was brilliant, mixing actual passages of the novella and adding contemporary references to carry the message. The actors were fantastic in picturing the emotions, the travelling and the philosophical parts. The direction was creative with lights, sound effects and décors. It brought out the fun of the text, its raw power as a thought-provoking comedy. Pangloss looked as ridiculous as the tutor Trissotin in The Learned Ladies by Molière.

In France, Candide is a text often studied in high school. In class, we insist on the philosophical side and never on the funny side. Here, the production managed to preserve the serious topics and make the public laugh. A tremendous evening. Once again, the theatre proves to be the right place to expose the modernity of a text, to give life to words and show why reading books written a long time ago by guys who had funny hair brings pleasure and enlightenment. Voltaire loved theatre. I think he would love to see his text played like this and would bask in the public’s clapping.

If you’ve never read Candide, it’s time to read it. You can get free copies in electronic files. It’s probably in every decent library. It’s easy to read. It’s less than 200 pages. It shows you part of the French DNA, the part that puts 3.5 million people on the streets to stand their ground for the freedom of speech and the right to criticize, not someone’s faith, but the way faith is institutionalized and weaponized (I know the word doesn’t exist) for earthly possessions and power.

I have to mention an extra bonus in the leaflet I got in the theatre. Voltaire’s text was illustrated with literary quotes. One of them was by Romain Gary.

Aussi longtemps que des phares de la pensée humaine prétendront au monopole de la lumière, il ne saurait y avoir que des successions d’éclairs de lumière et de ténèbres, de foi et de désillusion, d’excès dans la croyance et dans la démystification, de fanatisme et de retrait, de croisades sanguinaires suivies d’une haine du mot même de foi, de dévouement total puis de nausée totale, le genre d’amoralisme qui vient d’une morale trop rigide, puis à nouveau le genre de morale rigide qui procède d’un excès d’amoralisme.

In L’Affaire homme.

As long as beacons of human thinking pretend to have the monopoly of light, we will only experience a series of lightning of enlightenment and dark ages, of faith and disillusion, of excesses in beliefs and demystification, of fanaticism and retreat, of bloodthirsty crusades followed by hatred of the very word of faith, of total dedication and then total nausea. We will only live through the sort of amorality that comes after a too rigid morality, then through another time of rigid morality that is born from an excess of amorality.

 

 

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

Pennac embodies his Journal d’un corps

June 26, 2014 6 comments

Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. 

Pennac_afficheRegular readers of this blog know that I love theatre. There’s something special about seeing flesh and blood actors a few feet away from you, impersonating characters and telling a story night after night for an audience. Perhaps it resonates with childhood memories of listening to stories before bedtime or the pleasure comes from the knowledge that these actors are playing for us, the people sitting there and not for a camera. In a way it’s more personal. When my professional schedule leads me to Paris and there is time, I always look for a theatre play to watch. Last week was Mass Appeal and this week, it was Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac, with Daniel Pennac. If you’d looked inside my head when I found out about this on my usual theatre website, you would have seen my brain doing cartwheels in there. That’s how happy I was. I had loved the book Le Journal d’un corps and I’ve written about it here. I’ve been a Pennac fan for a long time now, loving the Malaussène series (see Guy’s review here) and his memoir about teaching, Comme un roman. It’s in this very book that Pennac lists the 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader which are also advertised on my blog. Bref, he and I have a long story of one-sided admiration, my side of course. So, I felt like a teenager going to see her favourite rock star playing unplugged.

Pennac_wikiMy brain was doing cartwheels again, after the show. That was amazing, he was amazing. The concept of seeing an author reading his book is appealing to a bookworm, per se. The concept of seeing a writer impersonating his words is mind-blowing. When you read a book and the writer is a real author, you hear their literary voice. There’s no way to know if this voice is their natural voice or if it’s ventriloquism. For Pennac, his physical voice matches his literary voice. His voice is a little nasal, conveying the irony, the wit of his words. He’s a gourmet of words and he lets them roll around his tongue, reaching his taste buds and gives them back flavoured with good humour and passion. His lower jaw gives a special texture to his voice and a unique rhythm to his sentences. His eyes are a bid hidden by Harry Potter glasses but his mischievous look escapes their metallic frame, revealing his rebellious side. Everything in Pennac’s body speaks of childhood, play and of his healthy appetite for life and language. This is what I felt when I read Le Journal d’un corps. This is what I saw on stage, and I was sitting in the third row, quite close and with a clear view. How often do we have the opportunity to see a writer on stage, ten meters away, living his text on stage. Not reading it, playing it, turning the writer into an actor, giving life to his own words. Not often. He has the ease of excellent actors and teachers. I would have loved to sit in his class and hear him read masterpieces aloud.

Apart from the performance, the play reminded me how good the book is. It’s funny, accurate in its rendition of the human condition, universal and particular at the same time. If you’re French and you have the opportunity, go to the Théâtre du Rond Point and watch Pennac on stage. For foreigners, there’s always the book, sadly not translated into English. Yet.

PS : Post publication of this billet, I asked Folio whether Le Journal d’un corps will be translated into English. Good news for UK readers, MacLehose Press will publish it. Publication date still unknown, though.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, made into a play

March 16, 2014 16 comments

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923)

Gibran_prophete_livreI don’t remember how or when I first heard of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My copy dates back to 1993; perhaps Amin Maalouf mentioned him in one of his books. Anyway. I had fond memories of that little book of wisdom, so I jumped on the opportunity to see a stage version of this text.

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese writer, born in a small village in the North of the country. He later moved to Boston with his mother and siblings, moved back to Lebanon to study in Beirut. Then, he spent a couple of years in France before immigrating to New York. He wrote The Prophet in English and it was published in America in 1923. It was immediately a huge success.

The Prophet is a collection of parables. In the introduction, the prophet Almustafa is about to leave the city of Orphalese, where he has spent twelve years in exile. He’s saying goodbye to the place and its people when they question him about life. What does he have to say about love, marriage, self-knowledge, children, pain…? In twenty-six chapters, Almustafa will answer the questions. It’s a bit written like the New Testament, a bit like poetical philosophy and I suspect a bit in the Arabic literature tradition. (I wouldn’t know that since I haven’t read any, just heard about the importance of its poetry in novels by Maalouf, Mahfouz or more recently Awwad) Gibran’s text is a mix of Eastern and Western culture, of poetry and philosophy. Each chapter is one to three pages long and tackles with a different question. It explores life from a human point of view and gives advice to live your life more peacefully. Personally, I like his vision of marriage, children, giving, joy and sorrow or teaching. I want to share with you the part on Reason and Passion, it will be a long quote but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere of the book and the tone of the text:

AND the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.

And he answered, saying:

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.

But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

YOUR reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.

For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;

And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I WOULD have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.

Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

AMONG the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows – then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky, – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

I won’t tell more about the book as The Prophet is a highly personal text for the reader. It resonates differently according to who you are and what your life has been. I believe that everyone can find something good for them to meditate. If it’s a personal journey for the reader, it must have been a personal one for the author too. I’d love to ask Gibran why he wrote something so oriental and personal in English and not in Arabic. It’s his native tongue, he studied in that language (and in French) while English is his third language. Few authors choose to write in another language than their mother tongue. Sure, writing in English helped being published but was that all?

Gibran_prophete_pieceThe Prophet was made into a play by Noredine Marouf. I saw it in a tiny theatre in Paris, the Guichet Montparnasse. Imagine: there’s room for fifty spectators, seated on five rows of benches. The stage is minuscule. We were nine spectators and it was the premiere. The actor and director Noredine Marouf was a few meters away from us, I’m sure he could see every move we made on those benches. He stayed after the show was finished and chatted with us. He said he was nervous for the premiere and we gathered he wasn’t happy with his performance. He’d been working on the text for ten months but it didn’t take away the anxiousness of the premiere. He explained that he chose to work on this text because Gibran’s words speak to him and because he wanted to play something that would make the audience think. He wanted to bring more than entertainment and to leave us with thoughts to ponder when we went home. We were nine people in the audience and one of us was Lebanese. She pointed out that Gibran’s village was really a tiny village and that it was incredible that he moved out of there to live in cities like Paris and New York, especially at his time. Nordine Marouf confessed that working on Gibran’s text had been trying, that he had ached physically while learning the text, as Gibran’s words sank in. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the preparation of the play. He said that with powerful texts as this one, at first, the actor carries the text on their shoulders and after a while, the text carries them. Noredine Marouf is French of Algerian origin; his parents are from Oran. Like Gibran, like Maalouf, his personal history is made of the fruitful meeting of Eastern and Western cultures.

So yes, it’s true, the acting wasn’t perfect. But being there, nine people on benches in a tiny theatre and discussing the play and its preparation with the director and actor was a treat. If you have the chance, go and see Noredine Marouf tell Khalil Gibran. He will be there until April 27th. These theatres must survive and as Gibran points out in the chapter about Bying and Selling:

AND if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

For most of you who won’t have that opportunity, the book is available and worth discovering or re-reading

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Nine

March 12, 2014 3 comments

Gary_LecturesLa Vie devant soi or Life Before Us is probably one of the most famous book by Romain Gary. It has been made into a film and into a play. Gary won his second Goncourt Prize with this novel under the pen-name Emile Ajar. This was an extraordinary literary mystification as a relative –Paul Pavlowitch – impersonated Emile Ajar. If you want to know more about that, read Litlove’s excellent post here.

La Vie devant soi is set in Paris, in the 19th arrondissement. This is a very multicultural arrondissement, even today. The narrator is a child, Momo as in Mohamed. He’s an orphan of Arab origin and he’s living with Madame Rosa, a Jewish old woman. Momo’s voice is unique. As a child he’s a mix between naiveté and perception. He doesn’t understand everything but his perceptions are spot on. That’s often how it is with children, they don’t have the conventional words to express what they think or feel but they still have an accurate insight. Momo has a fresh voice, full of ingenuousness and this is what I wanted to share with you in this quote:

Je sais qu’il y a beaucoup de gens qui font du bien dans le monde, mais ils font pas ça tout le temps et il faut tomber au bon moment. Il y a pas de miracle. I know there are a lot of people in the world who do good deeds but they don’t do them all the time and you need to be there at the right moment. No such things as miracles. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

The part « Il y a pas de miracle » translated as “No such things as miracles” is an expression we often use in French to say “so it goes” or “expecting too much is like believing to miracles”. This quote represents Gary’s ambivalence towards Humanity. There are good people but they’re not always leading the game and you need a bit of luck to cross paths with them. One can’t give up on humanity because of these good people and they sustain Gary’s hope in humanity. Gary’s belief is that hope is indestructible in a human and it’s both a strength and weakness. It makes one stronger; it fuels one’s resistance, helps persisting in something important and fighting against despair. And it’s a weakness because it prevents one from cutting their losses and abandon something that obviously won’t work, be it a relationship, a cause or a pursuit. It’s a recurring theme in Gary’s work.

I leave you until next week with a last quote from La Vie devant soi:

Les cauchemars, c’est ce que les rêves deviennent toujours en vieillissant. Nightmares, that’s what dreams always become when they get older.

Wednesdays With Romain Gary – Part Five

February 12, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesLife is a serious matter because of its futility. That’s what M. Cousin says in Gros Câlin. (1974). I have written two billets about this bittersweet tale of a sensitive and lonely man who lives with a python named Gros Câlin. Câlin is a word that means cuddle. The accent on the a makes the a last a bit longer. It sounds like the softness of a mother, the tenderness of a lover and it evokes warmth and happiness. Strange that a python might be named like this. It’s one of my favourite Gary and if you’re really fluent in French, it’s worth reading. It’s beautifully written and totally different from anything you’ve read before.

The first quote is about brotherhood, a theme often present in Gary’s books. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) is France’s motto and the immigrant Roman Kacew still hiding behind Romain Gary believed in that slogan. Gary was also scarred by war and he had a strong experience of brotherhood in his combat unit. (He was in England, in an airplane squad.). It’s important to him, so I picked that quote:

Je pense que la fraternité, c’est un état de confusion grammaticale entre je et eux, moi et lui, avec possibilités. I think that brotherhood is a state of grammatical confusion between I and them, me and him, with possibilities. Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I love the way he pictures the feeling and twists the language on his way.

The second quote is typically Gary too. Gros Câlin is about loneliness. Cousin is isolated, anonymous in a big city and Gary nails down the feeling when Cousin describes his hesitation about beds:

Les lits m’ont toujours posé des problèmes. S’ils sont étroits, pour une seule personne, ils vous foutent dehors, en quelque sorte, ils vous coupent vos efforts d’imagination. Ca fait I, sans ambages, sans ménagement. « T’es seul mon vieux et tu sais bien que tu le resteras » Je préfère donc les lits à deux places, qui s’ouvrent sur l’avenir, mais c’est là que se présente l’autre côté du dilemme. Les dilemmes sont tous des peaux de cochons, soit dit en passant, j’en ai pas connu d’aimables. Car avec un lit pour deux chaque soir et toute la journée samedi et dimanche, on se sent encore plus seul que dans un lit pour un, qui vous donne au moins une excuse d’être seul. Beds have always been a problem for me. If they’re narrow, single beds, they throw you out, in a way; they cut short all your efforts of imagination. It makes an I, without beating around the bush, bluntly. “You’re on your own, my friend, and you know you’ll stay that way.” I therefore prefer double beds, which are open to the future but that’s where the other side of the dilemma comes in. Dilemmas are bitches, by the way, I’ve never known a nice one. Because with a bed for two, every night and all day Saturday and Sunday, you feel lonelier than you would in a bed for one, which at least gives you an excuse for being alone.  Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald

This is Gary at his finest: funny and serious, talking about a serious matter through a futile preoccupation.

Please, can a publisher contact Alexandre Diego Gary who’s in charge of his father’s work and acquire the rights to translate this wonderful novel into English? Meanwhile, for other readers, it exists in German (Monsieur Cousin und die Einsamkeit der Riesenschlangen.), in Italian (Mio caro pitone), in Spanish (Mimos) and probably in other languages too. What is the Anglophone world waiting for?

Literarilly fantastic

November 21, 2013 24 comments

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. 1974 (excellent year)

Something literarilly fantastic happened to me today. I’m in Paris on business and this morning, as I was walking in the metro, my new purple scarf snaked around my neck, distractedly looking at the advertisements on the walls, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at this:

gros_calin333

New visitors of these blogs don’t know what it means. Copinautes know pretty well that I was ecstatic: a novel by Romain Gary, made into a play! I HAD to see that. My previous experiences with Gary on stage were all excellent. I’ve already seen Gary/Ajar where Christophe Malavoy impersonated Gary telling his life. The text was adapted from souvenirs by André Asseo, Gary’s friend from high school. Jacques Gamblin also read Gary on stage, using the texts of his fake interviews gathered in La nuit sera calme and I’m not quite recovered from the disappointment of missing this one. La vie devant soi (Life Before Us) has been made into a very successful play with Myriam Boyer as Madame Rosa. And the theatre version of La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) was a delight to see. Romain Gary might be unknown in the Anglophone literary world, but in France he keeps interesting readers and theatre directors. And his texts bear the stage adaptation very well.

I wrote a billet about Gros Câlin (literally “Big Hug” or “Big cuddle”) as we read it with our book club in 2011. It is the story of M. Cousin who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a python named Gros Câlin. This is the first novel Gary wrote under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. Cousin describes his life with his python and it’s both hilarious and sad. It’s comical because Cousin sees life through distorting glasses. He’s fond of his python because he loves to be hugged by Gros Câlin, it helps for his desperate case of loneliness. M. Cousin is in love with his colleague Mlle Dreyfus and he explains their interactions in the office in the middle of his dissertation about pythons and the anecdotes about his life with Gros Câlin.

The play version is faithful to the novel. Jean-Quentin Châtelain played a convincing Cousin. His playful tone put forward all the fun of the text, showed how crazy Cousin is sometimes. He never crossed the fatal border of farce. He managed to be pathetic when Cousin is and he let us know that behind that façade of craziness was hidden a troubled and lonely man. In the novel, there’s an episode when the python goes to the apartment below by slipping into the toilet pipe and caused a fright to the neighbour by accidentally brushing against her bottom while she was using the toilet. When Châtelain told this on stage, the whole audience was shaking with laughter.

The setting was sober, made with mosaic tiles that reminded me of the skin of a snake. The lights were well used, not too much. It’s a challenge for the actor: he’s alone on stage and leads the show during 1:30 hour. Impressive. As good as the actor and the direction were, the real star is Romain Gary himself and his wonderful way of playing with the French language. It’s unique and he reinvented himself when he wrote under the name of Emile Ajar. M. Cousin is Gary’s imaginary relative. He plays with words. He slips, twists the grammar, speaks in riddles, uses one word for the other and yet keeps the sentence intelligible.

Chien Blanc starts with Gary watching a python in the Los Angeles zoo and interacting with it. I wonder if Gros Câlin stemmed from this observation or if the choice of a python has something to do with Gary’s love for the Monty Python.

If you can read in French, Gros Câlin is worth a try. I exited the theatre with a huge grin on my face and an ache in my jaw muscles due to laughing out loud so much. My next billet will be about Victor who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Kiev with a penguin. He doesn’t have a Miss Dreyfus to dream about but he has a Nina in his life. And Nina was the name of Gary’s extraordinary mother, the heroin of La Promesse de l’aube. La boucle est bouclée.

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

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.

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