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Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 11 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

Science fiction in Europe. Reality in America.

January 15, 2016 17 comments

My Parents Open Carry (2015) by Brian G. Jeffs & Nathan R. Nephew.

A friend of mine sent me this children’s book for Christmas, not as an actual gift but as a oh-my-god-she-needs-to-see-this present. So here I am opening My Parents Open Carry and gasping from the first page to the last. Flaberggasted and appalled are the right adjectives to describe how I felt about this as a reader, as a mother and as a person.

The authors who committed this opus wrote its foreword and it tells everything about it:

This book was written in the hope of providing a basic overview of the right to keep and bear arms as well as the growing practice of the open carry of a hand gun. Our fear is that our children are being raised with a biased view of our constitution and especially in regards to the 2nd Amendment. Before writing this, we looked for pro-gun children’s books and couldn’t find any. Our goal is to provide a wholesome children’s book that reflects the views of the majority of the American people, i.e. that self-defense is a basic natural right and that firearms provide the most efficient means for that defense. We truly hope you will enjoy this book and read and discuss it with your children over and over again.

my_parents_open_carryFollows the edifying day of the Strong family who shops in different stores and tries to convince people that they should carry guns and ends up at the shooting range. Their thirteen years old girl Brenna receives her first gun because she got good grades and it’s her first practice day. (!!)

Apart from being morally condemnable, this book is also poorly written and illustrated. Children’s books are also literature and good ones require a talented writer and a gifted illustrator. No literary or drawing talent of any kind was poured in this book.

The substance? It is full of fallacious arguments, dumb comparisons and syllogisms. Stupidest comparison ever: carrying a gun is like putting on your seatbelt; it’s for your safety and you hope you’ll never need it. Syllogism? Chainsaws are dangerous and yet sold in shops. Guns are dangerous. Therefore, guns may be sold in shops. (!!!)

I assure you this is not April Fools’ Day and that this book actually exists. The comforting part of the foreword is that the authors couldn’t find any pro-gun children’s book. I don’t know if their assumption about the American’s people thinking that self-defense is a basic natural right is true. I hope not.

For me, reading this is like reading science fiction. The whole debate about open carry and conceal carry has no grounds because the carry shouldn’t exist in the first place. The saddest part of it is that these pro-gun advocates/writers live in constant fear. They think they can get robbed or attacked anytime and need to feel ready to fight back. They talk about checking their surroundings all the time. What kind of life is that? Fear is the worst leader to make intelligent decisions. It works with the least evolved part of our brain. Considering the rubbish this children’s book spews from its pages, this very part of the authors’ brain was involved in its conception.

I feel like sending President Obama a box of tissues. He’s not done crying.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. We won’t back down.

November 14, 2015 32 comments

It all started like a normal Saturday morning. Going to the kitchen with sleepy eyes, picking up my cell phone to check messages and discovering not one but two worried tweets, checking on me. Thanks for your messages, Brian and Nino. Not sleepy anymore, I thought “Fuck, what happened again” and rushed to the radio and the website of Le Monde.

And then the horror. Again. To these pieces of shit who think they will make us change our way of life, I say: “We won’t back down”.

I’ll end this sad post with a quote reminding us what religion should be:

And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain.

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

You won’t see Him put bombs to kill innocent people.

 

Politics, literature, Philip Roth…And me

August 8, 2015 10 comments

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in a inverse relationship to each other –they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? But how can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist, the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself –for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos,. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world –that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than that shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big relief that will change the world and the artist introduces a product that has no place in that world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”

Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

And this is why some politicians despise literature, why I’ll never be a member of a political party, a political organization or a union. I’m not an artist, I’m not a writer but I’m on the side of the artist, of the writer. I want to see the particular, I want to see the shit, I want to frolic in the grand uselessness of literature.

Saturday bookish news

March 7, 2015 21 comments

Hello,

This is just a little post to share a few bookish news.

First, Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim is finally available to British readers. It’s been translated by Sophie Lewis. I loved that book (my enthusiastic billet is here) and I was looking forward to its translation in English. Of course, Stu from Winstonsdad’s blog has already spotted it for his 2015 reading list. The Independent also published a glowing review here. Two things are disappointing from my point of view. First, the cover. Look at this! What the hell was the publisher thinking? It looks like paranormal romance.

Turckheim_Heloise_BaldMeyer_hostSee what I mean? Now, here’s the French cover:

turckheim_heloiseThe French cover reflects the atmosphere of the book which is perfectly described in the review of The Independent. Once again, I find an English cover vulgar and almost ridiculing the book it represents.

The other thing that irks me is the reference to Lolita by Nabokov. In French we say Comparaison n’est pas raison (Comparing is not reasoning) Well in this case, comparaison est déraison. While it’s certainly flattering to be compared to a literary genius, while Héloïse does have a love affair with a much older man when she’s underage, Heloise is bald has nothing to do with Lolita. When I read Lolita, I felt terribly ill-at-ease. I felt the kind of uneasiness that nestles in your stomach when you read about abuse, pedophilia and unhealthy relationships. Here, it’s a totally different feeling, more like being in an alternate universe and witnessing an unusual story.

So please, British readers, if you stumble upon this novel in a bookstore, don’t be put off by this cheap cover or by a potential misplaced reference to Lolita in the blurb (I haven’t seen the blurb on the physical copies) and give Emile de Turckheim’s book a chance. She deserves it. I’m truly happy that her novel made it into English.

Otherwise, this weekend is the Fête du Livre of Bron and I hope to see Philippe Djian tomorrow afternoon. He’ll be giving a lecture with Virginie Despentes. He’s one of my favourite contemporary French writers and I really hope I’ll be able to hear that conference. I’m a bit like a teenager who would have a chance to see Robert Pattinson. (Just following the previous trend of reference…)

Other bookish fest to come: Quais du Polar. (26-28 March) Marina Sofia has advertised the festival here and for Parisians readers (there might be some, who knows?), the SNCF is sponsoring the event: it costs only 25€ to come to Lyon by TGV that weekend. It’s a nice opportunity to discover a truly beautiful city.

I have my special membership pass, I’ll be meeting Marina Sofia there and I’m looking forward to it. It’s not going to help downsizing my TBR but I’ll live with it. The list of crime fiction writers attending the event is the following:

  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexico)
  • Leonardo Padura (Cuba)
  • Horacio Castellanos Moya (Salvador)
  • Daniel Quirós (Costa Rica)
  • Paulo Lins et Edyr Augusto (Brasil),
  • Luis Sepúlveda (Chili),
  • Santiago Gamboa (Colombia),
  • Ernesto Mallo (Argentina),
  • Diego Trelles Paz (Peru)
  • John Grisham (USA),
  • Elizabeth George (USA),
  • Anthony Horowitz (GB),
  • Don Winslow (USA),
  • Shannon Burke (USA),
  • Emily St John Mandel (Canada)
  • Maurice G. Dantec (Canada),
  • Attica Locke (USA),
  • Nicci French (GB),
  • Val McDermid (Scotland),
  • Denise Mina (GB),
  • Mike Nicol (South Africa)
  • Sebastian Rotella (USA).
  • Michael Connelly
  • Ian Rankin
  • Tom Rob Smith (GB),
  • Michel Quint (France)
  • Michel Bussi (France)
  • Maxime Chattam (France)
  • Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)
  • Caryl Férey
  • Ian Manook
  • Kishwar Desai (India),
  • Saul Black (GB),
  • Dror Mishani (Israel.),
  • Gert Nygårdshaug (Norway.)
  • Elena Piacentini (France),
  • Michaël Mention (France),
  • Christophe Reydi-Gramond (France)
  • Nicolas Matthieu (France).

Have you read books by writers of that list?

Btw, Quais du Polar wants to create a list of French-speaking book bloggers who read and review crime fiction. There’s a questionnaire here, if you want to participate. Now the tricky side of it: Am I a French-speaking book blogger? My native language is French but the blog is in English. It seems I don’t fit a proper category and to be honest, I love it! 😉

I hope you’re all doing well and I wish you a nice weekend.

Emma

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

October 12, 2014 10 comments

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 2008 French title: Le premier qui pleure a perdu.

Alexie_DiaryI’ve already read Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie and I really enjoyed it. I thought I’d read another one by him someday. End of September, I discovered on Twitter that it was Banned Books Week, an event organised in the US to celebrate the freedom to read. Check out here the Top 10 of frequently challenged books. Browsing through the tweets, I became aware of two puzzling facts: there’s a need in the USA to organise such a week and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was on the list of banned books in several high schools in Idaho, Missouri, Texas and other states  because it was judged offensive. Call it a pavlovian-voltairian reflex if you want, but when I hear about banned books, I want to become a knight in shining armour and rescue all these books in distress. (Yes, women have the right to picture themselves as knights in shiny armours, this is the 21st century)

So, on principle, because a big democracy like America shouldn’t need a Banned Book Week and because no writer deserves to be banned, I decided to buy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and read it right away. That’s my way of protesting and I sure hope this billet will get retweeted and reblogged and advertised because the book community should be rebellious against censorship.

Imagine me starting Alexie’s YA novel, banned or challenged for the following reasons “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group”. I expected some Indian Portnoy’s Complaint or some Justine or the unhappiness to live on a reservation or a Spokane On the Road. Actually, I’ve read the diary of fourteen year old Arnold Spirit, an Indian living on the Spokane reservation. One day, pushed by his math teacher, he decides to leave the reservation high school in Wellpinit to attend the high school outside the reservation in Reardan to have better chances to succeed in life. The novel relates his year as a freshman in Reardan, his struggle with his identity as he turned his back to his community in hope of a better future.

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.

There’s no explicit language except one or two mentions of a boner and masturbation. But isn’t that part of adolescence, along with acne, squeaky voices and fear of blood stains on trousers? Arnold’s journey in Reardan is difficult due to his different background or to his poverty but nothing really bad happens to him in school. He’s not molested, bullied or insulted. There’s no more violence than on many TV shows. It’s a coming-of-age novel dealing with the usual dilemnas of adolescence. Who am I? Except that the answer is more difficult to find when you change of world. So what? Portnoy’s Complaint is not on the challenged books list and it’s a lot more challenging than Alexie’s book. Either these fools ban books they haven’t read or they’re not literate enough to notice there are lots of more explicit books about sex, booze or drugs than this one. Madame Bovary is more sexual than this!

My opinion is that Alexie’s tone bothers them. Arnold has a spitfire tongue, an incredible sense of humour and the novel is full of passages like this:

But she was lying. Her eyes always got darker in the middle when she lied. She was a Spokane Indian and a bad liar, which didn’t make any sense. We Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.

Or

“Jeez,” she said. “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”

Or

This guy was in love with computers. I wondered if he was secretly writing a romance about a skinny, white boy genius who was having sex with a half-breed Apple computer.

Or

Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer. It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC. A way-old dude. In one of his plays, Medea says, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” I read that and thought, “Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.” But it’s more than that, too. I mean, the thing is, Medea was so distraught by the world, and felt so betrayed, that she murdered her own kids. She thought the world was that joyless.

The last one stings a bit, just like the one questioning Indian’s habit to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Arnold points out: what should Indians be thankful for? I suspect these bigots can’t forgive Alexie for not using the mild Native American term or for bringing up topics they’d like to forget. –Note that Toni Morrison is also on the “challenged books” list. And she does exactly the same: her books give a voice to the history of black people in America.

Yes Alexie calls a spade a spade and he does it on a witty tone. When Arnold depicts Reardan, he sounds like the narrator in The Plot Against America when he describes the non-Jewish neighbourhoods in Newark. It’s genuine curiosity and he’s got the self-deprecating sense of humour one sees in Woody Allen’s films. Arnold has the exaggeration of a teenager; he’s loud, sends direct punches and questions the adults around him.

I’m against censoring books for teenagers. Everything can be read with the proper explanations. Personally, I put my hands on a Sade book in high school. Did it disgust me? Yes. Did it scar me for life? No. Thinking our teenage children don’t think or talk about sex is ridiculously naïve. (And forgetful of what we used to be) Thinking they don’t know about homosexuality is equally silly. Censoring a book that mentions the disaster alcohol brings on the reservation is plain stupidity. Teenagers will try alcohol, Sherman Alexie or not. And this book doesn’t mention under-age drinking but shows what kind of ravages alcohol do to families and lives. Isn’t it a proper message to convey to our children? And what about this:

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.”

Is it bad for a teenager to read this? I don’t think it is. So I support Sherman Alexie’s book to the point of buying it again, in French, for my thirteen year old daughter. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks about it.

Paris in July : Madame du Châtelet

July 18, 2014 22 comments

Discours du le bonheur (1746/1747) by Emilie du Châtelet. (1706-1749) English title: Discourse on Happiness.

My participating to Paris in July organised by Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria feels a bit like cheating. The aim of this blogging event is to celebrate anything French and since I’m French and living in France, I ooze Frenchness with all my pores. What kind of challenge is that? Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity of this rendezvous with French culture to read and write about Le discours sur le bonheur d’Emilie du Châtelet. (Discourse on Happiness)

Chatelet_BonheurI discovered Emilie du Châtelet when I read Voltaire’s biography. They had a tumultuous relationship but remained friends until she died. Emilie du Châtelet was a born scientist; she studied mathematics and physics and her most important achievement is the translation of Newton’s work into French. For a long time, her translation remained the only one available in French. She was brilliant and Voltaire admired her mind. If she were born today in this country, she could have a stellar career. But she was a woman in the 18thC and according to her, studying hard was the only way a woman could reach fame and posterity. She sure did and not only as Voltaire’s lover and study buddy.

With her discourse, Emilie du Châtelet aims at enlightening younger people in order to share her experience of life and help them reach contentment and happiness sooner, without losing time to figure it out by themselves. She sums up her thought marvellously in this quote:

Tâchons de bien nous porter, de n’avoir point de préjugés, d’avoir des passions, de les faire servir à notre bonheur, de remplacer nos passions par des goûts, de conserver précieusement nos illusions, d’être vertueux, de ne jamais nous repentir, d’éloigner de nous les idées tristes, et de ne jamais permettre à notre cœur de conserver une étincelle de goût pour quelqu’un dont le goût diminue et qui cesse ne nous aimer. Il faut bien quitter l’amour un jour, pour peu qu’on vieillisse, et ce jour doit être celui où il cesse de nous rendre heureux. Enfin, songeons à cultiver le goût de l’étude, ce goût qui ne faire dépendre notre bonheur que de nous-mêmes. Préservons-nous de l’ambition, et surtout sachons bien ce que nous voulons être ; décidons-nous sur la route que nous voulons suivre, et tâchons de la semer de fleurs. Let’s try to be in good health, to be devoid of prejudice, to have passions and to make them serve our happiness, to replace our passions by hobbies. Let’s try to nurture our illusions, to be virtuous, to avoid repentance, to push away sad thoughts and to never allow our heart to keep a spark of liking for someone whose love vanishes and who stops loving us. We have to leave love behind, eventually, at least if we get older, and that day must be the day when love ceases to make us happy. And, let’s endeavour to cultivate our fondness for studying because this liking makes our happiness independent from other people. Let’s protect ourselves from ambition and most of all, let’s try to know exactly who we want to be. Then we can choose which path to follow and endeavour to have it paved with flowers.

Well, the quote is marvellous in French. I had to translate it myself, and I’m not able to translate anything into 18thC English; you’ll have to suffer my translation in 21st century English, spoken by a non-native. (Perhaps it just means it’s time for you to learn how to read in French.)

She managed to pack a lot of thoughts in this paragraph, didn’t she? I like her realism. She says before this quote that she’s only writing for people of her social class. She doesn’t pretend to bring her pearls of wisdom to people who don’t share the same background. Not that she thinks that she’s superior or that they’re not worth it. It’s more that she’s conscious that some of her recommendations are difficult to pursue when you have to fight for your daily bread. It’s more a matter of respect. I also like that she starts by mentionning being healthy as the first thing to wish for happiness. She doesn’t mean that you need to be healthy to be happy but that you must not endanger your health to remain on the path to happiness.

A few things speak to me in that quote. I do believe that passions, in the sense of hobbies you’re deeply invested in, make life more interesting and bring us pleasure and happiness. That’s what reading does to me. By nurturing your illusions she means to remain capable of wonderment, to watch a magician without trying to understand his tricks. She believes in suspension of belief as a way to live happy times. She wouldn’t want to know how they make special effects in films. It’s also something I share with her. I enjoy shows from the audience and I’m not much interested in what’s happening behind the curtains or in literature how the writer built their book.

You may be puzzled by the “avoid any repentance” concept. She explains her point. She thinks wallowing in repentance is harmful to one’s happiness; that one should acknowledge and repair their mistake but not rub into it for too long. Understand, apologise, make amends and move on. It goes with avoiding sad thoughts and not letting disquiet invade your life and thoughts and gnaw at your ability for happiness.

In the introduction of this discourse, Elisabeth Badinter argues that all the references to lost love, letting go of your lover are a reference to her relationship with Voltaire. That’s what happened, he got tired of her as a lover, not as a friend or as a thinker.

I personnally think of reading when she mentions studying as a liberating passion: it brings you happiness on your own and on your own terms. When I think of it now, I was an easy child or teenager for my parents; give me a place to stay, enough books and I’m happy. I don’t get bored, I don’t ask for more and I don’t need anyone to entertain me. Well, I do need someone: I need writers and publishers to provide me with these wonderful books.

The best advice she gives is probably in the end: know yourself and try to figure out which road is the best for you.

Voilà, that was my contribution to Paris in July, a way to make you discover a great French lady, someone who was equal to the best scientists of her time and lived a grand passion with Voltaire. I hope I stirred your curiosity, that you’ll check her Wikipedia page or even better that it encouraged to read her biography. She’s introduction to French spirit.

Anyway I say Hi from France. Thanks to Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria for hosting this event and thanks to the participants for the interest they show for my culture and my country.

My recent bad luck with translations.

May 19, 2014 24 comments

Cain_facteurI’ve come across a few book reviews about books in translation where the blogger mentioned that the translation was good. I always wondered how you could tell when you didn’t speak the original language and finally came to a conclusion. Good translations are the ones you don’t notice. They stay in the background, let the author reveal their literary voice and never speak for themselves. Bad ones come between you and the text and jump in your face. You may not think of the translator when they did a good job but you cannot not notice a bad translation.

Why am I discussing this now? Because I’ve had three bad experiences with translations lately. First, I started Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois, the 1936 French translation of The Postman Always Rings Twice and nearly went postal with the translation, so I preserved my sanity and downloaded the original text. Then I tried to read La reine des pommes, the 1958 French version of A Rage in Harlem (upcoming billet) and the poor translation enraged me. Bis repetita, I downloaded the original. And finally, I got to Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, the 1962 translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I’m not going to propose a French toast to the translator. This time, I got fed up with paying twice for the same book and endured the translation. I haven’t fully recovered.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisI know translators are underpaid, that they don’t always work in the best conditions and all that. Actually, I’m not mad at the translators of these three books, I’m mad at the publisher, Folio, that still publishes these outdated and flawed translations. Let me show you what I mean.

These translations have something in common: they use outdated French vocabulary when the English is neutral –at least to my ears, since, after all, I’m not a native English speaker. It starts with the titles. I don’t even know what La reine des pommes means, though I guessed the meaning after reading the book. Same thing with Fais pas ta rosière! by Raymond Chandler. The original title is The Little Sister. In La reine des pommes, I stumbled upon la petite est en pleine mouscaille for She might be in trouble. Where does la petite come from and what does mouscaille mean? And later the English sentence “And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves” becomes Ils n’admettaient le schproum que lorsqu’ils en étaient les instigateurs. Schproum ?! Is that even a word? Apparently it’s argot, antiquated argot. The English doesn’t sound dusted to me. In Un petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, I had the pleasure to discover the word truqueuse for phony.

Himes_reineThen you’ve got the literal translation of things. Milles for miles, which makes you think you’re on a boat. Le quartier des Est-Soixante-Dix for the East Seventies, la maison de pierre brune for brownstone. In La reine des pommes, jukeboxes are translated into les appareils à disque when we use juke box too. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, there’s a footnote to explain Coca-Cola!

And last, but not least, the things that don’t even sound French. Like [elle] allait patiner à roulettes dans Central Park, when you usually say elle allait faire du patin à roulettes dans Central Park –The original is [she] went roller-skating in Central Park. In Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, sometimes I could hear the English under the French translation. That’s the worst. C’est une si sacrée menteuse is a sentence that is not French at all but sounds a lot like the literal translation of She’s such a goddamn liar. Later, I read: On va faire un pot de café pour célébrer l’événement for We’ll make a pot of coffee and celebrate. Nothing special in English but in French you say on va faire du café et célébrer l’événement. I’ve never heard of a pot de café but I guessed the original text.

And sometimes, the French text is simply an insult to the writer.

Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Des talons si hauts qu’ils faisaient vaciller ses chevilles accentuaient sa hauteur ; un corsage serré sur sa gorge plate suggérait qu’elle pût se baigner sur une plage en maillot d’homme ; des cheveux tirés en arrière accusaient la siccité, l’émaciation de son visage de modèle pour modes.

Poor, poor Truman Capote. You can picture her very well in English and in French, it’s, well, ugly.

These three translations are rather old and I thought they were bad because they were done in a rush at a time when translators didn’t have thorough working standards. Wrong again. Shortly after, I started Manhattan Transfer in French. The translation dates back to 1928 and it’s excellent. I don’t hear the English under the French and yet I still know it’s not been written in French. New York realities are in italic and when characters make grammar mistakes, it’s translated. The Flatiron Building didn’t become l’immeuble du fer à repasser and you’re in New York but reading in French. I sighed of contentment because frankly, I wasn’t going to read Dos Passos in the original. That’s when I realised that a good translation is the one you don’t notice. I paid attention because I’d been through three bad ones but otherwise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. A good translation brings you in another country, maintains the impression of strangeness but flows well in your native language.

So please, Folio, hire a new translator and give French readers who don’t speak English the opportunity to read decent translations of Himes, Capote and McCain.

 

A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 33 comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

Barthes for dummies

October 12, 2013 8 comments

Introducing Barthes, a graphic guide by Philip Thody and Piero. 1995.

 Literature is the proof and the assertion of human freedom.

I know this is strange, I’m French and I’m reading a book introducing Barthes in English. It’s not natural, it’s a conscious choice coming from me stumbling upon a graphic guidebook about Barthes at the Tate Modern. I browsed through it, saw no complicated words, liked the drawings and thought “That, my mind can grasp and I’ll finally know why everybody talks about him.”

BarthesIt’s well-done, I think I understood the concepts. Of course, I’m totally unable to assess if it’s faithful to the original thinking of Barthes, if it simplifies too much his works or if it leaves aside relevant part of his texts. Hell, I’ve read this because I knew his name –not from a street plaque, I’ve never encountered a Barthes street— and had heard about him. The only time I tried to read his prose, I couldn’t link the signs with any content. It was filled with too much unknown jargon to be understandable to the philistine I am. Battre en brèche la naturalité du signe doesn’t make much sense to me. Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian –I can invent whatever adjective I want, words are just arbitrary signs— task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work.

So this graphic guide goes through Barthes’ major works in chronological order. I knew some of the titles but had no idea of what they were about. It happens that I’m the Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Barthenism: lots of concepts I partially knew from I don’t know where (Business school probably) and without knowing it came from him. Not that he’d be happy to be associated to anything containing the word “bourgeois” in it.

As it is I agree with a lot of what I’ve read. I don’t believe in Fate, in things being “natural”. Most of what the society wants us to accept as natural is cultural and language is as cultural as anything else. Trying to sell things as natural is a way to keep the society in a stand-still and let the power in the hands of those who already have it. Take women and how convenient it is to talk about maternal instinct and the nature of women that predetermines them to stay at home and nurture kids.

I also agree with the idea of a reader, a spectator setting their mind upon reading a book or watching a play as if it were reality while knowing at the same time that it isn’t. We’ve all experienced this: sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to accept a book as it is. Think of Thomas Hardy. Some readers reproach him for the use of implausible and most convenient coincidences to move the plot forward. When I read Thomas Hardy, I know that it’s implausible but I’ve decided that I’ll believe it while I’m reading the book, just to enjoy the ride. It’s a sort of prerequisite to my reading and I accept them. Just like I accept objectified women in hard-boiled as part of the genre.

Later, Thody explains:

“Barthes’ thinking about literature criticizes the view that an author’s work has to be seen in the context of his life. It rejects any idea that the way to understand a literary work is to find out what the author was consciously trying to do”.

Regular readers of this blog know I don’t really care much about a writer’s biography. I don’t think a reader needs to know about the writer’s life to enjoy and understand a book. I like to approach a novel without prejudice and see it as a stand-alone, apart from the author’s life. The literary worth of a novel is independent of the worth of the writer as a man. Lots of writers would disappear of our shelves if we decided to disregard the works of writers whose life goes against our definition of a good or honourable man. And I think Voyage au bout de la nuit is worth reading despite Céline being anti-Semitic and Emile ou De l’éducation by Rousseau is still widely read even if Rousseau abandoned all his children.

This passage compares Barthes’ view on literature to the traditional technique to study texts and it helped me understand why I hated literature in class. I like Barthes’ vision, a lot. It suits me. And I’ve been doing the exact opposite in class. I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer. This was digging out what the author was consciously trying to do. I was young but I thought it pointless and opposite to what I wanted from literature: pleasure, evasion, knowledge, enlightenment and emotions.

Then, there’s this “The only literature worth writing or reading is the one that is about something. In short, it is content and not form that creates literary value”. It’s a little extreme and I’m convinced that great literature allies content and form. The best plot in the world won’t work for me if it’s poorly written. And a good style isn’t enough. That’s why I struggle with experimental literature that emphasizes more on experiment than on trying to say something. I’m fond of Exercice de style because Queneau doesn’t try to wrap it into what it’s not. I’m less tempted by La disparition by Perec; I can’t help thinking that such a constraint as writing without the letter e had inevitable impact on the quality of the plot. Yet it is tagged as a novel.

Well, this is what interested me in Introducing Barthes. I expected it to be more difficult than that and more distant from my experience as a reader. I hope I didn’t write anything stupid that will make specialists roll their eyes. In my defence, I’ll say that it’s not my line of work, it’s not what I majored in, so be lenient with me and correct me gently in the comment section.

I found this graphic book entertaining and easy to read. It’s aimed at Anglophone readers so it explains many French facts that I knew from my background. For example, if you’re French and you’re reading something about Barthes theories, you don’t need so many details about who Racine was, you already know. It’s like Shakespeare for an Anglophone. And also, there’s one minor slip: the Abbé Pierre fought for downs-and-outs in the winter 1954, not 1952.

Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 44 comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 23 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

Wandering into general background, an experiment

November 17, 2012 23 comments

I know, I know, I should be writing by billet about Breathing Lessons or the one about Classé sans suite. Right now, I can’t. My brain cells have been fried for a couple of weeks; I haven’t reached the page 50 of Grand Hotel; Marcel acts like a stalker with Albertine and I won’t go on with these books as I don’t want to ruin them for me by reading them at a bad time. That leaves me with books for fried brains and the radio.

Let’s start with the radio. The other day, I heard an interview of François Reynaert and Vincent Brocvielle, co-authors of the recently released Le Kit du 21e siècle, Nouveau manuel de culture générale. I don’t know how to say culture générale in English. The dictionary says general knowledge but I’m not happy with it; it’s more like cultural background to me. Well, these two writers have described in their book the basic cultural background needed to live in the 21st century. One of them argued that this cultural background cannot be only literary as the elites think it should be, but more a common base of general knowledge about the world we live in. It goes from basic economy, to books and without forgetting TV shows, commercials and films. His opinion is that these common references are a cement to a society, a way to build a collective psyche. I agree with that.

But then I started challenging myself on this. I don’t watch TV, I have no idea of the latest shows, the commercials or the star anchormen of the moment. I know nothing about the new humorists or singers. The only thing I want to do when I have free time after work and family life is crawl on the couch with a book or play the piano. That interview made me question my way of living. Am I excluding myself from my environment, cutting myself from the general background of the French society? This is still nagging at me and I don’t have a clue. I’m not going to start watching stupid TV shows to be on the same wavelength as my fellow citizens, am I?

This brought back a conversation I had a month ago with my in-law when she asked me whether I planned to read Fifty Shades of Grey whose French translation was just released. I’d never heard of the book at the time and that she knew about a book I didn’t stung a little. I’m the bookish one in the family. So I investigated. I saw a small article about it in Télérama, not in the literary section (how wise) but in the news section. The curiosity I have for books is so endless that I’m ready to try a book like this to understand why it is such a success, something I’m not ready to do with TV shows.

And here I am, downloading the English version of EL James’s success. A nous, “mommy porn”, fried brains should suffice for this.

So what? Let’s say this read could be the source of endless sarcasm on my side and I’ll spare you the summary. I think that Stephenie Meyer could claim at least half of the money EL James makes with her book as it is only a transposition of Twilight. It’s everywhere, in the secret required from the heroin (she signs a NDA), the descriptions of the main characters, their parents, the location, the plot. It’s so blatant that it’s almost painful. Sure, EL James crosses the PC line and dares to use fuck and all its grammatical derivatives, but when it comes to style, compared to EL James, Stephanie Meyer is a reincarnation of a Brontë sister. I swear I will never make fun of creative writing classes in the future, because I wished EL James had attended some. Her style is so appalling that she doesn’t deserve to be called a writer. Scribbler sounds more appropriate. The good thing about reading this kind of book in English is that you’re sure to memorize the few words you actually don’t know because they’re hammered so many times that in the end, they stay in your memory, fried brains or not. So Christian Grey smirks and I’ll never forget that word.

The substance of the book is terrifying of stupidity but I wonder what it means about our century. Why is it so successful? It’s marketed for women. Is this what we consider a glamorous relationship? A woman needs to be submissive? And you, poor men, you need to be frightening, mercurial, controlling and domineering? When were kind, funny and attentive flushed in the bathroom of the 21st century relationships? As a feminist, I wonder what the readers find in this book. It’s not about sex games between consenting adults, it’s about power, hurting and suffocating someone’s personality. It’s about psychological harassment. Is that glamorous?

Still investigating the phenomenon, I learnt that it will be made into an American film. Immediately, I wondered about the business plan –can’t help it, job conditioning—and about the scenario for such a book in a country that has explicit lyrics stickers on their CDs. How are they going to make a profit on a film that will be forbidden to people under 18? Through DVDs and derivatives? Are they going to bowdlerize savagely and cut all the BDSM sex scenes? But then, what’s the point? I’m curious about that and about who will dare to play the main roles.

So, the conclusion about Fifty Shades of Grey? I’m glad I read it, I can criticize it freely now. After reading it, my advice is the following: if you want to read about a controlling guy, a stalker and man who has a sick vision of love relationships, just read La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust, there’s plenty of that in this volume of In Search of Lost Time and at least you’ll have a brilliant literary style. (More of that in an upcoming billet). If you’re really curious about submission, try Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage. And if you want real kinky sex, just go back to the source and read Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu by the Marquis de Sade. But forget about EL James.

After this enlightening experience, where do I stand about sharing the general background? The thought is still nagging at me, but honestly, I’m not sure I want to experiment further. May I stay in my bubble with my TBR and my piano?

France: Back to Books and Literary Prizes Week traditions

November 6, 2012 17 comments

In French, Back to School is la Rentrée Scolaire. Journalistic creativity coined the Rentrée Littéraire, ie Back to Books. What is it exactly? Every year, at the beginning of September, we’re having a huge release of books from publishers. All their best novelties come out at that time. Papers, magazines are full of articles about the Rentrée littéraire and the year’s indisputable gems, like here in Télérama, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération or L’Express.  They come with stationary, school bags and all back-to-school related events.

646 novels were published between mid-August and mid-October for the rentrée littéraire and I wonder: how do the critics do to read them all? And the booksellers? And the librarians? How can we discover a new writer in this forest of new books? And all this at a terribly busy time of the year: after the holidays, when work picks up, children go back to school (obviously, cf my first paragraph) and millions of things need to be done.  All this literary frenzy slowly builds suspense until the first week of November when the major literary prizes are granted. So this week in France, it’s not Fashion Week but Literary Prizes Week.

The Prix Goncourt is the oldest prize, I think, created by the brothers Goncourt in their will. The first one was given to John-Antoine Nau (Who?) in 1903. The winner is always announced from the same restaurant in Paris. When the rules were established, the winner earned 5000 francs, converted in today’s money, it means a check of…10€. Hmm, let’s hope the sales are good afterwards. A teacher of French literature in Basel, Robert Kopp just wrote a book about the history of the Prix Goncourt (Un siècle de Goncourt), so, if you want to know more…

Other prizes were created in the wake of and in reaction to the Goncourt. The Prix Femina started in 1904, granted by a jury of women as opposed to the only-male jury of the Goncourt. In 1926, ten critics created the Prix Renaudot, which is announced from the same restaurant as the Goncourt, and only a few minutes after. (Personally, I find this pathetic.). In 1958, the Prix Medicis was born.

So Literary Prizes Week started today with Patrick Deville, who won the Prix Femina for his novel Peste et choléra. (Plague and Cholera). Nothing metaphoric in this title: the book is about Alexandre Yersin who worked with Pasteur, discovered the bacillus of the plague and lived an adventurous life.

Tomorrow, we’ll know who won the Prix Medicis and the winner of Prix Goncourt will be announced on November 7th.

I’m not interested in this but it’s hard to avoid hearing about it or reading articles or seeing the books in book stores. I just wanted to share about this French phenomenon, I’m under the impression it doesn’t work that way in other countries. Does it?

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