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Proust therapy

January 25, 2015 20 comments

GallienneRecently I had one of those days off where you pack do many things to do that you wish you had been in the office instead. At the end of the day, I felt stressed out and frazzled by the pace of the day. I needed something to calm me down, especially since I was going to the theatre that night and wanted to enjoy myself.

That’s where the book/CD of Ca peut pas faire de mal came to my rescue. Ca peut pas faire de mal (It can’t hurt) is a radio show on France Inter where Guillaume Gallienne reads excerpts of books and discusses a writer. It is a marvelous show and marketing people made a CD/book out of it. Lucky me, I got one for Christmas and it’s about Proust, Hugo and Madame de Lafayette.

I put the CD in the car and I forgot the stress of my day. Proust read by Gallienne makes you truly understand where all the fuss about Proust comes from. The passages recorded belong to different volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and I remembered these scenes. This is Proust’s magic: hundreds of pages of literature and the characters stay with you, scenes are tattooed in your memory and emotions are lasting. Cocteau said about Proust:

Il y a des oeuvres courtes qui paraissent longues; la longueur de Proust me paraît courte. There are short works that seem long; Proust’s length seems short to me.

I share that feeling but I’ll say that some volumes are easier than others.

In his introduction to the show, Gallienne recalls:

Marcel Proust, I discovered him through my grand-mother. She told me “Proust, he’s one of the most irresistible things in the world” I said “Is he?” She said “Proust is hilarious” Ah! I expected anything but this definition and later on, Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust biographer told me “Oh! Discovering Proust thanks to your grand-mother, it’s a very good start.” So let’s laugh with Marcel!

He then starts reading several excerpts showing how Proust practices the whole rainbow of funny from sunny comedy to black humour and through irony, piques and erudite puns. One excerpt relates how the Baron the Charlus walks his bourgeois lover Morel through the intricacies of the aristocratic hierarchy. Hilarious. Another one brings to life Madame Verdurin and her clique. Proust describes her facial expressions, her verbal tics and her behaviour among her beloved followers. Gallienne reads the descriptions, plays the dialogues and turns a written portrait into a flesh and blood person.

There’s also the masterful scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the duke and duchess de Guermantes reveal their true self. They’re self-centred to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Within a few pages, with a simple situation and banal dialogues, the reader understands that not even family and friends dying would prevent the Guermantes to attend a party. They’re appalling, as I mentioned in this billet. Other passages are about Françoise (the servant), Marcel’s beloved grand-mother and homosexuality. The last one is a letter from the front written by the Narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Gallienne says it prefigures Céline. He may be right.

In short passages, the CD gives you a taste of A la recherche du temps perdu. Gallienne reads with gourmandise. That’s a French word I have a hard time translating into English. Like plaisir. If I look up gourmandise in the dictionary, I come up with greed and gluttony which are negative words. They’re flaws or sins. True, in French gourmandise means gluttony as well. But not only. In a more figurative sense, it also means appetite in the most positive way. It goes with innocent pleasure, like in my son’s sentence En avant le plaisir! I never know how to express this in English.

So Gallienne reads Proust with gourmandise in a tone that suggests he’s having a treat, relishing in the turn of sentences, the delicious and old-fashioned subjonctif passé. He reads like a kid eats sweets, with abandonment and gusto. Words roll around his tongue, like he’s savouring a fancy meal or tasting a great wine. If you want to discover Proust, if you’re curious about how Proust sounds in French, then you need to hear Gallienne read these passages. You’ll want to read or reread Proust.

After this, Proust fest, I was calm. All the irritating moments of my day had faded away. I was available and ready to see The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner. That was my Proust therapy. The world would be a quieter place with more literature therapies. Perhaps it’s too ambitious but at least it benefited Penelope Skinner: I was ready to leave my day behind and enter the world she had created for us.

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.

Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 41 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. 1929. French translation by Olivier Le Lay. (2008)

Doblin_BerlinMy good resolution for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy was to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I’ve read 225 pages out of 625 and then decided that life was too short and my reading time too limited to force feed myself with more of Franz Biberkopf’s struggles in Berlin from the 1920s.

Here’s the story. Franz Biberkopf is freshly out of prison. He was condemned after killing his wife in a domestic fight. Now that he’s free, he determined to stay on the right side of law. But things aren’t easy outside when nobody is expecting you, when you’re alone in a metropolis and where you’re doomed to remain in the shady part of society.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a great novel. I’d say it echoes to Manhattan Transfer which was published in 1925 and in a way it resonates with No Beast So Fierce for its ex-convict theme.

Döblin and Dos Passos have the same sense of describing the bowels of a city, be it Berlin or New York. The form of their novel is similar with chapters describing the city and the people and their struggle to survive. Döblin concentrates on Franz Biberkopf while Do Passos creates a whole gallery of characters, giving a real feeling of the town. Manhattan Transfer pictures a wider range of social classes and this is where Döblin joins Bunker. Both show the city’s unsavoury neighbourhoods, in Berlin and in LA. Bunker describes wonderfully how difficult it is to go out of prison, have no one to welcome you and help you outside. Biberkopf wants to be honest now and turn over a new leaf but the economy is bad and he has trouble finding a job. I can’t tell more about the book since I’ve only read one third of it.

Döblin’s style is, I suppose, modernist or experimental, whatever that means. It’s not easy to read but Dos Passos isn’t easy either. I believe both brought something new to literature. My copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz is translated by Olivier Le Lay. It’s a new translation and he did an outstanding job. He translated the German into the French from the east of the country. For example, he wrote tu es schlass, which means you’re knackered. In common French, you’d say tu es crevé. Schlass is really a word we use in Alsace-Moselle. Sometimes, Le Lay also translated the German usage of putting a definite article before proper nouns. Like here: eh ben la Fölsch, elle est ben étalagiste, literally well, the Fölsch, she’s a window dresser, isn’t she? This use of the definite article before a proper noun is allowed in German and is used in popular French in Alsace-Moselle. In addition to these ways of germanising the French, he also translated accents to give a better idea of the atmosphere of the book. So the French reveals the German and you really feel like you’re in Germany and you forget it hasn’t been written in your language.

So after reading this, you wonder “If it’s that good, why did she abandon Berlin Alexanderplatz?” especially since I LOVED Manhattan Transfer and No Beast So Fierce. Why couldn’t I finish it? The reason I see is that Do Passos and Bunker instilled warmth and life in their work. Their characters are alive and human. Franz Biberkopf is cold. Döblin doesn’t explore his feelings enough. He’s a cog in a machine-city that crushes people. I couldn’t care less about him and what would become of him. I wanted to know what would become of the characters Dos Passos created and I wanted Bunker’s Max Dembo to escape his criminal fate. I rooted for them, I was interested.

The coldness I mentioned before prevented me from enjoying myself. I wasn’t willing to put more energy in this long novel. I was confronted again to the same experience with German literature that I’ve had before. I haven’t read many German books but each time I was dissatisfied. They were cold, the characters aloof. As a reader, I’m in a position of looking insects into a microscope, not of sharing a human experience. The writer doesn’t manage to reach out to me. Please, leave recommendations in the comments about German books that aren’t heavy and stuffy. Introduce me to let’s say, the German Nick Hornby or Alberto Moravia or Richard Russo or Philippe Besson. Otherwise, I’m going to think I need to stick to Austrian writers when German language literature month arrives.

For a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz by someone who’s read the entire book, read Max’s review here. Despite my poor experience with Döblin, I still recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Masters and servants

July 31, 2014 18 comments

Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi 1926 French title: Anna la douce

Kosztolanyi_Anna_DouceFor July our book club read Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi and Passage à L’Est decided to re-read it along with us. You can find her billet here. (spoilers) This is my third novel Dezső Kosztolányi, after Skylark and Le cerf-volant d’or.

We’re in Budapest in 1919. The novel opens with the flight by plane of the communist leader Béla Kun. He governed Hungary from March to July 1919 and he leaves the country with a lot of jewels in his pockets. The end of this short communist period in Budapest is the start of another part of Kornél Vizy’s life as a civil servant. The city is coming out of a miserable time and Vizy’s house, as a bourgeois house, has been occupied by the new power. The caretaker of his house, Ficsor, supported the Bolsheviks and is now in a delicate position towards the inhabitants of the house and needs to make himself useful to the soon-to-be powerful Vizy.

Mrs Vizy is a housewife, still grieving the untimely death of her only daughter. She has nothing better to do than take care of the house and pick at her servant. The current one, Katitza crystallises all the faults a servant could have in Mrs Vizy’s eyes: she eats too much, she’s insolent, she likes to go out with men and she doesn’t respect curfew. Mrs Vizy complains, and complains and complains.

Ficsor must redeem himself for being a communist and decides to provide Mrs Vizy with a new servant, his young acquaintance Anna Édes, or the sweet Anna, since Édes means sweet in Hungarian. She’s currently rather happy with her employment at a widower’s house because she watches two small children. She’s reluctant to leave but Ficsor brings her back to Mrs Vizy. And Anna is the perfect servant. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t steal, doesn’t eat much and works, works, works. A curious relationship grows between Anna and Mrs Vizy but no warm feelings are exchanged. Anna is tamed but doesn’t say much. Nobody really knows what she thinks and according to appearances, she’s the best servant ever. What will become of that?

In Anna Édes, Kosztolányi pursues two aims. He pictures the condition of servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie at the time. And what he pictures is exactly what Sándor Márai describes in Confession d’un bourgeois. Servants slept in the kitchen, they had dirty bedclothes, they were poorly paid and were supposed to be happy to get bed and board. They were treated like animals or machines and there was no affection. The mistresses always suspected them to steal and complains about servants were common topic of discussion among bourgeois housewives. Márai says they were not better treated in aristocratic houses but at least aristocrats wouldn’t let go an elderly servant and considered them as part of the family.

What Kosztolányi describes is close to slavery for the living conditions but what amplifies everything is the pettiness of the mistresses. Mrs Vizy and her neighbours have nothing else to discuss but their servants. Talk about narrow-mindedness. While the men had a life outside the house, they live shut out indoors and as they don’t have the education a Lady could have, they have nothing to do. They are in a bad place: they’re too high class to work themselves and be occupied by household duties and they’re not high class enough to have had a solid education. They don’t read, don’t follow politics, don’t go to the theatre, barely play an instrument and don’t write letters to relatives. It’s terrible. They have nothing better to do than watch what their servants do. What a waste of life.

Anna Édes concentrates on the story of Anna in the Vizy household but Kosztolányi also relates the professional raise of Mr Vizy. He’s described as a fair and honest civil servant. He works seriously, doesn’t encourage corruption and is willing to improve the services brought to the population. Mr and Mrs Vizy don’t have a happy marriage, he’s utterly bored with his wife and her one and only topic of conversation. Anna’s qualities are a relief to him not so much because the work is better done than because he escapes the endless whining of an irritated wife.

The political context of the years 1919-1920 is also an important part of the book. I didn’t know about that short episode of Bolshevik power in Budapest in 1919. Actually, I didn’t know that communists came to power anywhere else than Russia before WWII. What happened in 1945 seems like a simple repetition of what had already happened in 1919. Same methods. They used intimidation, purged the opposition and anything bourgeois was suspect. It’s the classic consequences of a change of power, similar to the French revolution, the Empire, the Restauration. Don’t tell me they didn’t know what would happen when they shared the world at the Yalta conference.

During our book club meeting, we debated about the best comparison to Kosztolányi. Is Anna Édes more a Zola or a Balzac? Although Kosztolányi’s luminous and precise style is far from Zola’s luxuriant prose, it is true that both show the living condition of poor people and their lack of opportunities in life. However, I think Kosztolányi is closer to Balzac because more than picturing the poverty of these servants, he pictures the nastiness of the bourgeois, their selfishness and lack of humanity. They are grotesque and Kosztolányi shows them as heartless as the daughters in Le Père Goriot. Zola has a political and social agenda. Balzac and Kosztolányi dissect human nature and expose its cruelty. The changing political context also brings back to Balzac whose novels are often set during the Restauration and after the fall of Napoleon. He pictures the shifts in the society and how everyone tries to reposition in the new game. The same atmosphere applies to Anna Édes and I can’t help thinking it’s also a political novel for Kosztolányi, especially when you see how he winks at us in the last chapter.

I’ve read Anna Édes in French, in a translation by Eva Vingiano de Piňa Martins. It was retranslated in 1992 and improved as the first 1944 translation had some passages changed and was bowdlerised (everything related to sex was cut off) Kosztolányi’s style is glorious, at least in this French translation but I don’t see why it doesn’t reflect the original. I’m happy it’s been retranslated and I highly recommend this book. Skylark was deeper in the psychological exploration of the characters, Le cerf-volant d’or depicted well the microcosm of small town life and Anna Édes is the most political of the three. I still prefer Skylark out of the three but all are a pure pleasure to read.

Other reviews: Guy’s here and Max’s here

PS: Don’t ask me why there’s cheese on the cover of that book.

New York, New York

July 6, 2014 33 comments

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. 1925 Translated into French by Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Dos_Passos_Manhattan_TransferI loved Manhattan Transfer. It’s a gorgeous, unusual piece of literature. Dos Passos portrays New York from around 1900 till 1925. He uses the interwoven lives of a series of characters to do so, but the real star of the book is New York. I didn’t try to read Manhattan Transfer in English, I already had an old copy in French at home. It was a wise decision, I doubt I’m able to read that kind of novel in the original. The problem now is that I don’t have quotes unless they come from the first pages of the books, the ones available as sample on Amazon. It’s really frustrating as the prose is gorgeous and the snapshots of the city extraordinary.

I don’t know how to write about Manhattan Transfer, to make you want to read it right away. I could pick one character or the other and tell you about them. It wouldn’t be enough and it wouldn’t do justice to the book. Dos Passos takes us through a gallery of characters and lives. They get lucky and rich. They had the financial world in their hands and lost their magic. They’re struggling journalists, party boys in the bubbling 1920s, simple employees, actresses, hobos and drunkards. They’re immigrants, workers going on strike, or waiters. You could see it as a journey in a maze but I didn’t. Reading this is like spending an evening flipping through channels on TV and picking five minutes of a program here and there, switching from one to the other, not exactly following thoroughly any of them but grasping enough of the content to understand the main thread. More importantly, these characters are New York’s inhabitants. They give the city its soul, its liveliness, its backbone. We follow them and explore the city with its parks, avenues, harbour, and theatres. We see the glitter and the dark places. We see the shops, the milkman, the cafés and the fancy hotels. We feel the energy, the bustle on sidewalks, the lines of cabs, the traffic and we hear the noise. We hop on the highline, on trains and on ferries. We see the impact of its unique architecture on the atmosphere, the way it plays with the light on the streets. We stroll in Central Park, visit Broadway, linger in Battery Park. Each chapter of the book starts with a vignette about New York. This is the one of the second chapter, Metropolis

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble colums. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn…Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the material of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildinigs will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.

The descriptions of the city are marvellous. Dos Passos is like a painter who’d use words instead of brushes. I’ve been to New York a couple of months ago and I’m so glad I read Manhattan Transfer after this trip, while I had the geography in mind, while the images were fresh in my mind. Dos Passos captures the essence of the city. In New York, sometimes buildings seem to have been thrown together by a playful giant. There’s no unity in height, size or materials. Skyscrapers can be neighbours with a church. I was surprised that the DNA of the 21st century city was already there at the beginning of the 20th century. Employees already had lunch in the cemetery in the financial district and lawyers were already suggesting victims to sue companies after an accident and they were already getting paid in percentage of the settlement they’d get. The moments we pick in the characters lives tell us about the society they live in: their vision of marriage, their ambitions, their reaction to WWI, the strikes and the arrival of prohibition. It’s consistent with Fitzgerald’s Tales From the Jazz Age. (highly recommended, btw)

I’m not going to discuss the place of Manhattan Transfer in the history of literature. I know it’s a modernist novel, it uses the stream-of-consciousness method (although I don’t understand where) but I’m not qualified to start a discussion about this. What will stay with me is how the little vignettes, the descriptions of fleeting moments and the characters bring New York to life.

Here’s another review by James at The Frugal Chariot and an excellent one by Max here at Pechorin’s Journal

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

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

“We’re not living in the Victorian Age”

July 26, 2013 26 comments

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’ (… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)

I started reading Vile Bodies just after the dreadful Scarlet Letter and I read most of it on a hot summer afternoon, lying in a hammock under the apple tree in the garden. No children playing around, no noise, a perfect peaceful moment. These happy circumstances might have influenced my appreciation of the book.

Vile Bodies opens with a nightmarish crossing of the Channel between Calais and Dover. All the characters that we will follow in the novel are here. The sea is rough; all passengers are struggling against seasickness. There’s Mrs Ape and her group of religious singers, reborn Christians and renamed after virtues. I laughed when she called the roll on the boat:

‘Faith.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Charity.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Fortitude.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Chastity… Where is Chastity?’ ‘Chastity didn’t feel well, Mrs Ape. She went below.’

While the American Christian choir sings holy songs ad nauseam to drive away queasiness, the men feel sick too but it would damage their virility to acknowledge it:

 ‘You know I’m funny. I never feel sea-sick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn’t agree with me.’ ‘I’m like that, too.’ ‘Ventilation… a disgrace.’

Waugh_Vile_BodiesSo I sort of fell in love with Waugh’s style and wits immediately. The first chapter is funny, engaging and full of weird personalities. Adam is our main character. An aspiring writer, he’s coming back from France with his memoirs in his suitcase. A publisher is waiting for the book and he’s engaged to be married to Nina Blount. The future seems bright for him. Unfortunately, the Custom officers decide that his book isn’t suitable for reading and burn the manuscript. So Adam is back to London without money and without perspectives to earn some any time soon since he doesn’t have another copy of his manuscript. He phones Nina to let her know they wouldn’t be able to get married as scheduled. Adam settles at a pension, one of those places you encounter in books but have disappeared now. All along the book, Adam is running after money and his chances of marrying Nina vary according to the content of his wallet.

Waugh was a member of a group of Londoner socialites that the press named Bright Young People.  They organized wild parties, scandalized the old society. They were reckless and they shook up the old values. They didn’t want to live like their parents. Waugh put a bit of himself in Adam. Adam made me laugh but irritated me at times for his lack of good sense. His main goal is to marry Nina and money is an obstacle. He should be actively looking for a job but he idly hangs out with his friends instead. He lacks of focus for the only thing important to him. And when luck is on his side, he sabotages it out of stupidity or carelessness. For example, he gets 1000 £ by chance and instead of keeping them preciously, he gives them to a drunken major to bet on a dubious horse. And, how can you have only ONE copy of the manuscript you’ve spent hours working on?

The book broaches many subjects. It describes the thirst for happiness and fun after the war. However despite the lights and the apparent lightness, it’s bittersweet. These young people don’t know exactly what they want from life or what they want to do with their life. They reject the values and ways of living of their parents but still have to invent their own. For me, Vile Bodies is a testimony of the beginning of the 20thC, the one that, according to historians, actually started after WWI. The Bright Young People have occupations derived from industries that developed during the war. They party in a balloon, they participate to car races. Waugh is a keen observer of his society. Here are the domestics at an aristocrat’s house trying to define a status for Mrs Ape’s choir (the “angels”) who is to perform for the guests:

(There had been a grave debate in the servants’ hall about the exact status of angels. Even Mr Blenkinsop, the butler, had been uncertain. ‘Angels are certainly not guests,’ he had said, ‘and I don’t think they are deputations. Nor they ain’t governesses either, nor clergy not strictly speaking; they’re not entertainers, because entertainers dine nowadays, the more’s the pity.’ ‘I believe they’re decorators,’ said Mrs Blouse, ‘or else charitable workers.’ ‘Charitable workers are governesses, Mrs Blouse. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying social distinctions indefinitely. Decorators are either guests or workmen.’ After further discussion the conclusion was reached that angels were nurses, and that became the official ruling of the household. But the second footman was of the opinion that they were just ‘young persons’, pure and simple, ‘and very nice too’, for nurses cannot, except in very rare cases, be winked at, and clearly angels could.)

Waugh caught that the society was at a turning point. The war has shattered the old status quo. The pieces of the social puzzle have been moved and need to find a new place to create a brand new picture.

While writing Vile Bodies, Waugh’s wife left him. He said it impacted the tone of the book and I could feel it, even if I read about this afterwards. It becomes darker in the end and I have to say that the ending left me a bit confused. Anyway, Waugh has an incredible sense of humor and I’m sure I didn’t get everything a native English speaker could get out of the text. The names of characters are funny and the text is full of little remarks and cheeky comparisons on a humorous tone, like this one:

Adam gave her – the spaniel, not Mrs Florin – a gentle prod with his foot and a lump of sugar. She licked his shoe with evident cordiality. Adam was not above feeling flattered by friendliness in dogs.

Isn’t it excellent? And of course, there’s the amazing passage I published earlier.

Vile Bodies is worth reading for its funny style, for the observation of the London life of the time and for the set of characters. It felt like the English equivalent of a novel written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I was asked if there is a French counterpart to this literature about the bubbly 1920s. I couldn’t find any. I searched through the novel published in the 1920s and 1930s and didn’t find any. I only thought about Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. There were wild parties in Paris at the time but the French authors weren’t writing about them. The 1920s are the years Gallimard published most of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. If I stick to writers born around 1900 like Waugh and Fitzgerald, I didn’t find a famous book resembling Vile Bodies. At the time, Malraux published The Conquerors, Cocteau created Les Enfants terribles. Jean Giono wrote Harvest, Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour. Let me know if you are aware of a French novel close to Vile Bodies.

Nothing beats English politeness

July 20, 2013 9 comments

‘We want diner,’ said Adam, ‘and a room for the night.’
‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’  said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

I just love this dialogue from Vile Bodied by Evelyn Waugh. You’ll never find anything like this in a French novel.

More of Waugh in an upcoming billet.

There’s a lot of insomnia going through the closed double-doors of a sleeping hotel.

January 6, 2013 26 comments

Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum 1929 French / English title : Grand Hotel

I know, I know, I’m like two months late for German Literature month but I needed a lot of time to read Grand Hotel in good conditions. I didn’t want to ruin it by reading it a bad time and November was such a rush in the office that any evening was a bad evening to savour this book. I discovered Grand Hotel when Caroline reviewed it and I was immediately drawn to it and I wasn’t disappointed.

Baum_Grand_hotelGrand Hotel describes a set of characters that stay in the eponymous hotel in Berlin. We’re at the end of the 1920s and Vicki Baum slowly introduces us to a crowd of lost souls. Preysing is here on business. He runs a textile company which is in a tough corner and is in Berlin to negotiate a merger with another company. He comes from the small town of Fredersdorf, just as Kringelein, who actually works for Preysing’s company as an accountant. They move into very different circles and when Preysing meets Kringelein, he seems vaguely familiar but he cannot remember why. Doctor Otternschlag lives in the hotel the whole year-round. He lingers in the salons, regularly asks the reception for messages that never come. He was badly wounded during WWI and never recovered physically and mentally from his years on the front. His face is totally ruined on one side and he doesn’t live but barely survives. I wondered what kept him alive. Curiosity? The Grousinskaja is an aging Russian ballet dancer, a star who has lost her shine. She still performs but her public is rare and she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she needs to retire before it’s too late. Baron von Gaigern is a ruined aristocrat who turned into a a con-artist to find money to keep his standard of living. He’s a Balzacian character, addicted to gambling, playing with women and unable to actually work to earn money. (Or marry a rich heiress). He’s a pleasant character though; nice to everyone, always joyful and polite. He’s the kind of entertaining parasite you’re bound to meet in such places.

All the characters are flawed and fragile and consequently rather moving. Preysing is the CEO of his company but still lives in the shadow of his step-father; the suit is too big for him. He struggles with the negotiation, isn’t shrewd enough for a business man. And the situation is so desperate that failure isn’t an option. Kringelein is dying and he decided to leave his wife, take all their savings to live in this posh hotel where he knows his boss stays when he’s in Berlin. Kringelein is seeking real life, not the poor and petty life he lived with his stingy wife. He’s seeking Life, with a capital L and takes advice from Doctor Otternschlag and Gaigern to show him the world.

This novel has the bittersweet flavor of the end of an era. Of course we know what will become of the Weimar Republic. It has the taste of the 1920s: tea dances, jazz, scars from WWI, an eagerness to live. It was written before the Black Tuesday and the Great Depression and yet you can see through Preysing’s meetings with his consultant that the economy has gone wild. Financial markets although less developed than nowadays have gone crazy. Businessmen are ready to manipulate the values of company shares. Everything and everyone rush headlong to their downfall, the people and the society.

I was fascinated by the pages where Vicki Baum describes the business meeting between Preysing, his lawyer specialized in M&A and the CEO of the acquisition target. Things haven’t changed that much. Meetings on neutral territories in hotels; selling the company’s results by doing a quick financial analysis, outlining the win-win situation of the merger without giving too much away. Deciding what to say and what to hide; balancing between giving information and thinking about its confidentiality if the deal fails. Absolutely fascinating. I wonder how Vicki Baum knew about that.

Kringelein’s story is easy to relate to. This is a man who realizes he’s going to die very soon and that he hasn’t enjoyed life. He throws caution to the wind now that he has no future and turns to frenzy of discovering the world. It’s interesting to see where the others take him to experience Real Life. He attends a show by the Grousinskaja, a boxing match, rides in a car, flies in a plane, buys expensive clothes. But he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for or what he means with Life.

I think Grand Hotel is a multilayered book. It’s very down-to-earth when it depicts the workings of the hotel, the rooms, the furniture, the habits, the staff. It portrays the German society of that time, as the hotel guests are a sample of this society. It reaches the universal with Kringelein’s quest (What is “living a full life”?), Grousinskaja’s angst (How do I cope with ageing?), Doctor Otternschlag‘s difficulties (How do I heal from a trauma?).

The French translation I have dates back to 1997, so it’s rather new. However, it sounds like the 1920s especially with the English words used in the French, words we don’t use anymore (Lift, sportsman, suitcase, jumper) but you can find some of them in Proust (especially Lift). This hotel seems midway between the hotel in Balbec and the one in Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, a few years later.

I’d love to include quotes in this billet, to share with you pieces of Baum’s marvelous prose but I didn’t find an English version and it’s too difficult for me to translate properly. I know this book is hard to find in English, it’s only available in used copy now. I fervently hope that a publisher will decide to republish it or that it will be available for ebooks. If you can read in German or in French, go for it, it’s worth reading.

The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolanyi

August 12, 2011 21 comments

Aranysárkány aka The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolányi 1925. 363 pages.

 Foreword:This novel takes place in a Hungarian small town named Sàrszeg around 1900. It’s the same imaginary town as in Skylark, by the same writer. It is about a teacher, Antal Novak and his students, which means it talks a lot about school and the Hungarian school system. I read this novel in French and the translator converted the Hungarian realities with words corresponding to the French school system. Now, I’m writing a review and I don’t know which English words I should use. I could use the American school system, well-known to everyone thanks to their dominating role in the cinema industry. But I can’t. Talking about “high school”, “senior year” and “finals” also brings along images of prom nights and cheerleaders. It doesn’t suit at all the atmosphere of The Golden Kite. Plus, I don’t know if the school system was already like that in the US in 1900. What is described here is very close to the French school system and I don’t think it’s only the work of the translator. There are similarities in the exams, in the solemnity of high school and of old tradition. Therefore, I’ve decided to use the French words chosen by the translator. “Baccalauréat” or its shorthand “bac” is the final exam for “gymnase” (high school, French Swiss word). Like in the Hungarian system of The Golden Kite, this exam is a rite of passage and it’s composed of a written and an oral part. The “terminales” are the students in their last year of lycée, the ones who will take the bac at the end of the school year.

 Now, the review:

The Golden Kite was written in 1925 and although the title is mentioned on the English page of Wikipedia, I couldn’t find any book cover on Amazon or Book Depository. It doesn’t seem to be available in English as a stand-alone but it may be included in anthologies. If it hasn’t been translated into English or is out of print, than I feel so sorry for English speaking readers as they are going to miss a tremendous book. For francophone readers who would buy the French edition, don’t read the blurb as it gives away events that take place around page 200 in a book of 368 pages. (A very irritating habit, in my opinion)

The opening scene of The Golden Kite is a sprint race. Vili Liszner, a terminale, is an athletics lover.

Le coup de feu claqua.

Posté derrière le coureur au bout d’une ligne tracée à la chaux, un lycéen tenait dressé le canon du pistolet et fixait les petits nuages de fumée qui tardaient à se disperser dans le ciel matinal.

Dès l’apparition de la flamme, un deuxième garçon avait mis en route le chronomètre. Il n’avait pu toutefois s’empêcher de crier :

– Vas-y !

Vili courait déjà.

Le départ avait été impeccable. D’un bond de panthère, net et sans à-coups, il s’était levé au dessus du sol, et quelques secondes plus tard, il était déjà lancé à toute vitesse vers la ligne d’arrivée.

Dans ses yeux, les prés défilaient au galop. Ses souliers cloutés griffaient la piste. Sa tête, battue par des cheveux à la tzigane, était rejetée en arrière et son visage se tordait dans un effort grinçant. Le sol palpitait.

The gun went off.

Posted behind the racer at the end of a line traced with chalk, a lycéen hold up the barrel of the gun and stared at the little clouds of smoke that longed to vanish in the morning sky.

As soon as the flame showed up, a second boy had started the stopwatch. However he couldn’t help shouting:

– Go!

Vili was already running.

The start had been perfect. With a panther leap, clean and without a jolt, he had risen above the ground and within seconds, he had launched himself toward the arrival line.

In his eyes, the fields flashed at a gallop. His studded shoes were scratching the track. His head, blown by his tsigane hair, was thrown back and his face contorted in a wincing effort. The ground was quivering.

The scene is vivid; we can see it right before our eyes, like in a film. From this scene we can deduct that Vili is more an athlete than a student, that his parents are rather wealthy since he can afford a gun for departure and studded shoes. Vili’s nightmare is school and especially math and physics classes. He doubts he can pass his bac. It’s the first of May, a public holiday.

Antal Novàk is the math and physics master. He’s a widower and has a sixteen year old daughter, Hilda. Novàk loves his job. Teaching is a calling and he’s a humanist. He’s devoted to his school, spending hours in his lab to prepare classes, willing to help his students become men. He’s against corporal punishment, preferring discussion. He’s the kind of teacher who throws teas for his pupils and promotes modern teaching methods. He’s respected among his peers and admired by the bourgeois of Sàrszeg. But he’s not loved, he’s even ridiculed by his students and perhaps envied by his peers. His daughter Hilda is rather wild and unbalanced. She’s been dating Tibor Csajkàs for two years now, first openly and then, after her father’s interdiction, secretly. From the start we guess that dramatic events will take place, shattering Novàk’s orderly life and breaking his peace of mind.

I loved this book, it is as good as Skylark. and I have dozens of wonderful quotes. I tried to share some, the translations are mine, unfortunately. Kosztolányi managed to mix philosophical thoughts (What is it to be a good teacher? Isn’t life an absurd sum of misunderstandings? How do you become a man? Aren’t childhood and adolescence the best parts of life?) with the chronicle of everyday life in an Hungarian town of that time.

I was amazed by how contemporary it is. I thought about Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates and I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Vili reminded me of American athlete students, good in sport but with low grades. And Novàk was like their teachers who’d do anything to avoid giving them bad grades because of the fame they bring on their town or school. The class of terminales was like any class of that age nowadays. Here they are, gathering to study before the exam:

Ils parlaient de plus en plus des matières scolaires. La parole était monopolisée par Dezsö Ebeczky, le premier de la classe, qu’ils détestaient tous cordialement. Non pas parce qu’il travaillait bien. Après tout, on a le droit de bien travailler. Mais travailler aussi bien que lui, c’était quand même écœurant.

They spoke more and more about school classes. Dezsö Ebeczky, the best student in class was speaking all the time. They all heartily detested him, not because he was a good student. After all, one has the right to be the best student. But being as good as that was really disgusting.

Kosztolányi also unravels the unique relationship between student and teacher. I liked the passage where Kosztolányi explains that Novàk isn’t really human for his pupils. They can’t imagine he can get sick, has been a child or he has a home life. Even his clothes seem of different fabric as they are teacher clothes. And it’s true that teachers have a special aura, that they are stuck in their role and are hard to imagine as mothers, sons of anyone and spouse. The descriptions of the exams were accurate, the fear before the D-day, the parents’ expectations, the frantic cramming until the last minute. They organize cheating during the exams:

Fóris, qui surveillait, les mis sévèrement en garde à plusieurs reprises sur le sérieux danger que constituait la fraude, dite « pompage ». Ledit « pompage » n’en fut pas moins organisé. Gyuszi Olàh avait prévu de copier la réponse aux questions à l’aide d’un code ad hoc, en vingt-trois exemplaires d’un coup, pour que le savoir, comme il se doit en une époque démocratique telle que la nôtre, devînt le bien commun.

Fóris, who was invigilating warned them strongly against the serious danger that cheating represented. It was called « pompage ». The so-called « pompage » was nonetheless organized. Gyuszi Olàh had decided to copy the answers to the questions with an ad hoc code in twenty-three copies in a row, so that knowledge becomes a common good, as it is suitable in a democratic era such as ours.

The journalists write articles about the bac, to question its utility

Il fustigeait surtout “l’institution désuète et inhumaine” du bac, qui « avait déjà fait parmi les jeunes d’innombrables victimes »

He castigated the “old-fashioned and inhuman institution” of the bac that “had already innumerable casualties among the youth”

I don’t know how it is abroad, but in France, the bac is an institution. This exam was created under Napoleon and if its substance has changed, the form remains. The written part takes place the same day in the whole country and it starts with philosophy. Every year, journalist talk about it in headlines and wish good luck to the candidates. Every year, we hear the same kind of debate: “Is the bac still up-to-date?”, “Is it useful?”, “Shouldn’t it be done differently?”, “Is it still a rite of passage?”

There’s a beautiful chapter about what it meant to pass the bac at this time. Of course, we must not forget that only the upper classes went to lycée at that time. (And in France, also poor but brilliant students. Teachers considered it was their mission to detect brilliant minds and push them as far as possible.) The students become men: at the diploma ceremony, they receive their first cane, they are allowed to drink alcohol, smoke in public. They are treated as equals by the adults. It’s an important rite of passage.

As an aside, Kosztolányi has a real gift to describe nature and its soothing impact on the human soul.

Dans une ombre irritante, des peupliers trembles se dressaient, semblables aux colonnes d’une cathédrale, et leurs couronnes de feuillage bruissaient dans la brise telles les orgues d’une église. Des peupliers blancs cherchaient le ciel de leur branches en balais. Les chênes, sérieux, hochaient la tête, imitant le grondement ininterrompu des chutes d’eau. Ici les grands lycéens avaient presque l’air de petits enfants.

In an irritating shadow, some aspens rose like the columns of a cathedral and their crown of foliage rustled in the breeze like the organ of a church. White poplars looked for the sky with their broom-like branches. The oaks nodded seriously, mimicking the continuous rumbling of waterfalls. Here, the great lycéens almost looked like small children.

Or

Un silence de sieste s’étalait sur la ville muette.

A silence of afternoon nap was stretching over the mute city.

A last one for the end, one that made me think of Thomas Hardy:

La vie n’est faite que de méprises empilées les unes sur les autres.

Life is only made of piled up misunderstandings.

In conclusion: a must-read among my best reads of this year.

There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

March 11, 2011 36 comments

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  

Transportation.

Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.

America 

It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

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