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

November 7, 2020 22 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer #7 : Nada by Carmen Laforêt – Twelve months in the life of a young woman

July 31, 2020 27 comments

Nada by Carmen Laforêt (1944) French title: Nada. Translated by Marie-Madeleine Peignot and Mathilde Pomès. Revised by Maria Guzmán

While I’m off wandering and doing Literary Escapades, I’m still reading. This year, as part of Spanish Lit Month and 20 Books of Summer, I decided to read Nada by Carmen Laforet along with Vishy.

When Nada opens, eighteen-year old Andrea arrives to Barcelona to attend university and study literature. She’s an orphan and used to live with her cousin in the country. Now, she’s going to live with her maternal uncles, aunt and grandmother.

Her train is late and it’s night when she finally reaches the family apartment on Aribau Street. The grandmother opens the door and it’s as if Andrea falls into a horror movie: the apartment is dark, stuffed with old furniture, it’s dirty and dusty, the people living there look old, tired and menacing. The scene is striking and the reader wonders where Andrea enters. She’s led to the living-room, with her bed made on an old sofa. It’s as if she’s disturbing spiders and other creatures.

The reader knows right away that something’s not right in this household. Being poor doesn’t mean being filthy and there’s something disturbing about Andrea’s welcome.

Andrea will share the lives of her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Roman, her uncle Juan and his wife Gloria and their baby. The grandmother is a sweet and religious old lady who would sacrifice her well-being to maintain the peace. Angustias is a righteous spinster who warns Andrea against Gloria and wants to control her life. Juan is a would-be painter who can’t accept that he has no talent. He doesn’t make enough money to support his family. Roman is a talented musician, too lazy to make a good career out of it. In any case, we’re in 1944 and Barcelona is still recovering from the Civil War.

Andrea finds herself in the middle of the unhealthy ties between the family members. Angustias wants Andrea to be her pet but you don’t catch flies with vinegar. Andrea silently resists. Roman tries to attract her with honey, but she still feels ill at ease and perceives that he’s manipulative. Gloria concentrates all the violence of the family: Angustias hates her, Juan beats her and Roman desires her and belittles her. There are undercurrent of past events between the three.

Roman is a central character in the novel. He’s charismatic and cruel. He counts on his enigmatic personality to draw people in his nets. Other people are preys.

Andrea starts going to university and befriends Ena. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air for Andrea but also the source of torments. She’s too poor to fit with Ena’s family and she feels like an outsider in her circle of bohemian friends too.

From the very first pages, the reader feels that this experience in Barcelona will be crucial in Andrea’s life and that drama is inevitable.

Nada reminded me of Hello Sadness by Françoise Sagan, probably because both have young women as main characters and both were written when their authors were very young.

Andrea also sounded like an existentialist character. Sartre’s Nausea was published in 1938 and Camus’s Outsider in 1942. Like Meursault, Andrea is a bit aloof and her friend Ena notices it. She doesn’t fit into the usual young woman mold: she doesn’t wear make up, doesn’t think about boys and getting married. She’s not even passionate about her studies.

She’s floating on the sea of her life, trying to navigate around the violent outbursts at home, staying with her friends but not belonging. She doesn’t seem committed to anything. The young men who try to seduce her can’t find a grip to climb over her personal walls. They fail and fall like inexperienced climbers in front of a smooth rock face.

Sometimes Andrea cares about others, about Ena especially but she’s mostly indifferent about her relatives. She’s invaded by an overwhelming sadness at times and a depressing vision of life. Who can blame her, considering her circumstances?

Barcelona is a character in the book too. Andrea flees from the house and spends hours wandering in the city’s streets. The architecture and the weather leave marks on her moods.

Despite her apparent apathy, Andrea is a fighter. She resists all attempts at putting her on someone’s side. She fought for leaving the country to study in Barcelona. She silently stands up to Angustias. She won’t bend and she fights for her freewill. Nobody will take her freedom of thinking and even if in appearance, she doesn’t make a fuss about anything, her mind is her own.

Is this silent resistance the author’s vision of how to resist the Franco dictatorship? Staying safe and keeping one’s freewill must have been a challenge back then. Times must have been tough in Barcelona, a former bastion of the Republicans. Nada stays away from political issues and doesn’t delve on the war years but it’s underlying.

In the end, Nada tells twelve months in the life of a young woman and sounds like an existentialist coming-of-age novel.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 23 comments

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) Original French title: L’Etranger.

Preamble: I know that L’Etranger by Albert Camus has been translated into The Outsider or The Stranger. I’ll stick to the French title to keep everyone happy even if I think that The Outsider is a better title.

Like a lot of French teenagers, I studied L’Etranger in school. I was fourteen when I read it and I remember that I enjoyed it despite studying it in class. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to read it and I decided to read it along with her.

For those who haven’t read this stunning novella by Albert Camus, it opens with some of the most famous sentences of French literature.

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

Translation by Matthew Ward.

Meursault is a young bachelor living in Algiers during the French colonization. His mother was in an old home when she died, and the first chapters describe his going to the home and attending the funeral. The heat is blinding and staggering.

Back in Algiers, Meursault resumes his everyday life. He works in an office in a shipping company. He’s reliable enough and his boss is thinking about sending him to the new office in Paris. He has a liaison with Marie, goes to the beach with her and gets to know his neighbor Raymond. Meursault’s life changes for the worst when he kills an Arab on the beach on a hot Sunday. The first part of the book is about Meursault’s life before his crime and the second part is about his imprisonment and his trial.

Meursault is a strange character. He glides through life, letting people around him leading the way. He’s not involved in his life. He enjoys his quotidian but wouldn’t fight for it. He’s not in love with Marie, he likes her well enough but he wouldn’t be affected by her leaving him. He spends time with his neighbor who openly asks him to be his buddy, he acquiesces without conviction. He’s adrift, nothing makes sense and is worth fighting for. He’s an outsider because he refuses to obey to society’s rules. He also refuses to lie and express feelings or opinions that he doesn’t feel or think.

I’m not going to analyze L’Etranger. I’m not qualified for that and honestly, what could I bring to what academics have already written about it? I’d rather discuss my response to it.

When I first read L’Etranger, it stayed with me for the story, its absurd ending and the unfairness of it. I remember I wanted to shake Meursault up, to yell at him and push him to react, to force him to take action and do something to save himself. Teenagers are always hit hard by unfairness. I was also irritated by his passivity.

My second reading is more educated, I suppose. I still want to shake him because I tend to act and not stay put when something happens. However, I’m more tolerant to his reaction now, not as irritated as I was as a teenager.

I’m also more aware of the context, of the description of life in Algiers under the French colonization. Algeria was a French department, a special status that meant that this territory was ruled the same way as departments on mainland France. I was shocked to see the investigation judge pulling out a crucifix from his drawer and starting to ask Meursault whether he believed in God. This has been so forbidden in France since 1905. The trial seems to be happening a political or religious court: the verdict is known before the hearing starts and beliefs are more important than facts. There’s no appeal for trials at the court of assizes at the time and the guillotine was still working.

But after years of reading literature, I was bowled over by Camus’s flawless style. I didn’t realize how good he was the first time I read it. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the seaside and life in Algiers. I could imagine the beaches, the hot sand and the stifling heat. I have two quotes to share, I couldn’t find any translation, so I played translator. *cringe* Please forgive their clumsiness.

Aujourd’hui, le soleil débordant qui faisait tressaillir le paysage le rendait inhumain et déprimant. Today, the overflowing sun that made the landscape quiver rendered it inhuman and depressing.

And…

C’était le même éclatement rouge. Sur le sable, la mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues. Je marchais lentement vers les rochers et je sentais mon front se gonfler sous le soleil. Toute cette chaleur s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance. Et chaque fois que je sentais son grand souffle chaud sur mon visage, je serrais les dents, je fermais les poings dans les poches de mon pantalon, je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil et de cette ivresse opaque qu’il me déversait. A chaque épée de lumière jaillie du sable, d’un coquillage blanchi ou d’un débris de verre, mes mâchoires se crispaient. J’ai marché longtemps. It was the same red eruption. On the sand, the sea was panting from the quick and shallow breathing of her little waves. I was walking slowly towards the rocks and I felt my forehead swell under the sun. All this heat was weighing me down and pushing against my progression. And each time that I felt its deep hot breath on my face I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trousers’ pockets, I coiled my all self to win against the sun and the opaque intoxication he poured on me. For each sword of light spurting out of the sand from a whitened shell or a piece of glass, my jaw tensed up. I walked for a long time.

Aren’t we with Meursault on this hot beach under the biting sun? I love the images, the way the elements seem to assault Meursault’s senses. His narrative is also concise and precise. It’s straight to the point and extremely efficient. Mind-blowing.

I’ll end this billet by mentioning the BD version of L’Etranger by Jacques Fernandez. It’s faithful to the novel. The characters jump out of the pages; the landscapes and the city of Algiers seem real. It’s available in English and it’s a good companion to the novel.

Now I’m going to read The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

February 8, 2016 12 comments

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1945) Translated from the Italian by Marie Canavaggia

Moravia_AgostinoI’m late to post about January’s Book Club choice. It was Agostino by Alberto Moravia.  We had already read Contempt and decided to read another one. Agostino is a novella about adolescence. Agostino is 13 and he’s spending his holidays at the beach with his widowed mother. We don’t know how his father died. The war, maybe. Agostino’s mother is never named. She’s still young and attractive. At the beginning of the holidays, she’s centered on her son and he enjoys spending his time with her. They take a boat and go swimming and he’s proud to be seen in her company.

Then she meets a young man and he accompanies her to her daily boat tours and swimming sessions. Agostino becomes a third wheel and he resents his mother for it. He witnesses the change in her behaviour: she’s flirting with the young man and has attitudes he’d never seen in her. Agostino starts seeing his mother as a woman and not as a mother only.

Agostino is terribly upset not to be his mother’s first interest any longer. He needs to share but mostly, he needs to accept that she’s a woman, that her life as a woman is separate from her life as a mother. She’s no longer asexual. He notices her body and starts feeling uncomfortable in situations that were normal to him before. He’d like her to be more modest when he comes to her room. She’s unaware of his uneasiness and she should change her behaviour to take into account that her boy is turning into a young man.

This holiday forces on Agostino the separation that needed to happen. He’s growing up, it’s also time for him to have a life independent from his mother. This first attempt at autonomy is done through joining a gang of young local boys who hang out around the beach.

This will be educational on several levels. First, they don’t come from the same social background. Agostino comes from a rich family; he lives in a mansion and has no idea of how privileged he is. He takes money for granted and when he mixes with these local boys coming from poor fishermen families, he’s confronted to other social references. They don’t have the same vision of life. They don’t live by the same rules. Violence is part of their life, fighting with each other, struggling to survive and starving attention. They’re more comfortable with their bodies.

Second, they are less sheltered, more mature and more knowledgeable about facts-of-life. They will reveal to Agostino what relationship his mother has with the young man. They will make fun of his innocence but will still do his sexual education. They will be eye-opening for him and trigger his leaving his childhood behind.

13 is a delicate age with a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts. Agostino still wears short pants but his mind is moving on. He’s puzzled and innocent at first but he catches on quickly. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life and that affects his relationship with his mother. (Hints at psychoanalysis are rather obvious in the novel) It explains why he’s suddenly discovering that she’s more than a mother, that to other men, she can be a lover. He was content; this new awareness disturbs the harmony of his life. This summer is about finding a new equilibrium to go forward.

I won’t tell too much about this incredible novella. I’m amazed again at how much Moravia can pack in a hundred pages. The style is subtle and evocative. I was there, on the beach, imagining the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the sun, the heat, the cabins on the beach, the little boats. It’s very cinematographic with short but spot-on descriptions. The quick change in Agostino is masterfully described. He’s 13, on the fence between childhood and adolescence. The invisible hand of time pushes him to the side of adolescence. That doesn’t go without scratches on his soul.

Honestly, seeing how short this is, there’s no excuse for not reading it. If you need further assurance that this is an amazing read, please have a look at reviews by Guy and Jacqui.

The Outlaw by Georges Simenon

November 11, 2015 19 comments

The Outlaw by Georges Simenon (1941). Original French title: L’outlaw.

C’était terrible ! Stan était trop intelligent. Il avait conscience d’être aussi intelligent, sinon plus, que n’importe qui. Il pensait à tout !

Il savait même qu’il allait faire une bêtise et pourtant il était incapable de ne pas la faire ! Comment expliquer cela ?

It was terrible! Stan was too intelligent. He was aware of his being as intelligent as anyone else, if not more. He thought of everything.

He even knew that he was about to do something stupid and yet he was unable not to do it! How to explain this?  

Simenon_outlawWhen The Outlaw opens, it’s night, it’s winter and Stan and his girlfriend Nouchi are walking around in Paris. They’re broke and cannot go back to their cheap hotel because they haven’t paid for the room and they know that the owner will be on the prowl, waiting for his payment or to throw them out.

Stan is Polish and Nouchi is Hungarian. They are both illegal migrants in the Paris of the 1930s. They’ve been together for a while and have come back to Europe after a few years in New York. We soon understand that they had to leave after Stan did something stupid.

The first chapters are poignant as Stan feels trapped in his penniless life. He lives in constant fear of the police. They  walk around, looking for an open café to warm themselves a bit. They are desperate. They’re not allowed to work, they’ve already gotten all the money they could from friends. We follow Stan’s train of thoughts and he doesn’t see the end of the tunnel.

Il marchait. Il pensait. Il pensait durement, méchamment. Ses narines se pinçaient et il serrait les poings. Il n’avait pas le droit de s’asseoir sur un banc, car il aurait attiré l’attention et la première idée de n’importe quel agent serait de lui demander ses papiers ! He walked. He was thinking. He was thinking harshly, meanly. His nose was pinched and his fists were clenched. He couldn’t sit on a bench because it would have drawn attention to him and the first idea any deputy would get was to has him for his papers.

Nouchi and Stan need food and shelter. Exhaustion plays dirty tricks with Stan’s mind. He comes with the idea to bargain with the police: for 5000 francs, he will give them information about a gang of Polish criminals who operate from the same shabby hotel as the one they’re staying in. Instead, they want him to infiltrate the gang.

Simenon_outlaw_EnglishFrom there starts a rather confusing hide-and-seek game. The police are using Stan’s information but are still surveilling him. They are also staking out the Polish gang. I never quite understood whether the police were already aware of this gang’s activities or if Stan put them on it. Stan hopes to leave that mess scot-free and with the money. But Stan isn’t as clever as he thinks and he’s driven by fear, a bad adviser. He’s a young thug who isn’t brave enough to be as violent as his thug persona would require to and he can’t help wanting to earn easy money.

It could have been a great book if the plot had been polished a bit. It feels like it’s been written in a hurry and not edited much. I was more interested in the setting, the Paris of that time and Stan’s status than in the actual story.

It sounds strange to consider Polish and Hungarian citizens as illegal migrants as Poland and Hungary are now part of the EU and we can live wherever we want in the Union. Stan’s current nationality reminds us of the political instability in Europe.

Je suis né à Wilno. Donc, avant la guerre, j’étais russe. Après, nous avons été lithuaniens… Les Polonais sont venus mais, au fond, nous sommes toujours lithuaniens. I was born in Wilno. So before the war, I was Russian. Then we became Lithuanian…The Poles came but deep down, we remained Lithuanian.

All this in a life time. I can’t imagine what it was for them. (Of course, I picked up on this since Romain Gary was born in 1914 un Wilno.)

Simenon gives a chilling idea of what it was (is?) to be an illegal migrant. Stan and Spa from Spa Sleeps by Dinev would understand each other at some level although Spa isn’t willing to do become a criminal to get money.

That part was more appealing to me than the rest and Simenon set Stan’s state-of-mind really well and prepared the reader to understand what he did later. There’s no excuse for crimes but there are explanations on how criminals got there. More about this later this month with my billet about Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach.

This was #TBR20 number 16.

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

Embers by Sándor Márai

May 25, 2015 25 comments

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942) French title: Les braises. Translated by Marcelle et Georges Régnier.

Marai_braisesEmbers is set in 1941 in an odd aristocratic castle in Hungary. Henri is 75, a widower and a former general from the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife died years ago and he lives a solitary life. He’s retreated in a small part of the castle and lives among his servants. One night, a messenger comes with a letter, informing him that Conrad is back. Henri sends a car to fetch him and while he waits for him, he reminisces their childhood, their youth, their friendship in the military academy in Vienna.

They haven’t seen each other in 41 years. Conrad left and we soon understand that they parted abruptly and that Henri has been waiting for this reunion for all his life. He survived everything to be there and alive for this confrontation. We will witness their exchange and see the two men’s story unravel in front of us. I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. I will only say that their talk involves the general’s wife Christine and a love triangle.

Márai explores several paths in this beautiful novel. Through the general’s eyes, we see a lost world, the one he grew up in and saw crumble after the Great War. His father was in the military too and his mother was French. They met in France and lived in Hungary after they got married. We gather that their marriage was complicated as they had opposite personalities. The general’s father was rather stern and closed-off, a soldier to the core while his mother was more open and artistic. It sounds simplistic but that’s the way Márai presents it, even saying that being French led her to be more eager to talk about her feelings. (I still haven’t understood that statement.)

Their son Henri enjoyed is career path. He didn’t have trouble adapting to military academy and had the wealth and charisma to play the role expected from him. He did it effortlessly …because Conrad was by his side. Young Henri needs affection to be healthy and happy. Somehow, Márai makes it sound like an oddity, a weakness while our modern world finds it obvious.

Conrad and Henri met when they were ten. Conrad comes from an impoverished family from Poland (His mother was a relative of Chopin’s) and his parents sacrificed everything to pay for his education. Contrary to Henri, he had a hard time feeling comfortable in military clothes. He’s musical, he has an artistic temper and wearing a uniform is like wearing a costume for him.

He and Henri were close, though. Conrad spent his holidays at the castle and Henri’s family took him under their wing. Conrad and Henri’s mother got along very well as they both loved music. They were are carried away by Chopin’s music while Henri and his father didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. That’s the symbol of the rift between the characters.

The novel could be a theatre play, a tragedy by Racine or Corneille. It’s set in one place with two characters and Henri’s old nanny. Most of the book is a dialogue between Conrad and Henri. Henri is the one doing most of the talking, letting out the result of 41 years of ruminations. He discourses on friendship, memories, revenge and what men learn when they get old. There’s something disturbing about the way Márai describes passion and duty.

Although I loved the book and the description of passionate feelings, I remained aloof, a spectator. I wanted to find out what had happened, I wasn’t bored at all and I found the discussion between the two men very interesting. The novel is full of thoughts about friendship, love, honour, betrayal, ageing and human experience. Although part of these thoughts touched me, the story didn’t engage me emotionally. Sometimes when you read a book, you come across thoughts and feelings that are yours. It can be a relief to find a writer who put words on inner thoughts you’re not able to express and to find out that these confused or semi-formed thoughts are only human. When I read about great passions that lead to dramatic gestures or behaviours, I don’t feel like I’m sharing human experience. I need a bit of suspension of belief to enter the story because if I let my brain take over, I’ll just roll my eyes and think “Really, how is that plausible?” I need it to read Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet. That’s why I have a hard time enjoying Phèdre by Racine or Le Cid by Corneille. I can’t relate to these extreme reactions and grand and long-lasting passions; I remain a spectator.

The same thing happened here. Henri’s course of action sounds improbable to me, especially since it lasted 41 years. I understand burning passion leading to murder in the heat of the moment. But to put one’s life on hold to maintain embers of old feelings and resentment during 41 years and only live to meet Conrad again and hear the truth? I don’t believe in such a steady consuming passion. Perhaps I’m far too practical for that.

In parallel to the personal story between Henri and Conrad, Márai uses his two characters to show the end of an era, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its values. Henri is stuck in his ways. His life didn’t unfold as expected but he never adapted his goals to the new situation. Perhaps it’s a vision from the 21st century, of someone living in an ever changing world where constant adaptation is crucial. Perhaps Márai wanted to emphasise Henri’s shortcomings to picture why this empire declined.

On another note, I noticed that some details don’t add up in the novel. Henri’s nanny is 91 when the novel starts and she’s been with him since he was born and she was 16 then. (Chapter 2) So Henri is 75 but later Conrad says they’re 73 (Chapter 10). Anyway, they were born around 1866. In the first part of the novel, Márai describes how Henri’s parents met and he says they attended a party thrown by the king of France. (Chapter 3) There hasn’t been a king in France since 1848. Somehow I don’t believe that twenty years happened between their meeting and Henri’s birth. I assumed that the said king is actually Napoléon III. I’d be happy to know how this passage in the Chapter 3 is translated into English: do they see the king of France or the Emperor? I wonder if it’s a slip from the translator or if it was in the original text.

Reading my billet again, it’s not as enthusiastic as it should be. Embers is an incredible novel. It’s rather short and still packs a lot of thoughts; the story is gripping and the style is wonderful. Márai was talented, that’s certain. If someone has read it and remembers it enough to discuss it, I’m ready to exchange in the comments, spoilers included.

One doesn’t trifle with crime fiction

May 10, 2015 15 comments

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares (1946) French title: Ceux qui aiment, haïssent (translated from the Spanish by André Gabastou)

Preamble: It’s an Argentinean novel but it’s so impregnated with British crime fiction literature that it calls for British spelling. So, American readers, humour written like this is not a typo.

Ocampo_aimeWritten in 1946, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is the first mystery novel in Argentinean literatue. It is written according to the genre of murder parties, Agatha Christie like.

Our narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, retelling the story after the events and coming back to his home sweet home. When the book opens, he’s going to stay at the Hotel Central at the sea resort Bosque del Mar. The hotel is run by his relatives and he’s headed there to kill two birds with one stone: he will visit with his family and write the scenario a film maker has ordered. Contrary to what you’d think, Dr Humberto Huberman is neither a writer nor a doctor in literature but a physician. Writing is his hobby.

After settling in his room at the hotel, he goes to the beach for a walk and overhears a conversation between a party of four. Two sisters, Mary and Emilia are accompanied by a Dr Cornejo and Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel. Mary wants to go swimming and her sister says it’s too dangerous while Dr Cornejo considers that it’s fine. Mary goes and shortly after, she appears to be in distress and Emilia rescues her while the men are still on the beach, fighting for a bathing suit before doing anything. So there are tensions among that group.

During the night, Mary goes missing and is found dead. The police arrive on the premises and soon a terrible storm locks everyone up in the hotel.

Follows an artfully written whodunit which reminded me of the film L’heure zéro by Pascal Thomas. It’s the adaptation Agatha Christie’s novel, Towards Zero. The aim of the authors was to write a mystery novel according to the codes of the genre and it’s wonderfully done. I have read a lot of books by Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and I found the usual scenes and topics of this kind of literature. You have everything: a bystander as a narrator who will play amateur sleuth, a closed-doors situation, several people who could have wished Mary’s death, a sea resort, ridiculous policemen who are in dire need of pointers to lead the investigation, a storm to add danger and isolation, a strange child with a mysterious past, unrequited love, tea-time in the purest English fashion, a character who’s passionate about railways timetables, a scene where everyone’s reunited in the salon to discover who’s guilty and a mirror effect as the victim’s profession was to translate British crime fiction novels into Spanish. It is told in a rather playful tone from someone who’s telling a good story. It’s full of humour and marvellous observations.

And yet, it didn’t work for me.

All the ingredients are there and I wasn’t taken by it. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate never really caught my attention and I didn’t care to know who had killed Mary. I remained aloof and I kept forgetting who was who. It took me a while to finish it when I should have read it in one or two sittings. If the aim of the experience was to write a brilliant pastiche of a mystery novel then it’s achieved. If it was more than an Exercice de Style then for me, the job wasn’t done. I had the same experience with The Yiddish Policeman Union by Michael Chabon. It sounded fake.

Jacqui has a totally different opinion on this one and her review is well worth reading here.

PS : Don’t ask me why the French edition has such a cover. I don’t see that it has anything to do with the book.

 

He changes his philosophy into corpses

March 13, 2014 11 comments

Caligula by Albert Camus (1945)

Caligula is Camus’s earlier work of fiction and one he amended several times. He wrote the first version of the play in 1938 and the last one in 1958. I have seen the 1945 version, the one the public saw at the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris, with Gérard Philippe as Caligula. The title of the play sounds like Shakespeare, or for France, like Corneille or Racine. But, forget about references to plays like Julius Caesar or Horace or Britannicus. Think about Hamlet and Ubu Rex by Alfred Jarry, you’ll be closer to the mark.

The play opens on an act where different persons from the court are looking for the Emperor Caligula. He’s been MIA for three days, since his sister and lover Drusilla died. When he finally comes back, he’s haggard and has had an epiphany: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux. (People die and they’re not happy). Life is absurd and Caligula turned his existential angst into a new vision of life.

Ce monde, tel qu’il est fait, n’est pas supportable. J’ai donc besoin de la lune, ou du bonheur, ou de l’immortalité, de quelque chose qui soit dément peut-être, mais qui ne soit pas de ce monde. Really, this world of ours, the scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable. That’s why I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life –something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which isn’t of this world. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

Since he’s an emperor his new philosophy results in a new version of exercising power. He can do whatever he wants to pursue his dream and make all the decisions he judges necessary.

Je viens de comprendre enfin l’utilité du pouvoir. Il donne ses chances à l’impossible. Aujourd’hui, et pour tout ce qui va venir, la liberté n’a plus de frontières. Ah my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run. From this day on, so long as life is mine, my freedom has no frontier. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

The first act sets the context and prepares the spectator for the three other acts. In these acts, we are three years later and Caligula has put his ideas into practice. The Patricians are outraged and are plotting to murder Caligula. The emperor stripped them of their possessions, violates their wives, mocks them publicly. He kills people after fallacious reasoning. Meanwhile he’s still depressed and aching. This is where Hamlet and Ubu come into one named Caligula. Mix Hamlet’s angst with Ubu’s hard-liner’s tendencies and you can picture Caligula. There’s is in Caligula a bit of the outrageous comedy you see in Ubu Rex. Caligula’s action are funny sometimes, bordering to farce and it lightens the mood, even if it doesn’t erase the horror of his ways.

Camus_caligulaIn appearance, he’s crazy. The director sang that tune. Caligula yells, gesticulates, laughs like a lunatic sometimes and Drusilla’s ghost visits him. I had read half of the play before going to the theatre and it wasn’t how I had pictured Caligula. For me, he’s not crazy. In appearance, he is but he’s just someone who has the power to put his personal philosophy into practice and at a large scale. Unfortunately, he’s unbalanced and his deadpanned reasoning leads to deaths and disasters. Thinking Caligula is crazy is a way to say he’s irresponsible of his actions. He is not. He knows what he’s doing and he’s playing with other people’s lives. Caligula is a criminal, not a lunatic. The real Caligula had an odd childhood and lived in troubled times. History made of him a cruel and crazy emperor but from what I’ve read, historians tend to balance what Suetonius wrote about him with other sources.

In the old tradition of authors writing in times when freedom of speech was limited, Camus used a character from the Ancient Rome as a device. There are a lot of thought-provoking lines in Caligula. Given the time and the political context of the years it was written, it’s hard not to look for political references in the text. The way Caligula confiscated the Patricians’ wealth recalls communism. Caligula is a dictator of the cruellest kind and the time provided numerous examples. His twisted mind allied to unlimited power led to chaos. That side of the play brings thoughts about power and how to exercise it. The other side of the play is all about the meaning of life. Is it absurd as Camus states it is? Despite his unlimited freedom of mind and action, Caligula never manages to deal with the revelation of the beginning: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.

Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now?

November 17, 2013 21 comments

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. 1946. French title: Pendez-moi haut et court.

He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in. An ex-cop who ran a gambling joint in Reno and a New York attorney. A woman, with class written all over her, who was somehow tied in with Parker and who didn’t hesitate to sell out the man she worked up. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. Not afraid—because he couldn’t find anything to be afraid of.

Homes_pendezThat’s it in a nutshell. Former PI Red Bailey is spending a bucolic life in Bridgeport, California. He runs the gas station, goes fishing and has a loving relationship with the young Ann. In this sweet opening chapter, everything seems peaceful except that Red doesn’t want to commit himself to Ann because of his past. He’s sitting on a time-bomb and he knows it.

Precisely, Guy Parker, a ghost from his past, comes back in his life and blackmails him into flying to New York to get a line for him about the lawyer Lloyd Eels. Parker is now shacked up with the siren Mumsie McGonigle. She was involved with Red ten years ago and is part of his muddy past as a PI. Red doesn’t want the job but doesn’t have a choice. Either he does it or Parker uses the information Mumsie has given him about their common past to turn Red to the police.

So Red leaves for New York, only to realise that there is more to this job than it appeared. He’s in such a trap that it seems impossible to come out of it unscathed.

As a reader, I took side for Red, even after discovering what he had done to be in such a predicament. I wanted him to have a way-out although what he has done is condemnable. It’s a strange thing to root for a character when you perfectly know that in real life, you wouldn’t support someone who has committed such a crime. His choice for a quiet and honest life seems to redeem himself. But still. Isn’t it normal that he pays for what he’s done?

I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the descriptions of the places. I was in the mountains with Red and Ann when they went fishing. I thought the picture of the popular New-York quite lively, like here:

The hockey players had departed, but Forty-Eighth Street wasn’t quiet. Women yelled at each other across the narrow way or screamed for their offspring. The offspring paid little heed. Two girls traded witticisms with a man in a delivery truck. A crap game was in progress on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery. The woman who ran the place stood in the door watching the boys roll the cubes against a brick wall.

Homes_buildI find this paragraph very cinematographic. You can see the scene in your mind. Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of the screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, so it’s probably not surprising.

This book has been in the “upcoming billets” box of my blog for a while. I procrastinated and waited a long time to write my billet, mostly because I’m not comfortable with writing about crime fiction. I have said this before and unfortunately, I’m forced to acknowledge that my skills don’t improve. When I write about literary fiction, words come easily. For crime fiction, it’s laboured. I never know where to stop writing about the plot without giving away too much information. I have difficulties to analyse the characters without mentioning spoilers. I doubt my billet conveys how much I enjoyed this book and what a great read it is. So it goes. It is highly recommended and if you still hesitate about reading it, pay a visit to Guy’s blog and discover there his excellent review about it. Finally, as you can see from the book covers, Build my Gallows High was made into a film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it and this one I want to watch.

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