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20 Books of Summer #13 : Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia – A masterpiece

August 22, 2020 13 comments

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (1971) French title: Le Contexte. Translated from the Italian by Jacques de Pressac, revised by Mario Fusco.

After my trip to Sicily and after reading The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia, I bought his novel Equal Danger. (Il Contesto, literally translated as Le Contexte in French) This book was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi, with Lino Ventura as the main character. Equal Danger made a lot of noise when it was published. It is a thinly veiled attack towards the Italian political scene, on both side, the party running the country and the opposition.

Inspector Rogas investigates a series of murders. All the victims are judges. The more Rogas digs into the judges’ personal lives, the more he unveils muddy relationships between the judges and the political milieu. Nothing is fully honest, nothing is clean. The dice of the political game are loaded, just like they are in Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu.

Equal Danger is built as a crime fiction novel and written as a parody. It is a mix between Candide and political crime fiction. Sciascia blends the two genres perfectly and his book is like a literary bombshell thrown at the Italian ruling class.

The beginning is humorous, as we see Rogas start his investigation, tackle politics and navigate between what he wants to do and what his hierarchy wants him to do. We root for him and hope he’ll beat the system at its own game. But will he?

In the afterword, Sciascia says that he kept this book in his drawer for two years before publishing it, probably because when he started to write it, he was amused but when he was finished, he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. And that’s how I felt as a reader too.

Very highly recommended.

The Wrong Case by James Crumley – Classy noir

May 15, 2020 6 comments

The Wrong Case by James Crumley (1975). French title: Fausse piste. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time. For nearly eight years the only way to get a divorce in our state was to have your spouse convicted of felony or caught in an act of adultery. Nor even physical abuse or insanity counted. And in the ten years since I resigned as a county deputy, I had made a good living off those antiquated divorce laws. Then the state legislature, in a flurry of activity at the close of a special session, put me out of business by civilizing those divorce laws. Now we have dissolutions of marriage by reason of irreconcilable differences. Supporters and opponents were both shocked by the unexpected action of the lawmakers, but not as shocked as I was. I spent the next two days sulking in my office, drinking and enjoying the view, considering the prospects for my suddenly very dim future. The view looked considerably better than my prospects.

My office is on the fourth floor if the Milodragovitch Building. I inherited the building from my grandfather, but most of the profits go to a management corporation, my first ex-wife, and the estate of my second ex-wife. I’m left with cheap rent and a great view. At least on those days when the east wind doesn’t inflict the pulp mill upon is or when an inversion layer doesn’t cap the Meriwether Valley like a plug in a sulfurous well, I have a great view.

This is the beginning of The Wrong Case by James Crumley, the first book featuring the PI Milo Dragovitch. We’re in Meriwether, a fictional small town in Montana, not a quaint one surrounded by ranches and trout-fishing streams but a by-product of the mining industry gone awry. We’re in the 1970s and Milo is waiting for his 35th birthday to get his hands on his trust fund. He used to work for the local police station but resigned and settled as a PI. Between the end of the adultery business and his ex-wives, money is tight.

His days are spent between the office and the local bar where he has an unofficial office in the back. His friends are Simon, who drinks with diligence and towards a slow suicide and Dick, a local teacher with whom he plays handball. Ex-Wife #1 is now married to Jamison, the Meriwether chief of police. Milo and Jamison despise each other and that makes any work relationship between the two awkward.

Milo’s life is about to get more complicated when Helen Duffy struts into his office. She’s that kind of femme fatale, the poisonous beauty that reels PIs into taking on cases they know they should stay away from. The Wrong Case is exactly that.

Milo knows that digging into the disappearance of Helen’s brother Raymond will do him no good. It quickly appears that Raymond is involved with the local crime scene. It doesn’t help that Milo lusts after Helen who has a passionate liaison with a married Dick, the friend I mentioned before.

Milo will follow the Raymond lead and it takes him to a wife abandoned when her husband discovered his homosexuality, the local mafia, the town drug trafficking and all kind of dangerous businesses that confirm that he should have stayed put.

We are in classic noir territory here and James Crumley builds a believable Meriwether, kicking the bucolic Montana image to the curb. There are drugs, criminality and misery like everywhere else. Milo is an interesting character with his ex-marriages, his loyal friendship to Simon and Dick and his imperfect father role to his children.

Crumley’s style belongs to literary crime fiction. I’m currently reading a Viveca Sten, and that’s subject-verb-complement crime fiction. Crumley is classy and poetic. Milo is a no-future kind of guy, he trudges through life, one day at a time, carrying his baggage of his father’s untimely death, his failure as a husband and a father. And yet, despite his frequent visits to the bar and his prayers to the gods of drunkenness, I liked him a lot more than Jack Taylor.

Recommended to fans of classic noir fiction. Another book published by Gallmeister.

Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique – Life of a lonely boy in Lima in the 1950s

July 31, 2019 8 comments

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique (1972) French title: Le monde de Julius. Translated from the Spanish (Peru) by Albert Bensoussan.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique was our Book Club choice for July. It is the second book by Bryce-Echenide that I’ve read. The first one was Tarzan’s TonsillitisAlfredo Bryce-Echenique was born in 1939 in Lima, Peru. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his upbringing:

Bryce was born to a Peruvian family of upper class, related to the Scottish-Peruvian businessman John Weddle Bryce (1817 in Edinburgh – 9 March 1888), ancestor of the Marquesses of Milford-Haven and of the Duchesses of Abercon and Westminster. He was the third son and the fourth of the five children of the banker Francisco Bryce Arróspide and his wife, Elena Echenique Basombrío, granddaughter of the former President José Rufino Echenique. Bryce studied elementary education at Inmaculado Corazón school, and high school at Santa María school and Saint Paul’s College, a British boarding school for boys in Lima.

These biographical elements are important to know because the Julius of A World For Julius seems to be young Alfredo’s alter ego.

Set in Lima in the 1950s (I think), A World For Julius relates six years in Julius’s childhood. When the book opens, he’s five years old. His father is dead, he lives with his mother Susan, his older brothers Santiago and Roberto (Bobby) and his sister Cinthia. They belong to a very rich family, live in a mansion in Lima, surrounded by servants. Cinthia and Julius are very close and her untimely death will leave a hole in his life.

Cinthia dies abroad, in Boston, where her family brought her to attempt a last medical treatment. I understood she died of tuberculosis. Susan’s reaction to her daughter’s death is to go on a trip in Europe with her older sons, her friend Juan Lucas and thus leaves Julius behind in the servants’ care. When she comes back, she’s married to Juan Lucas.

A World For Julius depicts the solitary life of a sensitive child who has a lot of imagination. His mother is not motherly and only the servants seem to really care about him. The whole book is based upon three recurring pillars: Juan Lucas and Susan’s socialite life, and later Santiago’s and Bobby’s, Julius’s life in school and life in the servants’ quarters.

Juan Lucas only cares about himself, enjoys playing golf, doing business and having Susan with him all the time. He’s extremely wealthy, takes a lot of care about his appearance, doesn’t want to age. He loves corrida, cocktail parties and eating at restaurants. He’s not a bad man, but he likes things to go his way. He married Susan and tries not to think to much about the kids she brought with her. He’s not a family man and doesn’t intend to behave like a father. Nothing he likes is compatible with a steady family life. He has no interest in the boys’ education and treats Santiago and Bobby more as a big brother than as a parent. He doesn’t know how to interact with Julius. The boy is too sensitive, he likes playing the piano, he’s quiet, not interested in sports, everything Juan Lucas is not.

Susan is beyond pretty and spoiled. Everyone forgives her everything since she’s polite, sophisticated and so lovely. She’s putty in Juan Lucas’s hands because she’s very much in love with him and too lazy to contradict him. It’s easier to go with the flow and indulge him than push for her own wishes. She has almost no motherly instincts. Going to Julius’s end-of-year school party is a torture, she forgets to buy presents for his birthday, kisses him in passing but never really cares about what’s going on with his life. She asks no questions about school and discovers at the end of the year that he’s first in class.

Santiago and Bobby don’t care about their brother either.

Poor Julius is left on his own and only receives affection from the servants. The team who handles the household is composed of Vilma the nanny who takes care of Julius, Nilda the cook, Carlos the driver, Celso and Daniel who do various tasks in the house. They are a tightknit group with their own lives and interactions.

Julius stands at the intersection of two worlds: he doesn’t belong to his parents’ socialite world because he’s too young and not really interested in it and by class, he doesn’t belong to the servants’ world, even if that’s where he prefers to be.

Julius grows up on his own. Sometimes his mother remembers his existence and bestows a short-lived affection and a few hugs. He seeks the attention of people from lower social classes, the school bus driver, construction workers, the house servants and beggars he sees on the street.

A World For Julius has lengthy descriptions of parties among the upper classes in Lima. I had trouble figuring out when it was set but from a few hints here and there, I gathered it was in the 1950s. We see Julius in school with classic children drama around fights, candies and interactions with the nuns. And we follow the servants’ stories at the mansion and outside of it.

A World For Julius is obviously autobiographical. It is a vibrant picture of Lima at the time but also a moving portrait of a lonely boy who can’t find his place in a house where people who should take care of him don’t. Children don’t deserve vapid and neglectful mothers. He was lucky to have caring nannies and a friendly driver.

The power of A World For Julius resides in its inventive narration. It’s told by an omniscient narrator who sounds like an African griot. It’s in spoken language, full of creative descriptions of people with nicknames to place them. It uses repetitions to help the reader remember the characters. It has a certain rhythm that keeps you reading.

Julius is an attaching character and my heart went out for this little boy who doesn’t get the affection he needs to grow up confident and certain of his place in the world.

Highly recommended.

This is my contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu.

 

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 12 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – A must read.

March 17, 2019 17 comments

If Beale Street Coult Talk by James Baldwin (1974) French title: Si Beale Street pouvait parler.

Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. James Baldwin

This is a way to tell the reader that what happens in Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk can happen everywhere in America. It’s painfully banal.

Fonny and Tish, the main characters, could be anyone. Fonny is twenty-two and Tish is nineteen. They live in Harlem in the early 1970s. They’ve known each other since they were children and are now a young couple in love. Marriage is in the air. Fonny wants to be a sculptor and works as a short order cook to make ends meet. Tish works in a fancy department store, in the perfume stand, where hiring a black clerk shows off how progressive the store is. They’re looking for a loft in the Village, to start their life together and for Fonny to have a workshop.

As soon as the book starts, we know that Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s accused of raping a woman from Porto Rico. Tish is pregnant with their baby. Tish is our narrator, her voice a haunting presence, aged by her circumstances. She recalls her life with Fonny, their love and tells us about their fight to get him out of jail. 

If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young and hopeful couple crushed by a system who wants its black population staying in designated neighborhoods and nowhere else. Except jail.

Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies. And perhaps I clung to Fonny, perhaps Fonny saved me because he was just about the only boy I know who wasn’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores – and he never got his hair conked: it just stayed nappy. He started working as a short order cook in a barbecue joint, so he could eat, and he found a basement where he could work on his wood and he was at our house more often than he was at his own house.

And indeed, Fonny’s only crime is to move out of Harlem to the Village, to dare to be a sculptor.

That same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re supposed to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.

That’s probably his only crime.

Fonny’s fall is staged. The victim was raped on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side and Fonny lives on Bank Street in the Village. As Tish points out, it’s a long way to run with a police officer on your heels. I put random addresses in Google Maps to see the distance between Orchard Street and Bank Street and it says it takes two hours and a half to walk from one street to the other. What marathon runners Fonny and this cop must have been to cover this distance.

The system is meant to crush them and no one will lift a finger to point out the obvious: that this procedure is ludicrous and unfair. Fonny’s white lawyer, Hayward is genuinely on the case. But the system throws any hurdle it can on the way. And his dedication on the case is suspicious to his peers, he starts to be an outcast in his profession.

It’s a haunting story because of Tish’s voice. She’s dead calm, telling her story with precision and resignation. And yet she fights and stays strong. Her family and Fonny’s father Frank gather around the young couple. They fight with all their might but their power is limited by their financial means and the color of their skin.

The only ones who don’t fight are Fonny’s mother and sisters. These churchy persons rely on God’s goodwill. If Fonny is meant to go out of prison, God will take care of it. They even feed the white power’s fire by speaking ill of Fonny, their own family. It’s so against actual Christian values that it would be laughable if it didn’t have such tragic consequences.

From the beginning, the reader knows that this is real life, not some Hollywood tale with a fairy godmother who saves the day. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain recently. In his debut novel, Balwin, the son of a preacher, hadn’t made up his mind regarding religion. In Beale Street, he has.

Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.

I also watched I Am Not Your Negroa documentary that leaves you shaken. Beale Street includes a lot of Baldwin’s thinking about America. In an interview, he explains that he’s between Martin Luther King’s views and Malcom X’s position. His ambivalence toward religion makes him challenge the non-violent attitude. The power of love cannot conquer all, as Tish and Fonny finds out. Worse, pious people can be your enemies, through their passivity and their feeling of superiority.

But he also says that he cannot hate all white people because he had a white school teacher when he was little and she took him under her wing. Seeing a bright child, she brought him books, took him out and helped him be more than what society had decided a black boy should be. Her kindness rooted in him the knowledge that not all white people were made of the same cloth.

Beale Street reflects that as well, as three white citizen help Fonny and Tish along the way. A landlord who doesn’t mind renting a loft to a black couple. An Italian woman who comes to Tish’s defense when she’s harassed by a white man. And of course, Hayward, the white lawyer who doesn’t give up.

King’s views might be too optimistic and Malcom X’s views might be too extreme. Baldwin stands in the middle. He’s implacable in his description of America, both in Beale Street and in I Am Not Your Negro. He throws punches with facts and cold anger. He’s rational and spot on, except when he says he doesn’t believe that a black man could become president of the USA within 40 years. He doesn’t spread hatred, he just wants the white population of the USA to acknowledge that African-Americans contributed to the construction of the country, that America is their legitimate homeland.

But Beale Street is a lot more than a political novel. It’s a delicate picture of young love. Baldwin writes graceful pages about Tish and Fonny’s new love, how their friendship turned into something more, how strong they are together and how solid their bond is. It’s described beautifully, through little touches here and there, in small moves and looks. No grand gestures here, only feelings that grow timidly, find a suitable compost and bloom beautifully. Their love has solid roots, they should have a future together, one that is robbed from them.

Baldwin is a master at mixing a lovely romance with strong political ideas and a great sense of place. Even if Beale Street could be any place in America according to Baldwin, in this novel, there’s no denying that we are in New York. Again, I’m amazed at his talent. His voice walks on the difficult line of being accusing but not yelling. He chooses a love story to throw uncomfortable political truths at us. And yet the romance is not a prop for politics. It has its own beauty, its own worth. And, this, my reading friends, is only achieved by masters of literature. 

Not “Highly recommended”, but like Going to Meet the Man, a Must Read.

See other reviews here, one by Claire and one by Jacqui

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

October 7, 2018 23 comments

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. (1976) French title: Easter Parade. 

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If you had any hope to have Richard Yates cheer you up with his Easter Parade, he crushes it with the first sentence of his novel. The said Grimes sisters are Sarah and Emily. After they parents got divorced, they went to live with their mother Esther and only met their father on weekends. The Easter Parade feels like a long-term documentary about the destiny of two sisters raised by parents who failed them.

Their father is a ghost figure working in a small position at a newspaper, a job he puffs up in order to look better in the eyes of his daughters. Their mother doesn’t do motherly and thinks she belongs to a better social class that the one she belongs to.

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.”

Her nickname gives her away. She yearns for style and class but doesn’t have it. This means that the girls are raised by a delusional woman who has a deceptive idea of their place in the world. Pookie lives in a world where fish need bicycles; in other words, her daughters need to get married. She pushes them in this direction, as would have done any other mother of that time.

It’s exactly what Sarah does, marrying a dashing young neighbor and settling into an unhappy marriage. We’ll follow her grim life over the decades, mostly through Emily’s eyes. Yates pays more attention to Emily. She’s brilliant enough to get into Barnard College on a scholarship. She doesn’t settle down with a man, working in an office in Manhattan and going from one failed liaison to the other.

As mentioned before, neither of them finds happiness.

This is where writing a billet months after reading a book becomes handy. A couple of months after The Easter Parade, I read I, For Isobel by Amy Witting.

And it struck me that Emily and Isobel’s stories have lots in common. Both have been raised by a mother who first wore the trousers in their marriage and then had to raise their children on their own. Both Isobel and Emily have a sister they love but have no affinity with. They work in an office and on their own in the city. They love to read and have intellectual abilities that single them out in their families.

One distressing thing Emily learned in college was to feel more intelligent than her sister. She had felt more intelligent than her mother for years, but that was different; when it happened with Sarah she felt she had betrayed a trust.

I think Isobel felt more intelligent than her mother and sister as well and that her mother knew it. It fueled her resentment towards her daughter. Pookie just knew she didn’t understand Emily. Isobel and Emily are bright and they have an intelligence that doesn’t agree well with the average fate of women in their social class. They cannot be satisfied with what’s ahead of them.

Isobel and Emily aren’t interested in a career as a housewife. They’re not ready to get married, raise kids and be their husband’s sidekick. They have this intellectual side, this interest in books that opened the doors to another world, a world of knowledge. It’s what happens to Isobel when she meets a group of students at a café and this is how Emily feels at Barnard:

School was the center of her life. She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment.

They have higher expectations than their sisters because their intelligence tells them that there’s more to life than being a wife and a mother. And in their time and in their social class, it was usually impossible to have a career, be married and have children. And as a consequence, they have to choose and their choice is their freedom and they’re like fish out of water in their social class.

The most striking difference between the two stories is the ending. There’s hope for Isobel but not for Sarah. I, For Isobel was written by a woman who started to write later in life and there’s probably a lot of her personal experience in Isobel. She’s gentle with her character.

I disliked how Yates ended The Easter Parade for Emily, for me it was a letdown. And I couldn’t help wondering if being a man made him write such an ending. It felt like a cliché to warn women who dare to go out of the traditional way. ‘See what happens when you try to live like a man’.

If you’ve read The Easter Parade, how did you feel about it and the ending in particular?

There are a lot of things to explore in this short novel. It questions happiness, how to recognize it, how fleeting it is, like a parade. It also tells us how parents influence their children with their behavior, their vision of life. Sarah and Emily had flawed parents who were unhappy with their life, for different reasons. Even if it’s true because our parents shape us, we are not doomed to replay the same mistakes than our parents or be unhappy because of bad wiring in our childhood. I am more optimistic than that or maybe I want to be because I don’t want to think of the unintentional baggage I’m loading my children with.

My billet is long enough, I won’t spend too much time on raving about Yates’s style. It’s terrific, exactly the kind of writing I love. With a few strokes of his brush, you can see a character, like here: His wife Edna was pleasant and plump and drank a good deal of sherry. It’s also very visual and I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Hopper’s paintings when I read this description:

So they went to the main house without her. It was built of white clapboard too, and it was long and ugly—three stories high in some places and two in others, with black-roofed gables jutting into the trees. The first thing that hit you when you went inside was the smell of mildew. It seeped from the brown oil paintings in the vestibule, from the creaking floor and carpets and walls and gaunt furniture of the long, dark living room.

The bittersweet tone of the book, the clever picture of an era through the lives of two sisters all wrapped in a precise literary style make of The Easter Parade a highly recommended book.

For another vision of The Easter Parade, see Jacqui’s review here and Max’s review here.

PS: Once again, I’ll call a book cover a disaster. It’s more Angela’s Ashes than The Easter Parade.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

October 2, 2016 10 comments

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. (1978) Original French title: La gross femme d’à côté est enceinte.

Michel Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942. He’s one of the most famous writers in Québec, well-known for his plays and novels. The Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal is a series of six novels set in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood in Montreal. The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the first volume of this series.

Everything in this novel happens on May 2nd, 1942. Spring is back, the sun is out and it’s the first warm day of the season. A forty-two years old woman is pregnant and stuck in an apartment of this popular neighborhood of Montreal. She’s never named but the family around her is. An extended family shares this apartment. The matriarch is Victoire, 75, a formidable dame who frightens or disgusts her grand-children. She has three children: Edouard, 35, single; Albertine, married to Paul and who has two children, Thérèse (11) and Marcel (4) and Gabriel, married to the pregnant woman and father of Richard (11) and Philippe (8). Six adults and four children live together. Paul is away at war on Great-Britain’s side. A fifth child is on the way.

Tremblay describes the life of the family from several points of view, the adults, the children. It goes outside the apartment, in the neighborhood and the reader discovers different people who have interactions with this family. Three old ladies knitting sweaters are ghosts acting as guardian angels for the inhabitants. Tremblay transforms the reader into an omniscient fly. He takes us everywhere and makes us witness of everyday life scenes. He shows snapshots of life in Montreal at the time. He gives us access to the characters’ innermost thoughts, one of them being a cat. Dialogues are written in typical Canadian French and the reader can hear the accent. All the characters are linked to each other, one way or the other. We follow the threads of the connections and fly from one household to the other, from one present to the other with backward glances at the past.

Not everything is joyful. Not everything is friendly. There’s a feeling of joyous mayhem in the house, of noisy meals, of adults making efforts to get along. Victoire dominates her son Edouard, who seems almost castrated by her presence. Albertine is worried about Paul and not overly fond of her role as a mother. She’s a bit jealous of the obvious tenderness between Gabriel and his wife. The children are more or less left on their own. Adults rely on Thérèse to watch Marcel. They form a group with its own rules and allegiances. Thérèse is on the threshold of adolescence and starts talking back to her mother. And the fat pregnant woman loves her husband very much, really wants that last baby and entertains herself with books.

Tremblay pictures the prostitutes who live around the block, the other pregnat women and the stories behind their pregnancies, the shopkeeper Marie-Sylvia and her cat Duplessis. This is a blue collar neighborhood, the one Tremblay grew up in.

WWII is in the back ground. Paul has been mobilized. Gabriel is at home because his wife is pregnant and the rumor mill works overtime: did he knock his wife up to avoid going to war? I didn’t know WWII had impacted Canada that much, with men at war and ration coupons. Tremblay relays a bit of rebellion against the thought of fighting for Great-Britain’s benefit. People don’t feel like this war is theirs too.

Through the descriptions, the reader grasps the workings of the society of the time. Old Tante Ti Lou used to live in Ottawa just a few decades after it was founded and is full of spicy stories about it. Victor Hugo was censored. The women from Plateau Mont-Royal never go to the English-speaking parts of the city. At the Parc Lafontaine, where Thérèse takes the children for the day, it is forbidden for boys over six years old to go on the playgrounds with girls. The authorities considered that swings and other games could show the girls’ panties and that it was improper for boys over six to see them, even if they were family. This rule is a problem for our group of children: Richard and Philip can’t go and play with Thérèse and Marcel.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is a wonderful introduction to popular French Canadian language. Spoken language is transcribed on paper and it makes the picture even more vivid. It transports the reader back in time. It adds an indispensable soundtrack to accompany the images Tremblay creates. I checked out the first pages of the English translation and I’m afraid the accent is gone. To imagine what it sounds like, think of Thomas Hardy’s rendition of peasant speech: words cut-off, local expressions, popular dialogues.

Tremblay’s novel is full of nostalgia but not sad. It is a way to keep this neighborhood alive and give it immortality through literature. It is a faithful and good natured homage to small people. You imagine women meeting at the grocery stores, gossiping and calling each other from one flat to the other. You picture children playing on the streets with running noses and banged up knees. Tremblay winks at us and takes us for a ride in his childhood neighborhood. It’s like visiting Newark with Roth or listening to Renaud sing Les dimanches à la con. A fantastic trip down memory lane. I loved this book so much that I have already bought the second volume, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

August 7, 2016 24 comments

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.

fitzgerald_bookshopThe Bookshop was our Book Club choice for July, along with Rendezvous in Venice, so my billet is a bit late but I didn’t manage to write it before going on holiday. 

Although it was published in 1978, The Bookshop starts in 1959 and is set in Hardborough, a small seaside town in East Suffolk. Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who intends to open a bookshop. Hardborough is still a very rural town who needs the basics…

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Florence’s idea comes as a surprise to her fellow villagers. She decided to purchase the Old House, a building that has been empty for years and that nobody really wanted. It has a second building that she intends to use as a warehouse.

From the beginning, Florence is against a wall of people who’d rather she abandoned her project. Her opponents are quite vocal albeit polite in surface. After all, you’re in the kingdom of the legendary English sense of understatement. (The word in Hardborough for ‘mad’ was ‘not quite right’, just as ‘very ill’ was ‘moderate’.)

Some think her enterprise is inappropriate for a woman :

 ‘You live by yourself, don’t you? You’ve just moved into the Old House all by yourself? Haven’t you ever thought of marrying again?’

This reminded me of the director of a crèche I met when I was looking for a daycare solution for my daughter. Since the fare depends on your earnings, she had all the documents about our financial situation and she asked me “Given what your husband makes, why don’t you just stay at home?” Hello, flash news, working is not all about the money. And like me, Florence, who used to work before her marriage, liked having a job, colleagues and being out of her house. So she’s rightfully irritated by this suggestion.

Other inhabitants are blunter, like Milo who has a job at the BBC in London:

Milo looked at her more closely. ‘Are you sure you’re well advised to undertake the running of a business?’ he asked.

Mrs Violet Gamart, the Mrs Verdurin of Hardborough, invites Florence to a party with the sole purpose of convincing her to drop her project and let her buy the Old Place to create an art centre. In appearance, she’s in favour of a bookshop but not in the Old Place.

The only genuine support she gets is from the elusive Mr Brundish. He’s like royalty in Hardborough and his opinion matters especially since he doesn’t socialise with anyone. Mrs Gamart would love to have him in her circle of acquaintances but she never managed to get an invitation. Mr Brundish’s open support to Florence only stirs up Violet’s jealousy and her determination to stop this bookshop.

Quaint little Hardborough should be named a viper’s nest. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the village also behaves like a compact social body who will do whatever it takes to expurgate a foreign body that would try to settle. And Florence Green is seen as one of those foreign bodies.

Florence brushes away the warnings and proceeds with her business venture. She’s convinced that things will settle down. Green is the colour of this book: Florence is too green with village politics and with the running of a business. The passages where Florence tries to understand the ins and outs of a general ledger are hilarious. Florence is also a little lost with purchases for the shop. And Violet is green with envy because of Mr Brundish’s attention to Florence.

Will the bookshop and Florence find their place in Hardborough? How will the power games unfold?

I enjoyed Florence’s story and appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald skills at describing the little jibes and the atmosphere of the small close-knit village. She has her way with words like here:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

Isn’t that wonderful?

However, I had trouble connecting with Florence. I found her a bit too nice and a bit spineless. Or perhaps she puts so much trust in human nature that it borders plain naïveté.

What I didn’t like at all was the poltergeist/rapper thing. (Poltergeists are called “rappers” in Hardborough ) We learn at the beginning that they say the Old House is haunted. I thought it would remain a rumour, something to discourage Florence from buying the place. But no. It’s mentioned throughout the book and I don’t see the point. Why was this device needed in the story at all? I’m not too fond of ghost stories and since I couldn’t understand the use of the ghost here, it rather put me off.

But this is a small detail that shouldn’t deter readers from trying The Bookshop. It’s only on me, not a flaw of the novella.

For another review of The Booshop, go here and read Jacqui’s excellent take on it.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

July 18, 2015 12 comments

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. (1976) French title: Jours de combat. Translated by Marianne Millon.

This is my second contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II was present at the book festival Quais du Polar. I have a signed copy of Jours de Combat and now I wished I had read one of his books before meeting him. I have tons of questions for him. Days of Combat is the first volume of the series featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I’m afraid it’s OOP in English but other volumes of the series are available.

Taibo_combatWe’re in Mexico and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has just left his wife and his job to get a PI license and start his own investigation business. He shares offices with a plumber, Gilberto Gómez Letras. He’s still questioning the financial viability of this adventure but he was tired of his old life. He worked as a foreman in a factory before he left his tidy life behind. The catalyst of the change is the series of murders committed by a serial killer who leaves messages as the Cervo. (At least, that’s how it’s translated into French, “brain” with a spelling mistake. I supposed it could become “brayne” in English)

In a city where the police are corrupt and useless, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to chase this strangler. Three threads are fascinating to follow in this first opus of the series. First, we get acquainted with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his life, his thoughts and his family. Then of course, we follow the investigation and the unusual PI methods that belong to Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. And last, he takes us all over Mexico, to the point that the city becomes something fundamental in the novel.

Our main character, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne comes from mixed origins. His father is Basque and his mother is Irish. He was born around 1944 and is freshly divorced from Claudia. The divorce is was difficult. He has a sister, Elisa who’s coming home after spending several years in Canada and a brother, Carlos, who’s an active unionist. The siblings are reunited in this novel and start to get each other again. Belascoarán Shayne also meets the girl with the ponytail who will obviously become a recurring character in the series.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is a detective who relies on psychology and understanding of the killer’s motivations. If I had to compare him to another famous investigator, I’d choose Commissaire Adamsberg, the policeman in crime fiction books by Fred Vargas. In Days of Combat, instead of looking for material clues, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to bait the killer by participating to a TV show on famous stranglers in crime history. It’s a game like Jeopardy. If he answers the questions correctly, he keeps playing and wins a prize. He’s not there for the prize, though. He’s there to tease the strangler, to tempt him to get out of the woods and above all, let him know he’s on his trail.

I won’t tell more about the murders and the investigation. I said earlier that Mexico plays an important part in the novel. Following Belascoarán Shayne all around Mexico gives us an idea of the city. The novel is atmospheric and the strong impression is enforced by the author’s gift for descriptions.

Le soleil tapait là-haut et l’idée romantique que le soleil l’accompagnerait toute la journée l’abandonna peu à peu, peut-être malgré lui. La ville était une flaque d’asphalte dans laquelle nous transpirions tous. The sun was hitting hard over there and the romantic idea that the sun would accompany him his all day long left him progressively, perhaps in spite of himself. The city was a pool of asphalt in which we were all sweating.

But Mexico is a hard city to live in. The police are inefficient and violence is part of everyday life.

La ville se nourrit de charogne. Comme un vautour, comme une hyène, comme l’urubu si mexicain qui se repaît des morts pour la patrie. Et la ville avait faim. Aussi les faits divers dégoulinèrent-ils une nouvelle fois de sang, ce jeudi-là : un accident entre un autocar de ligne et le train de Cuernavaca qui avait fait seize morts, un homme criblé de balles par sa femme « pour qu’il n’emmène plus jamais son copain voir les putes », une vieille femme poignardée pour trois cents pesos à la sortie du métro, la répression d’une grève dans la colonia Escandón, dont le bilan se soldait par deux ouvriers blessés par balle et une femme d’un quartier proche intoxiquée par les gaz. The city feeds itself on corpses. Like a vulture, like a hyena, like the so-Mexican urubu that feeds on people who died for their country. And the city was hungry. Therefore the news trickled down with blood that Thursday. An accident between a coach and the train to Cuernavaca with a death toll of sixteen people. A man riddled with bullets by his wife “so that he will never again bring his friend to the whores”. An old woman stabbed for three hundred pesos at the metro exit. The repression of a strike in the colonia Escandón, whose casualties were two workers hit by bullets and a woman in the neighbourhood, intoxicated by fumes.

Mexico sounds like a bloodthirsty ogre intent on devouring its children. At the same time, Paco Ignacio Taibo II shows its liveliness, the streets, the restaurants, the people.

Days of Combat is a novel with a strong sense of place people with unusual characters. After reading it, I want to know more about Belascoarán Shayne, what will happen to him and his family. But I also want to know more about the Mexico he pictures. Political criticism seeps through the lines, which always interests me. It’s crime fiction that aims to be more than a quick read about an investigation. And it succeeds. Highly recommended.

PS: Guy has reviewed several books of the series:

Catsplay

February 15, 2015 13 comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part thirteen

April 9, 2014 6 comments

Les Enchanteurs 1973. (The Enchanters).

Gary_LecturesI’m not sure this one has been translated into English and to be honest, this is not my favourite Gary. A lot of readers love it but I’m not drawn to magical realism. The narrator of Les Enchanteurs, Fosco Zaga is an old man. He’s more than two hundreds year old and he cannot die until someone else loves a man or a woman as deeply as he loves Teresina. He talks about her because if he stops, she’ll really die. The book is set in Russia when Catherine the Great was ruling the country. Fosco Zaga grew up in a family of enchanters and of travelling entertainers of Italian origins and he resurrects Russia in the 18th century with his memories. Fosco is a dreamer, an illusionist that bathes in dreams:

Je vais vous avouer qu’il m’arrive souvent de donner une préférence au rêve, ne laissant jamais à sa rivale la Réalité plus de cinquante pour cent des bénéfices, ce qui explique peut-être ma longévité, dont tant de gens s’étonnent, car ne vivant vraiment qu’à moitié, il est normal que ma ration de vie s’en trouve doublée. I must admit that I’m often in favour of dreams, only giving away to their rival Reality barely fifty per cent of the profits, which might explain my longevity. It surprises a lot of people but as I only half-live, it is quite normal that my life ration be doubled. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

That’s Gary’s logic.

We only have three Wednesdays left before May which will be Romain Gary Literature Month. Several of you were interested in participating back in January, I hope you’ll still be there and willing to celebrate this wonderful writer with me.

Let’s read Romain Gary!

Gary_Enchanteurs

 

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