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Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd – Meet Edmond and his family in the Armenian community in Iran.

October 10, 2021 8 comments

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd (1997) French title: Un jour avant Pâques. Translated from the Persian by Christophe Balaÿ.

This is my last billet about the twenty books I read this summer for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s OK, it’s Indian summer at the moment, right?

I hoped to write about Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd for WIT Month but my TBW pile was too high. The French title of the book is Un jour avant Pâques, The Day Before Easter and it seems to be the direct translation of the original title. And it makes sense.

Born in 1952, Zoyâ Pirzâd is an Iranian writer from the Armenian community in Iran. Her book Space Between Us is set in this community and covers several decades of the main character’s life, Edmond. Three chapters, each set at a key moment of Edmond’s life, all three times around Easter day.

In the first chapter, Edmond is twelve. He’s an only child and lives in a small town by the Caspian Sea. His father is the director of the local Armenian school. Edmond’s best friend is Tahereh, the concierge’s daughter. She’s Muslim but goes to the Armenian school too, since its more practical. A drama will occur in the tight-knit community, forcing Edmond to grow up.

In the second chapter, Edmond is older, married to Marta and they now live in Teheran. They have a grownup daughter, Alenouche who announces that she’ll marry her Muslim boyfriend. Edmond accepts it willingly but Marta is rigid about it, a Christian devout and she takes it as a personal insult.

In the last chapter, Edmond is even older, a widower now. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, since her fight with Marta.

Space Between Us is a lovely book. It’s very poetical in its description of childhood, of food and smells. It has a melancholic ring that matches Edmond’s temper. He’s a quiet child, Tahereh is the daring part of their duo. He’s observant too and shares his thoughts about his family and the Armenian community around him. He knows that his mother is not the traditional Armenian mother, she’s not keen on housekeeping and she had to live with a formidable mother-in-law. Edmond’s father is a quiet man too who loves his wife the way she is and never pressures her to comply to traditions but the community, though helpful, is also stifling.

Marta was thick as thieves with Edmond’s grandmother. They shared the same sense of community, a strong will to keep traditions alive and not change anything in their vision of the place of men and women in a couple, the duties children had to pay or the fact that one remained in their community.

The grandmother never liked Edmond’s friendship with Tahereh and Marta didn’t take Alenouche’s engagement well. It felt more like a will to keep the Armenian community alive, not to have it dissolved into the Iranian society than anything else. They are survivors of the Armenian genocide and they have the duty to keep their community and their traditions alive not to lose their identity and lose their history. It would mean forget about their lost country, about the genocide and their tragedy as a people.

Zoyâ Pirzâd doesn’t write a political novel. She writes about the quotidian, its little beauties and the family traditions. She takes us into Edmond’s life, full of ladybugs, friendship, painted Easter eggs and Armenian dishes. He sees family politics with his child’s eyes and, as an adult, lives through it by avoiding conflicts. The French cover of the book, a watercolor is perfect for the book.

Pirzâd’s writing reminded me of Philip Roth’s when he describes the Newark of his childhood or when Peter Balakian remembers his youth in New Jersey among his Armenian family in The Black Dog of Fate, also published in 1997. A community of immigrants in a country with other traditions.

Highly recommended, both Space Between Us and The Black Dog of Fate.

Sundborn by Philippe Delerm – about Scandinavian impressionists

August 5, 2021 21 comments

Sundborn or the days of lightness by Philippe Delerm (1996) Original French title: Sundborn ou les jours de lumière. Not available in English.

Another book from the Musée d’Orsay bookstore, Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm is about the Scandinavian group of artists who gathered in Grez-sur-Loing in 1884. We have Carl Larsson and his wife Karin, Peder Severin (“Soren”) Krøyer, Christian Krohg, Karl Nordström and August Strindberg and his wife Siri.

Grez-sur-Loing seemed to be destined to be linked to artists: this is where Laure de Berny, Balzac’s muse and inspiration for Lily in the Valley is buried.

Delerm imagines that a French-Danish young man whose grand-parents live at Grez-sur-Loing, meets the artists and befriends them. When the group dissolves, he follows the Carlssons to Skagen, Denmark and later visits them in Sundborn, Sweden. His name is Ulrik Tercier, an association of first and last names that shows his mother’s Danish side and his father’s French side. Ulrik stays at Grez-sur-Loing every summer, coming from Paris where his father is a doctor. I know, it sounds a lot like Proust’s childhood and adolescent summers in Combray, especially since Ulrik and Marcel are around the same age.

Ulrik remains close to the Larssons and this prop offers Delerm the opportunity to explore several decades of these painters’ lives.

The moments at Grez-sur-Loing are the premises of the Skagen Painters group who lived and worked in Skagen in community, like French impressionists. Delerm describes a vivid group of artists, horsing around and working together, hosted at the Hôtel Chevillon. (The servant of this inn is named Léonie, a reference to Proust’s Aunt Léonie in Combray?)

Sundborn is a lovely book that pictures a group of artists who enjoy life, look for the best light in their painting and are on a quest as artists. They are Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and they share playful days in Skagen, where Krøyer settles and then brings his wife, the painter Marie Triepke. In Skagen, the group has the addition of Michael Ancher and his wife Anna, Viggo and Martha Johansen and Oscar Björk.

Krøyer’s painting Hip, Hip, Hurrah is a testimony of their group’s everyday life.

Later, the Larssons go back to Sweden, buy a country property in Sundborn and change it into a homey house open to friends and visitors. The Carlssons had a lot of children and Delerm hints that their family life changed them and influenced their art. They found their inner light in their family life. Carl turned to watercolor and Karin to kraft. They became iconic in Sweden.

Carl Larsson: Köket.NMB 270

Delerm develops Ulrik’s story as a bystander, the lover of a side painter, Julia. It is not a book about painting technique but more about a group of painters who aimed at harmony between their art and their happiness, who changed official painting in their respective country and brought the impressionist movement into Scandinavian art. It’s a book by an art lover who makes the reader want to rush to a museum and see all these paintings by themselves.

Incidentally, there’s currently an exhibition about Soren Krøyer at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris. I went to the exhibition at the end of June. I bought Delerm’s book years ago, picked it from the shelf in a decrease-the-TBR move and ended up reading about the very painter whose painting I discovered a month ago. Serendipity. Krøyer’s painting is stunning. The rare sunny days in Skagen have a distinctive lightness and the colony of painters tried to capture moments of life at Skagen, their walks on the beach, their life together but also the lives of the Skagen fishermen. I was mesmerized by the light coming off Krøyer’s paintings. Little girls pop out of the frame and come alive in front of you.

The beach is bright and inviting. You think Marie will turn and start talking to you. I could have stared at the paintings for hours.

P.S. Krøyer Summer evening on Skagen’s Beach. Anna_Ancher and Marie Krøyer walking together

This image doesn’t do justice to Krøyer’s amazing gift at transcribing light. Now, let’s watch paintings from this attaching group of Scandinavian artists.

Karl Nordström Field of Oats at Grez
Michael Ancher – A stroll on the beach
Atelje idyll Konstnärens hustru med dottern Suzanne
Carl Larsson 1885
Anna Ancher – Sunlight in the blue room
Viggo Johansen – Dividing the catch
Marie Kroyer – selfportrait
Christian Krohg – Tired

PS: Philippe Delerm also wrote Autumn, about the pre-Raphaelites.

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa – crime fiction in Bogota

July 24, 2021 7 comments

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa (1997) French title: Perdre est une question de méthode. Translated into French by Anne-Marie Meunier.

J’ai perdu. J’ai toujours perdu. Ça ne m’irrite pas, ça ne m’inquiète pas. Perdre n’est qu’une question de méthode : Luis SepulvedaI lost. I’ve always lost. It doesn’t irritate me, it doesn’t bother me. Losing is only a question of method: Luis Sepulveda.

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer who used to work as a journalist for RFI (Radio France International), which might explain why his books found a publisher in France but are not available in English.

Set in Bogota, Losing Is a Question of Method is a crime fiction novel. Victor Silanpa is a journalist at El Observador. When the book opens, the body of a crucified and drowned man is found by Lake Sisga. The police call Silanpa, he’s used to working with them and writing articles about crimes. Silanpa and the police captain Aristophanes Moya have a win-win working relationship. Silanpa unofficially helps with investigations in exchange for a good story for his newspaper.

At first, nobody knows who the dead man is. Silanpa is at the morgue when different families with a missing person come to see if the body is their relative’s. Comes Estupiñan. He thinks that the body is his brother’s but he’s not totally sure because they were estranged and had only recently rekindled their relationship.

Silanpa and Estupiñan associate to investigate the case and they will end up in the middle of an affair of corruption and business. We are reminded that we’re in Bogota when Estupiñan ensures that the case has nothing to do with the Narcos or the FARC before getting involved in the investigation.

The town council member Esquilache had his last campaign financed by a real estate corporation Grande Capitale. In return for their support, he promised they’d get their hands on the land by Lake Sisga to build a tourist resort. Esquilache also double-crossed them with the real estate company owned by Vargas Vicuña. Between them is Banagan, a lawyer who lives beyond his means, gambles, and has the debt that comes with this addiction. He’s all too willing to bend over backward to accommodate Estupiñan.

People fight over a piece of land and in the mix is a naturist club that owns a plot of land right in the middle of what would be the resort. The naturists want to stay where they are. The real estate moguls want their resort, and they all have the same problem: the title deed for these precious 400 hectares is missing. The last known owner was Pereira Antunez, a local businessman who was also a member of this naturist club. Who inherited of this plot of land?

Losing Is a Question of Method is an entertaining read. The crime plot is well put together, and the suspense kept me reading. Silanpa is an attaching character. There’s nothing in it for him if he solves the case, except a good story for the paper, and that’s why they back him up. Silanpa suffers from chronic hemorrhoids, he’s in the middle of a nasty breakup with his girlfriend Mónica but doesn’t hesitate to hook up with a bar escort, all this while carrying his melancholy.

I’ve seldom read a crime fiction book where the police are so useless. We know nothing of their investigation and only hear about Moya when he reads his speeches to his dieting group. He’s overweight, eats too much and needs lose a few kilos. Given how easily our two amateur sleuths manage to find clues and piece things together, the police seem even more incompetent.

I enjoyed Gamboa’s style. He has a great sense of humor…

– Au-dessus de la tête de ces bandits pend l’épée de Démosthène.
– Démosthène ? dit Silanpa. Vous voulez dire Damoclès ?
– C’est la même chose, chef. A notre époque, tout le monde est armé.
– Over these gangsters’ heads hangs Demosthenes’s sword.
– Demosthenes? Says Silanpa. You mean Damocles?
– It’s all the same, boss. Nowadays, everybody is armed.

And peppers his pages with little thoughts and comments.

La réalité lui devenait si exagérément hostile qu’il ne pouvait pas ne pas vouloir l’altérer. Mais cela n’a servi à rien, se dit-il en pensant à son Underwood. La réalité est la seule chose qu’on ne peut jamais semer. Elle vous rattrape toujours.Reality had become so excessively hostile to him that he could not not want to alter it. But it didn’t matter, he mused, thinking about his Underwood. Reality is the only thing one can never shake off. It always catches up on you.

He definitely won me over when one of his characters confesses that he loves comics, especially Mafalda.

The plot moves forward at a good pace and was suspenseful. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town, the meetings in bars to catch up on the case since it was written pre-cell phones. I followed the story between Silanpa and Mónica and ended up thinking I’d like to see Silanpa in another book.

Unfortunately, Gamboa hasn’t been translated into English. This book is available in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Apparently, we Latin languages stick together. 😊

This is a contribution to Stu’s Spanish Lit Month.

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 12 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi – And fear changes sides

March 16, 2021 14 comments

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi (1991) French title: Dirty Week-End. Translated by Jean Esch.

My Kube subscription brought me Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi, a society and feminist novella, one that was almost censored, according to the libraire who chose it for me. What a ride it was! It opens with this stunning paragraph:

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least, she had the decency to do the decent thing.

As you imagine, Bella did not decide to do the decent thing. Quite the contrary.

Bella lives in Brighton, in a mezzanine flat. She’s single, lives a quiet life, reads a lot and keeps to herself. One day, she realizes that a man observes her from a nearby apartment. He starts calling her on the phone, he accosts her in her favourite park. Her life becomes filled with constant fear. She shuts herself away in her flat, closing the curtains. She stops answering the phone.

And one day, she has enough of living in fear. She doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She doesn’t want to be afraid to go out, to open her windows or answer the phone. It’s time for fear to change side.

Bella goes over the edge and starts a killing spree against men who persecute her, force themselves on her or threaten her.

It’s a rough ride and of course Bella’s solution to her problem is not the right one. But Helen Zahavi shows one thing: how fear is ingrained in women. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk in dark alleys. Don’t wear short dresses or plunging necklines. Don’t go in an unknown man’s car. Don’t accept a drink you haven’t prepared yourself. Take care of your own safety.

And Bella tells us it’s not normal to live in fear and in constant worry for one’s security. It’s not normal to be obliged to be prudent because you’re a woman. Bella seems to say: Enough. Guys, live my life. It’s your turn to be afraid.

I’ve read that Dirty Week-End caused an uproar when it was published and that a request for its interdiction was brought to the Parliament. Some people in 1991 England thought it was immoral, pornographic and subversive. Thirty years after its publication, I don’t see why this book should be censored. (or any book, but that’s another debate) Let me get this straight: a book with a man serial killer who preys upon women doesn’t raise an eyebrow and the reverse is immoral?

Dirty Week-End is not a revenge novel, as it has been labelled. It’s more a novel that makes some men uncomfortable because this time, the tables are turned.

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

PS: Covers are interesting to compare, for that kind of book. They influence your view of the book. I think that the French and the American one with the gun are the most faithful to the text.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 10 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian – Highly recommended

April 22, 2020 17 comments

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (1997) French title: Le chien noir du destin.

Today, I had decided to write my billet about Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate. Coincidentally, I also listened a radio program about Charles Aznavour today, and he’s a very famous member of the Armenian diaspora and I first heard about the Armenian genocide through him.

I could write a lengthy billet about this book that tells the story of the Balakian family and of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It would be too long and wouldn’t entice you to read the book. And it would be a pity because it’s worth reading, really.

Balakian opens his memoir with his childhood in New Jersey. He was born in 1951 and he talks about his grandmother, his parents and his family life in suburban New Jersey. His family customs are different from the WASP boys around him in his bourgeois neighborhood. This part of the book reminded me of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The two writers describe a different way-of-life between them and the WASP children. They had formal meals, the relationship with between parents and children were different. The fathers especially have a different way to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity is less macho, I should say, for lack of a better word. Balakian says it quite well:

In the world of my friends’ dads, my father stood apart. No backslapping or hearty handshakes, or greetings of “old buddy” or “man.” No polo shirts or khaki pants or slip-on canvas sneakers, or buddies for gold on Wednesdays, when doctors were supposed to be riding the fairways in orange carts and lime-green pants and white visors. No weekend cocktails with the McKays or the Wheelers. Nor did my father joke with me about macho ideals, the kind that Hemingway and John Wayne embodied. He made no jokes of the kind my friends’ fathers would tell, in sly moments when mothers were out of the room and fathers and sons bonded. Because he was 4-F in World War II owing to high blood pressure, something he never mentioned, he had no war stories either.

This very attaching part of Balakian’s memoir is a testimony of growing up American with immigrant parents and trying to fit it, to be as American as the others. While his family kept some family traditions, they also immersed themselves in the American way-of-life.

Balakian never heard anything about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 until he was in his twenties. His awareness of the massacre didn’t come from his family and at home, it was total silence about these events. Slowly, he will investigate and research his family’s past, describe the genocide and work for its recognition.

Part of his memoir comes back to historical facts, describing the Armenian people, where they lived, what was their status in the Ottoman Empire. He describes the genocide and it’s absolutely awful. 1.5 million people were eliminated in appalling circumstances. It is comparable to the Nazi methods (Balakian said that the laissez-faire of other countries and the Turkish methods inspired Hitler) The refugees became stateless. And even worse than the crime is the fact that for a long, long time, no country acknowledged this genocide.

As Charrey and Lipstadt have written, the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

I also loved the part when Balakian visits Lebanon and Syria, going back to the places of the massacres and on the trail of his grandmother’s stay in Syria before emigrating. It’s a very moving passage, chilling too.

At first, he didn’t understand why he’d never heard of the Armenian traumatic past before reaching adulthood. But his journey through history helped him understand his family better.

At some place in their minds my parents must have found the real issues of being Armenian too hard, too painful, too absurd. As my aunt Gladys had put it, “It was a pill too bitter to swallow, a pain too bad to feel.” In affirming the American present, my parents had done their best to put an end to exile. In the suburbs of New Jersey, they found rootedness, home, belonging. Yet, the past was a shadow that cast its own darkness on us all. The old country. I realize now that it was an encoded phrase, not meant for children. Spoken by numbed Armenians of the silent generation. It meant lost world, a place left to smolder in its ashes.

Reading Balakian memoir is a way of resisting against those who would like to erase this genocide and keep going as if it never happened. It happened and we, European countries, should be ashamed of the time it took us to acknowledge it.

Highly recommended.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 13 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian – excellent

February 1, 2020 18 comments

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (1998) French title: Incident à Twenty-Mile. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of westerns. I know of the genre, I’ve seen passages of films, I know the key actors and what they look like but I haven’t actually watched a lot of those films. My mind doesn’t keep an extensive bank of western images for future reference. I like to think that I approach westerns in books with an almost clean mind.

My first western book was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and the next one was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Incident at Twenty-Mile is my third visit to the genre, a western written by Trevanian in 1998. To be more precise, it is a novel that mixes two genres, western and crime fiction.

The novel opens at the State Prison at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1898. Lieder is a very dangerous prisoner held in the security quarters of the prison. He reads a lot, can manipulate his wards and has already escaped from two other prisons. His new ward is a rookie and his colleagues have warned him against Lieder’s sneaky ways and violence.

Meanwhile, a young man named Matthew arrives at the small of town of Twenty-Mile, a town settled along a railway line between the town of Destiny and a silver mine up in the mountain. The few inhabitants of Twenty-Mile survive because they provide necessities and entertainment to the miners every weekend. This explains why the city has a General Store owned by Mr Kane and his daughter, an inn operated by the Bjorkvist family, a barber shop run by Pr Murphy, a brothel managed by Mr Delany and his three “girls” and a stable handled by Coots and BJ Stone.

When Matthew arrives at Twenty-Mile, he’s penniless and looking for a job. He makes a tour of the business owners but none of them wants to hire him. He doesn’t give up and convinces each of them to employ him for a few hours a day, selling himself at a low price in order to create his own job.

Through hard work, calm and politeness, Matthew worms himself in Twenty-Mile, ends up settling in the vacated sheriff’s house. He needs to belong to a community and decided to settle in this isolated town full of misfits.

From the beginning, we see that Matthew is a troubled man. He tries too hard. He’s afraid of rejection. He has a childish obsession for the children books The Ringo Kid, an anachronic reference to a Marvel Comics series from the 1950s. When he doesn’t know what to do, Matthew wonders what The Ringo Kid would do and acts accordingly. His father was a drunkard and he’s still trying to heal the scars he got from domestic violence and poverty. He wants to be loved and part of something.

Of course, Lieder escapes from Laramie’s prison with other inmates and decides that the money from the silver mine near Twenty-Mile would be a good loot. The town of Twenty-Mile gets prepared to defend itself against this dangerous criminal.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is absolutely brilliant. Trevanian is a gifted writer, with a flowing prose, a knack for describing landscapes and for setting a specific atmosphere. The people in Twenty-Mile are well-drawn, each of them has something in their past or their present that keeps them hostage of the place. The town is a character in itself, an example of these remote Western towns that grew over night, along with the discovery of gold or silver veins. Wyoming and Montana have ghost towns and Twenty-Mile is already declining. We know that if the mine closes, this town up the mountain will die with it.

This is my second Trevanian in a year, the other one was The Summer of Katyaa psychological thriller set in the Basque country in France before WWI. Despite the very different settings, the two books have similarities.

Here, Trevanian plays with codes of westerns, it’s obvious in the various descriptions of the street in Twenty-Mile and the way Matthew repeatedly squints at the horizon. You can almost hear a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In both books, characters experienced a trauma in their adolescence and it affects their abilities to live as capable and sane adults. Lieder is a psychopath and his damaging childhood released a lot of violence in him, a total lack of empathy and a messianic vision of his role in this world. It’s a bit chilling and uncanny to hear him promote WASP supremacy and rant against immigrants.

Matthew isn’t a functioning adult either, only the outcome is different. He was the recipient of raw violence and does everything he can to tame these tendencies, thanks to the Ringo Kid ideal. I can’t say more to avoid spoilers but Trevanian’s exploration of Matthew’s mind and past goes farther.

In The Summer of Katya, Trevanian showed a pointed interest in psychoanalysis. I think that it is present in Incident at Twenty-Mile too and this particular undertone gives a special flavor to his novel.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is an excellent thriller, with an extraordinary sense of place, well-drawn characters and good suspense. Highly recommended.

Another great find by Gallmeister and masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

January 4, 2020 23 comments

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on their outward trip into the USA. She’s post-Catholic, he’s post-Jewish, together they’re going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach – Boring and endearing

November 10, 2019 6 comments

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach. (1990) French title: Sexe, mort et pêche à la mouche. Translated by Jacques Mailhos

When I bought Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach, I expected something of Jim Harrison’s short-stories mated with Tapply’s passion for fly-fishing. I didn’t expect eighteen detailed non-fiction stories about fly-fishing.

I learned more about fly-fishing than I’ll ever care to know. I got a 360-degre view on fly-fishing. Let’s see:

Bugs: their life’s stages, their hatching and the trout gobbling them. Fishing is all about being at the right place at the right time (On the rare overcast, drizzly afternoons, the Red Quill dun can hatch late, and the spinner fall can come early, giving you hours of good fishing with a transition point when both forms of the bug are on the water at once.). I had to google Red Quill, dun, spinner…

Equipment: best bellyboats, waders, poles, hats, sticks, hoop nets…I had to google bellyboats because, for the life of me, I couldn’t decipher what it was, even reading the book in French.

Flies: Their size, their color, their making, the materials to use. How midge fishing became trendy in the fly-fishing world. How John Gierach decided to built a henhouse and raise hens to have his home-made feathers to make flies.

Fish: bluegrass, cutthroat, black bass, rainbow trout. I discovered the hierarchy between the fish, as not all are worth the same for the fisherman. Apparently, trout is royalty compared to peasant black bass. I had to google them, of course. Somehow it registered in my memory bank because I playfully wondered what trout I was cooking the other day and decided that it was definitely rainbow trout.

Rivers: Lots of descriptions of landscapes and rivers in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia. That was nice and brought the escapism I needed. I particularly enjoyed the story I’d Fish in Anyone’s St Vrain. Gierach explains how every fisherman has his favorite river, close to their home, a lesser-known river that they know in and out. Being invited to fish in someone’s favorite river is a treat.

Weather: What’s the best weather for fly-fishing. Since it’s overcast or rainy, I’m not sure I’m made for that sport. When to fish, how to fish in cold weather…

That was the boring side of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing. The endearing side was Gierach’s light and funny tone. He’s full of humor probably because he knows how geeky he sounds. He also inserts thoughts about environmental concerns and life as a fisherman/writer. I enjoyed his non-judgmental tone. Even if he’s passionate about fishing, he remains open-minded. He doesn’t think that his ways are the best, doesn’t make fun or get angry at philistines. He’s happy that it’s a catch-and-release sport, he enjoys the wilderness, the peaceful comradeship with his fishing buddies.

The other endearing side was his geeky side. He’s passionate and enthusiastic. He’s all about the details of the sport, he gets excited about getting the right material for making a perfect fly for future fishing trips. He researches entomology to better understand the bugs that make trout swim to the surface of water to gorge themselves on the said bugs. I was reading and thinking that I didn’t give a damn about the right feather, animal hair or whatnot to make THE fly that will attract trout but I found his devotion to his passion amusing and worth reading about. I could feel him grinning and glowing of happiness while writing about fishing.

And then I thought, “Are we, book lovers, any different from him”? How do we sound to non-readers when we gush about Gallmeister books or collect Penguin classics? How weird must we sound when we have heated discussions about translations and ask around which translation is best for In Search of Lost Time? Shall we read the Scott Moncrieff or a more recent one? How did I sound to my colleague the other day when I joined a meeting where coffee and pastries were served and I told him off-handedly while picking a madeleine, “I’m eating a madeleine because it’s the centennial of Proust’s Prix Goncourt?” In a team building meeting, we were asked to describe ourselves with a word. I said “literary nerd”, which is a total opposite to my actual position in the company and but it’s the first thing that popped to my mind.

And that’s what I enjoyed most about Sex, Death and Fly-fishing: I loved the pure joy that seeped from Gierach’s words as he wrote stories about his lifelong passion, even if some descriptions of flies, bellyboats and fishnets made me yawn. I bet he could describe himself as a fishing nerd too.

And folks, this is why Sex, Death and Fly-fishing is boring and endearing.

PS: Outstanding translation by Jacques Mailhos. As usual.

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 14 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien – Disorienting

October 1, 2019 5 comments

The House Of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien (1994) French title: La maison du splendide isolement.

History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate. The tale differs with the teller.

I’m terribly late with this billet since I read The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien in June. Fortunately, I have some notes and some quotes because I don’t have clear memories about this novel set in Ireland. It’s blurred with an overall impression of Irish landscapes, customs and intricate politics.

Josie is an old lady who lives alone in a big and isolated house and who mulls over her past. McGreevy is an IRA activist who is hiding from the police. He decides to invite himself at Josie’s house. He “kidnaps” her house and imposes his presence. The two will start an odd relationship.

Josie was married to an alcoholic, their marriage fell apart quite fast. They lived like strangers. Her marriage was a failure and muddied by her inability to adapt to her new life. On one side, we see her reflections on her life, now that she’s old and fragile. On the other side, we see McGreevy’s life, his actions as an IRA activist. We see him during missions, and hiding.

When I write this, you know about the setting and the two main characters but you still have no idea about the atmosphere of the book.

Edna O’Brien takes us back and forth in time and there were not enough time stamps in the book for me. I was lost. I got lost in time, I got lost in Irish politics.

Josie is not a character you’d like to be friend with. She’s tough and indirectly responsible for her husband’s death. She married too young and was not very mature at the time, even if she had spent several years in Brooklyn. She should have grown up there but didn’t. Edna O’Brien’s mother had the same life journey: she used to live in Brooklyn, working as a servant for a rich family. She came back to Ireland to start a family and married a peasant who was alcoholic and violent. Since Edna O’Brien was born in 1930, that Josie is really old in the book, I guessed that Josie was born around 1910.

The novel is also full of references to the fight of the IRA, the consequences on civilians, the exactions on both sides. Honestly, you need to be Irish to fully understand this book. O’Brien shows the violence on both sides and tries to give a voice to the IRA and to the Guarda. To be honest, there were too many subtitles that went way over my head because I’m clueless about Irish history but I could feel the helplessness and the bitterness in O’Brien’s tone.

The way they train them is probably macabre. To be invincible. No chinks. Out in isolated places shooting targets, reading up, mettling themselves, taking the oath. Once they cross that divide they’re never the same again, like iron put into a fire. They cannot return to their old shape or their old ways. The saddest bit is that we’re the same stock, the same faith, we speak the same tongue and yet we don’t. Language to each of us is a braille that the other cannot know. Words like justice or love or bread turned inside out or outside in.

She seems to tell us: how will we move forward? How can we go past this? Will we ever find peace? Will this violence ever stop?

I also noticed the constant presence of religion in the novel and its power. It appears at the oddest times, like here, during an ambush where someone gets killed:

‘I got him,’ he says to Ned who is trembling beside him. ‘We should say an act of contrition.’

And later:

‘We’ll get an ambulance over here,’ the sergeant says, getting into his own car. ‘And a priest,’ Ned says as they whiz past him,

I have trouble reconciling the idea of being a fervent Catholic, which supposes that you do not kill people and these off-handed comments, about asking for forgiveness for the murder and have a priest come over to bless the body. What is wrong with them? It seems so twisted and I couldn’t help thinking that the Church covered murderers on both sides. It didn’t endear me to the institution.

To lighten the mood, I’ll mention the French words and expressions I found here and there. I found this quote amusing:

‘Canapés …’ someone else shouts and the second clue is written into place. ‘What the hell are canapés … Are they a fruit?’ ‘You’ve never heard of canapés … You’re a bog man.’ ‘They’re things with things on them … My favourite is a prawn …

Indeed, we don’t use the word canapé anymore for that. The canapés that you eat at a cocktail party…we call them toasts! (or bouchée) A canapé is usually a couch. So, don’t worry if a French wants to sit on a canapé instead of eating it.

French fun apart, what’s the verdict about The House of Splendid Isolation? Same issue as for Dubliners. I wondered if you needed to be Irish to really enjoy it…Since I’m not, I found it frustrating and sometimes disturbing. If anyone has read it, I’d be interested to discuss it with you.

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

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