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Three good entertaining books by Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Christin and HG Jenkins

November 22, 2020 11 comments

Let’s face it, my TBW is out of control, the end of the year is coming and with the second lockdown, I keep reading. I’m not used to mixing several books in a billet but I’m doing it today, mostly focusing on light and entertaining books. See it as an attempt at taming the TBW.

First, we’re going on a trip to Japan with Dominique Sylvain. Her crime fiction novel Kabukichō takes us to Tokyo’s red-light district.

Kate Sanders works in a hostess bar, Club Gaia, and shares an apartment with a coworker, Marie. One night, Kate doesn’t show up for work. Her father in London receives a text message, a photo of his daughter with the caption “She’s sleeping here”.

A few days later, Kate is found dead. Captain Yamada is appointed to the case. He and his lieutenant Watanabe will investigate Kate’s life in Kabukichō. She was very good friend with Yudai, a charming young man who owns a host bar, the male version of the hostess bar.

I’m not familiar with Japan and I found Kabukichō fascinating for its description of the functioning of this red-light district. The crime plot was well-drawn, mixing the private lives of Kate, Marie and Yudai. Captain Yamada, old school compared to his lieutenant was an attaching policeman. All the characters have cracks in their souls, minor but irritating like a never healing small wound or major rifts that make them cross-over to the side of craziness.

It was a quick read, entertaining and enlightening with a stunning ending. It would make a wonderful film. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

Obviously, Kabukichō is exotic for a French reader. For me, the setting of Little Crimes Against Humanities by Pierre Christin was almost as foreign as Tokyo. The whole book is set in the French academic world and there’s a specific vocabulary related to positions and to the French university system. I’ll use American terms, as best as I can.

In Little Crimes Against Humanities, we’re in the small university of Nevers, in the center of France, basically the French equivalent of Iowa.

Simon Saltiel wrote his PhD thesis about Death in Art. Think about vanity paintings and such things. At the moment, he’s a teacher at the Humanities department but without a tenured post. He’s friend and roommate with an older teacher, Etienne Moulineaux. Their dean is Goulletqueur, notorious for preferring local candidates to others and this is why Simon has failed again to get a permanent position. The dice are loaded.

Léon Kreisman, a famous academic, art and book collector, collapses on the university stairs after a lecture. Fatal heart attack. He has no wife or children, only a pit bull secretary Madame Danitza.

Simon was among the first people on the premises and is dragged in spite of him, in the intrigues coming after Kreisman’s death. People want to put their hands of Kreisman’s collections. Goulletqueur wants to have a new library and hope that these resources will attract foreing academics and finally put the Nevers university on the international map of universities. L’Hours, a big man in the ministry of Education in Paris wants the collection to fill a new museum he will inaugurate. A private collector wants this collection for himself.

A mysterious poison-pen letter writer sends vengeful messages to several members of the faculty. The police get involved. The poor commissaire has his hands full with this foul business at the university on top of agricultural happenings from the Confédération Paysanne, a radical agricultural union that doesn’t have the decency to follow the usual methods of demonstration of the established union, the FNSEA.

Mild-mannered Simon finds himself in the middle of all this and with the help of two other colleagues, things won’t pan out as expected for the hot-shot and ambitious academics.

Besides the plot about Kreisman’s heritage, this is a satirical picture of the French universities, a milieu Christin knows from inside out. He shows the bureaucracy, the lack of money, the pettiness and the ambitions. An institution whose tenured posts are trusted by people who were young the the 1970s, a time when the Humanities were polarized, Trotskyists or not in the aftermath of 1968. He also shows an institution that, at local level, tries their best for their students. Their janitor is a genius at repairing anything with little means and teachers remain invested in their job.

Very humoristic about universities, small town France, Parisian centralization and the Ministry of Education but also about international academic relationships and symposiums. It’s almost as if David Lodge had written cozy crime.

Still on the lookout for easy and entertaining reads, I asked for recommendations to fellow book bloggers. Jacqui came up with Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. Published in 1918, it’s in the same vein as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a way to spend a moment in a bubble far away from 2020.

Patricia Brent is 24 and works as a private secretary to a “rising MP”. She lives at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, in other word, a boarding-house.

One night, she overheads the other tenants talk about her and commiserate that she was lonely and never went out with young men. Piqued, Patricia invents herself a fiancé, tells them that she won’t be there for dinner the next day because she was to meet him at the Quadrant. She plays along, actually shows up to the restaurant, intending to dine there on her own when she realizes that the Galvin House gossipmongers are there to spy on her. She plops herself on a chair at a man’s table and asks him to play along. This is how she meets Lt.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, DSO.

The outcome of the book is a given from the first chapters but Jenkins draws a colorful picture of the guests at the boarding house, the MP’s family and Lord Bowen’s circle. It’s a great comedy, the light plot designed to cast an amused glance at the different classes of the London society. I loved Jenkins’s sense of humor. Today, he’d write TV shows. His characters are quick at repartee, here’s a sample:

“Can you, Mrs. Morton, seriously regard marriage in this country as a success? It’s all because marriages are made in heaven without taking into consideration our climatic conditions.”

And

Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi. “Where to, sir?” enquired the man. “Oh, to hell!” burst out Bowen savagely. “Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?”

He’s also extremely funny in his descriptions of places, people and manners.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays.

The whole book is a fast paced comedy. Patricia Brent, Spinster did the job. Easy to read, entertaining and good escapism. Much needed this year but as Jenkins writes, When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game.

PS: I have the Jenkins on kindle with a bland cover so I added the cover of the original edition that I found on Goodreads. It’s terrible, isn’t it? These eyes seem ominous.

West of Rome by John Fante – two novellas

November 15, 2020 4 comments

West of Rome by John Fante (1986) French version in two books Mon chien Stupide et L’Orgie. Both translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Life is quite busy at the moment and I’m late: the TBW pile keeps increasing, mostly because I’m too tired after work to open my personal computer and face a screen again. Let’s not talk about all the interesting blog reviews that sit in my inbox, unread. Sorry, fellow book bloggers.

West of Rome by John Fante was our Book Club read for…ahem…September. (see before)

The good news about being so late is that I can now cheekily add it to my November in Novellas reading since West of Rome is actually composed of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy.

For French readers who’d read this in translation, it’s published in two different books, Mon chien stupide and L’Orgie. Both are translated by Brice Matthieussent.

John Fante died in 1983, these two novellas were published posthumously.

West of Rome

In West of Rome, we’re in Point Dune, California, not far from Santa Barbara, end of the 1960s, early 1970s. The Vietnam war is not over, it gives us a timeframe. Henry writes scenarios for Hollywood and he’s currently unemployed. Henry is 55, he’s been married to Harriet for twenty-five years, they have four children, Dominic, Tina, Denny and Jamie. The youngest one is Jamie and he’s 19.

But she was very good, my Harriet, she had stuck it out with me for twenty-five years and given me three sons and a daughter, any one of whom, or indeed all four, I would have gladly exchanged for a new Porsche, or even an MG GT ’70.

This is Henry for you. He’s offensive the way Post Office by Bukowski is offensive. (Bukowski rediscovered Fante and was instrumental to the republishing of his books) He’s a questionable father figure and has the nerve to be disappointed in his children. Dominic wants to go to New York and be an actor but he’s stuck in California because he’s in the army reserves. Tina is in love with a surfer, Rich. Needless to say, Henry despises Rich. Denny is in college, relies on his mother to writer his literature papers and has a black girlfriend which is not acceptable for Henry. Jamie is the only one he tolerates. Henry is terribly rude to his wife, even if he loves her:

Backing the Porsche out of the garage I sensed the flat deadness of my cheek, the place where Harriet had not kissed me goodbye. For a quarter of a century the habit of a goodbye kiss had been part of our lives. Now I missed it the way a monk missed a bead in his rosary.

Henry is one of these insufferable persons who are loud, obnoxious, rude and volatile. You never know what he’s going to say. He’s got a weird view on life, it’s like his internal camera always watches scenes at a weird angle that screws up is assessment of a situation. He’s unemployed (and lazy), 55 and not dealing well with the children growing up. Harriet is the eternal peacemaker, the communication channel between the children and their father who can be an insensitive prick and extremely hurtful.

When Henry finds an Akita dog sprawled on his lawn, he takes him in. He calls him Stupid. In White Dog by Romain Gary, the dog was white because he was trained to attack black people and Gary discovered it after he took him in. Here, Henry discovers that Stupid humps male humans and especially Rich. Imagine Henry’s glee when Stupid molests him.

Stupid becomes the catalyst that makes the family explode. He’s as obnoxious as Henry and when Henry decides to keep him, the kids rebel but Henry doesn’t change his mind.

I knew why I wanted that dog. It was shamelessly clear, but I could not tell the boy. It would have embarrassed me. But I could tell myself and it did not matter. I was tired of defeat and failure. I hungered for victory. I was fifty-five and there were no victories in sight, nor even a battle. Even my enemies were no longer interested in combat. Stupid was victory, the books I had not written, the places I had not seen, the Maserati I had never owned, the women I hungered for, Danielle Darrieux and Gina Lollobrigida and Nadia Grey. He was triumph over ex-pants manufacturers who had slashed my screenplays until blood oozed. He was my dream of great offspring with fine minds in famous universities, scholars with rich gifts for the world.

Henry knows that the kids are growing up and that they will leave the nest soon. It starts with meal independence…

Otherwise it had become a do-it-yourself kitchen, everyone cooking to his own taste. It had to be that way because everyone wakened at a different hour and nobody could be depended upon to show up for dinner except Harriet and me.

…and end ups with kids moving out. Henry fears the empty nest syndrome, despite his tantrums against his kids.

I can’t help thinking that My Dog Stupid is partly autobiographical. Indeed, Henry, like Fante is a semi-successful screenwriter who loves golfing. Harriet, like Fante’s wife Joyce has money of her own and the patience of a saint. The Fantes had four children, three sons and a daughter. If this is what their home life was like, he must have been a difficult man to live with.

The Orgy

The Orgy is totally different from My Dog Stupid. We’re in Colorado, in 1925 and the Narrator is a lot like Arturo Bandini, the hero of Fante’s Bandini Quartet. The narrator is ten, his family is Italian, his father Nick is a bricklayer and his mother a stay-at-home mom and a fervent Catholic. If in West of Rome, Stupid was the family member who divided the family in two camps, in The Orgy, the bone of contention is the friendship between Nick and Franck Gagliano. (Something also present in Wait Until Spring, Bandini.)

His name was Frank Gagliano, and he did not believe in God. He was that most singular and startling craftsman of the building trade—a left-handed bricklayer. Like my father, Frank came from Torcella Peligna, a cliff-hugging town in the Abruzzi. Lean as a spider, he wore a leather cap and puttees the year around, and he was so bowlegged a dog could lope between his knees without touching them.

And Often, but not always, Frank was my father’s best friend. But he was always and without exception my mother’s mortal enemy.

The boy works along with his father as a waterboy, he carries water to the crew on building sites. Once, a worker quits after getting rich on the stock market and as a farewell gift, gives Nick the deeds to a mine concession. Frank and Nick start going there on the weekends to dig for gold. Once, the boy goes with them and sees his father through a new light.

In The Orgy, Fante takes us back into familiar grounds: Nick, the Italian bricklayer, non-religious, womanizer and good friends with another Italian atheist. The mother, Catholic and judgmental, sprinkling holy water in the house, hardworking but kind of a harpy too. And the three children, taken back and forth between the two extremes, loving both parents and having a hard time finding a middle ground between the two.

Fante is a talented writer, he has an eye for descriptions, a fondness for his characters who are not always likeable and a wonderful sense of humor. Here’s Henry going grocery shopping:

And so my day began, a thrill a minute in the romantic, exciting, creatively fulfilling life of a writer. First, the grocery list. Varoom! and I roar down the coast highway in my Porsche, seven miles to the Mayfair Market. Scree! I brake to a stop in the parking lot, leap from the car, give my white scarf a couple of twirls and zap! I enter the automatic doors. Pow! The lettuce, potatoes, chard, carrots. Swooshl The roast, chops, bacon, cheese! Wham! The cake, the cereal, the bread. Zonk! The detergent, the floor wax, the paper towels.

I never knew that the difference between a writer and me was the Porsche because for the rest, I can relate. 😊

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage – 30 years in Grayling, Montana

November 11, 2020 2 comments

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage (1988) French title: Rue du Pacifique. Translated by Pierre Furlan.

And we’re back in Montana with a novel by Thomas Savage, The Corner of Rife and Pacific. Savage’s earlier novel, The Power of the Dog was part of the Read-the-West readalong that I did with my sister-in-law. We decided to go for another year of reading books together. In September, we read the excellent Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer and our choice for October was The Corner of Rife and Pacific. In November, we’re reading The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert.

In The Corner of Rife and Pacific, Thomas Savage takes us to Grayling, Montana. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that there’s no Grayling in Montana but that Grayling, Michigan is where Jim Harrison was born.

When the book opens, we’re in 1890, the town of Grayling is officially founded and Mr Rife is its first mayor. He’ll become a street name. Two families were present at the ceremony, the Metlens and the Connors who arrived from California in the 1880s. They’re Pacific.

An omniscient narrator with a storyteller voice starts to tell us the story of these two families, with the Metlen in the foreground and the Connors in the background. John Metlen and his wife Lizzie settled in Grayling on a ranch. Later, they also had a hotel in town. The Connors settled in town and became bankers.

We follow the Metlens from 1890 to 1920, from the foundation of the town to its thirtieth anniversary. The local aristocracy is made of the families who were there when the town was founded, recreating a system of class inherited from the old world.

Besides the Metlen family’s story, we witness the world change during these years and it comes to Grayling too. Advertising, phones, cars, new technologies appear, but that would be the same for any novel set in that time. The two families don’t have the same vision of life, the Metlens want to live decently and peacefully besides the Shoshones tribes. The Connors are ambitious moneymakers and support the removal of the native Americans from their land.

Thomas Savage describes the foundation of a pioneer mythology. The locals celebrate the foundation of their city and reinvent their past. They do a carnival where women come dressed up in “old time” costumes, which means that they wear their mothers’ clothes. They do rodeos. Amateurs go on stage and play historical moments of the pioneer history. They don’t embarrass themselves with historical accuracy, taking in all that looks old.

Savage says that the locals have lost part of their past because it stayed back in Europe with the families left behind when the first family member came and settled in Montana. These towns with no history, no past have to create their own history, to have common grounds and strengthen their roots. We all need to know where we come from and the community of Grayling builds their own legend and roots. It’s based on a certain idea of masculinity, the myth of the cowboy and of the pioneers.

John Melten and his son Zack don’t fit well in this idea of masculinity. Lizzie says John is a dreamer and a poet. They have a balanced relationship and John relies on her for moral support. She’s also a good listener, a sounding board. Zack isn’t fond of hunting, horse-riding or any other outdoorsy activities. He’s intelligent and into science and communications technologies. His parents support his endeavors and he’s not pressured to run the ranch or take over the hotel. They seem a bit eccentric among the others or simply ahead of their time.

Thomas Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City and was raised on a ranch in Montana. John Melten and his wife Lizzie have common traits with the Phil and George’s parents in The Power of the Dog. I wonder if The Corner of Rife and Pacific is not also a quiet tribute to Savage’s family and his Western roots.

I think that The Power of the Dog is a better book than The Corner of Rife and Pacific but it is still an easy and enjoying read.

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

November 7, 2020 22 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 32 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo – A poet writes hardboiled.

October 4, 2020 2 comments

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. (1981) French title: La mort et la belle vie. Translated by Michel Lederer

Death and the Good Life is the only crime fiction book written by Richard Hugo. He was better known as a poet. Unfortunately, he died in 1982, before he had even the chance to write another polar.

Al Barnes is a former police detective of the homicide brigade in Portland who decided to leave the grim life of a city cop behind to become a deputy sheriff in Plains, Montana. Al is nicknamed “Mush-Heart” due to his natural empathy. That makes him unsuited for most police work but a good investigator because people confide in him.

Al thought he had switched to a quiet life when two men get axed. Ralph McGreedy and Robin Tingley work for the Plains pulp mill. It belongs to the Hammer siblings, Lee and Lynn. They live eight months of the year in Portland and four months in Plains. McGreedy and Tingley run the mill for the Hammers, wealthy investors who saved the pulp mill and its jobs. They are well-acquainted with the locals and well-accepted in Plains. Who would want to kill McGreedy and Tingley?

At first, it seems that a serial killer is in action. Red Yellow Bear, the sheriff and Al’s boss decides to take advantage of Al’s experience with homicides. He will follow a lead to Portland and discover that twenty years ago, a murder happened during a party thrown by the young Lynn and Lee. Al starts digging. He meets with his former colleagues and gets the informal help he needs to push the investigation and see what’s behind the Hammers’ posh façade.

For a first, Hugo, who was a fan of hardboiled fiction, wrote an excellent polar. I was fond of Al, a man I would love to meet in real life. The plot is well-paced and peppered with little thoughts and remarks as Al navigates through the ups-and-downs of a police investigation. There’s a strong sense of place, the descriptions of Montana sound genuine and it’s the same for the parts in Portland. The sheriff is an Indian and I remember Craig Johnson say that writing a book set in Wyoming or Montana without Indians in it was not realistic as they are part of the local communities.

I read Death and the Good Life in French, in a mass paperback edition. I don’t think there’s an ebook version in English and no sample is available online, so I have no quote. I wish I had some to share. It seems that this book is a bit forgotten by its English-speaking readers. It’s too bad because it’s an excellent book to read by a rainy afternoon, by the fire, under a plaid.

After reading Death and the Good Life, I decided to check out Hugo’s poetry and browse through the first pages of his Selected Poems. Look at the first one:

Trout fishing again! I’m cursed! 😊

Trout aside, it’s a reminder that my English isn’t good enough to truly understand poetry. And once again, I have this issue with genders in English. In French, trout is a feminine word. In my mind, Trout is not a he, it’s a she. When I read in English and the gender remains neutral, it’s not a problem because I don’t think in French anymore and nothing special pops out of the sentence. But when an animal is described with a gender in English, it attracts my attention. If it’s not the same one as in French, it’s confusing. Is it the same for people who speak German and read in English? And what about speaking French, German and English?

PS: The book covers. *sigh* The French one screams ‘Montana cliché’ and it’s the wrong season. The American one looks like Gatsby is around the corner. None really reflects the atmosphere of the book…*double sigh*

PPS: Don’t let my ramblings detract you from reading Death and the Good Life.

Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 19 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

20 Books of Summer #14: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood – Disquieting

August 30, 2020 20 comments

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1938) French title: Adieu à Berlin. Translated by Ludmila Savitsky

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was published in 1938. It is composed of six pieces set in pre-WWII Berlin. They are in chronological order and feature characters that overlap from one piece to the other. The narrator is named after the author, but he claims in the foreword that there’s nothing to read into it and that “’Christopher Isherwood is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more”. I’ll call him the Narrator, to avoid any confusion between the writer and his literary doppelganger.

Goodbye to Berlin opens with A Berlin Diary – Autumn 1930 and ends with A Berlin Diary – Winter 1932-3. A contemporary reader immediately knows that the Narrator will picture Berlin during crucial years, the ones when the Nazis took power. Between these two bookends, we’ll spend some time with Sally Bowles, The Nowaks, The Landauers and spend the summer 1931 On Ruegen Island with the Narrator.

We get to meet with Berliners in one of those boarding houses that were so frequent in those times. Frl. Schroeder rents rooms in her flat to survive and the Narrator lives there while he supports himself by giving English lessons. He stays there the whole time, except when, broke, he moves in with the Nowaks, a working-class family. While I didn’t care much about Sally Bowles, I was interested in the Nowaks. It gives a good picture of the struggling working class of the city. The part about the Landauers, a Jewish family who owns a famous department store in Berlin, was engaging too. (For the record, the store already has an inhouse nursery to watch the children while their mothers are shopping.)

Isherwood doesn’t write an openly political novel but his description of life in Berlin is a vivid picture of a city that slowly shift from free and impoverished to ruled and controlled by the Nazis. With light touches, the reader feels things change around the Narrator. His students’ type changes: at first, we see him giving lessons to bored upper-class housewives and in the last winter, he teaches English to Germans who want to leave their country and work in the USA.

Unemployment is going up. Bobby, another of Frl. Schroeder’s boarders goes from occasionally working to unemployed. The Nowaks live in a squalid attic, one that regulations declare unfit for accommodation but do they have a choice? Banks go bankrupt, factories close, the price of food goes up. There’s no clear focus on this, details here and there alert the reader and it’s up to them to put the pieces together to have a clear picture.

The more the book progresses, the more the presence of the Nazis and S.A. men makes itself known. It starts with flags and militants. It ends with beatings on the streets, arrests, book burning and Hitler taking power. The night life goes from wild and free to interrupted by police raid in cafés and cabarets. The attacks against the Jews progress, get more and more violent until it is pure persecution.

And the population adapts, like Frl. Schroeder:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to any new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fürher’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

The Narrator is in a unique position. He lives in Berlin and shares the population’s way-of-life. He’s protected by the safety bubble of his British nationality but at the same time, he’s not there as a newspaper correspondent. He belongs to the Berliner people and is an outsider.

Goodbye to Berlin is the Narrator’s farewell to a city he spent time in and had to leave due to the political circumstances. It’s also his adieu to a certain Berlin, the fun one where he sowed his wild oats. His book is disquieting, especially in the times we’re living. What would I do, if I were in Frl. Schroeder’s shoes? Do we, common people, see dictators coming before it’s too late?

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.

20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

August 5, 2020 18 comments

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

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

July 31, 2020 27 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

20 Books of Summer #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

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