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A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

Don’t Be Afraid If I Hug You by Fulvio Ervas. Lovely

April 16, 2016 7 comments

Don’t be afraid if I hug you by Fulvio Ervas (2012) French title: N’aie pas peur si je t’enlace. Translated from the Italian by Marianne Faurobert.

ErvasFulvio Ervas lent his writing skills to Franco Antonello, an Italian father who decided to take his autistic son Andrea to a road trip in America for his eighteenth birthday. They first rode from Florida to Los Angeles on a Harley Davidson. Then, they alternated between car and plane to travel from LA to Arraial d’Ajuda, Brazil.

Ervas spent a year talking with Antonello to write this book. It is the story of an extraordinary adventure, of a solid father and son relationship but also of the difficulty to be a parent of a child who is different. It is a wonderful mix of road stories, interaction with people and moments between Andrea and Antonello.

Antonello doesn’t sugarcoat things. Traveling with Andrea is difficult. He’s unpredictable, he has limited autonomy and needs things to be orderly. Antonello’s biggest fear is to lose him somewhere. At the same time, his attitude, his spontaneity and his unique way to relate to people is also a treasure. I’m not sure Antonello would have met all these people along the way if he hadn’t been with Andrea who always attracts attention and goes towards people without apprehension. He walks on the tip of his toes and the title of the book comes from the T-Shirts that Andrea’s parents made for him. These T-Shirts say “Don’t be afraid if I hug you”. You see, Andrea is a hugger. He hugs people to get to know them, to know what they have in their belly. His parents got him these T-Shirts to help people know it’s just a thing he does. And along the trip, Antonello keeps rushing and yelling “autistic kid” to passersby that Andrea calls out to or touches on a whim.

Road_trip_ErvasAndrea has been diagnosed with autism when he was three. Antonello never complains but calmly explains how hard it was to accept the diagnosis, how complicated it is to cater to a child with special needs on a daily basis. He shares his worries about the future: what will become of Andrea when his parents are gone? Andrea has limited communication skills that Antonello tries to nurture and make bloom. In the rare moment he gets him to communicate through a computer, Andrea lets us see the pain of being locked up in this illness. It is very poignant. There’s a lot of suffering on both sides but there’s also a lot of love. Antonello loosens up as the trip progresses and both probably came home with a lot of memories and a stronger bond.

My only regret about this book is the absence of Andrea’s mother. We never hear anything about her and I wonder if she wanted to stay out of it. They barely mention calling home or preparing the trip with her.

On the sightseeing side, the trip in North America was easy to picture. The trip in South America was harder to imagine but left me with vivid images. They had some dangerous experiences with nature or local police and military. But all the way, they met people who opened their doors, helped them, welcomed them into their home. They weren’t afraid of these strangers. In our Western culture, we live in fear. Who would welcome a stranger into their home these days?

This is not a very literary book. It is well written and it sounds truthful. It is the right tone to tell someone else’s story. Fulvio Ervas managed to take a back seat in this trip, leaving Antonello being the driving voice with Andrea speaking shotgun.

I leave you with a quote from the book, one I think is universal:

Je comprends que chacun d’entre nous, pour naviguer sur le cours de sa vie, se fabrique tant bien que mal ses propres rames, la seule chose qui importe vraiment étant de ne pas s’en server pour flanquer des coups sur la tête de son prochain. I understand that each of us clumsily makes their own oars to navigate on the stream of their life. The most important thing is to not use them to beat the crap out of the next guy.

 

Long is the road

August 15, 2013 10 comments

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. 2008. French title: 18% gris.

 “Listen my friend. This isn’t a script for a thriller. This is a story about…” I try to calm down and sound convincing. “Actually, this is not a story about drugs. This is a story about a guy who loses his talent…”

“His…what?” Elijah’s eyes narrow, puzzled.

“And loses his faith,” I keep going.

“Ay, ay, ay.” He shakes his head mockingly.

“…loses his appetite for life…”

“Existentialism?” Pure disgust.

“…loses his love…”

“So you’re writing a love story?” Sarcasm, plain sarcasm.

“…himself…”

“And he finds a bag of ganja? Genius!” Elijah slams the table with his fist.

“But one night, one crazy night, as if in a dream, he stumbles upon a bag of marijuana”.

Stella has been gone for ten days and Zach is lost. He’s in a ain’t-no-sunshine-when-she’s-gone kind of mood when he tries to lose himself in booze in Tijuana. This is where he accidentally comes in possession of a bag of marijuana. He decides to leave California behind, drive through the country and sell the weed in New-York. That’s the starting point of the book.

As he drives away from California, Zack follows three paths. The first one is in the present. The second path is the chronological story of his life with Stella. The third one is a journey down memory lane, snippets of conversations with Stella. The three paths are visible in the form of the novel. The present is written in normal script and lay out. His life with Stella is in italic. The snippets are in low-case letters, on the right side of the page, like this:

-look at me

-i’m thirsty

-look at the camera

-i’m cold

-c’mon, please

-i need coffee…

-we’re almost done

-i want to get dressed already…

-this is the last roll of film and i swear we’re done

-the last one?

-the very last one.

The present is a road trip between San Diego and New-York. Zack and Stella are immigrants from Bulgaria. They came to America as students, never left but their whole set of values was formed in their home country. 18% Gray was translated from the Bulgarian and the main character has the same name as the writer. I assume the author poured part of his experience into the book. The road trip is an ode to the American myth. Zack is a photographer who gave up on photography when he couldn’t find a job in his field. He buys a camera for this trip and starts taking pictures again. 18% gray is a technical term for photographers, the equivalent of a diapason for musicians.

I now realise that my American West was not a geographical place, but a secret territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild West. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

This road trip confronts the real America to his dream America. Despite all the years he’s lived there, he still looks at America with the starry eyes of a European. And yet, what he describes corresponds to the idea I have of rural America. Motels. Poverty. Wilderness. Dinners. Strange characters. People stuck in small towns. Ghost towns abandoned when business went somewhere else; I’ve never seen a ghost town in Europe. All sort of weird encounters happen on this trip and Zack copes with everything that falls down on him. He also takes the opportunity to visit friends scattered on the way. As the book progressed I felt closer and closer to Zack, probably because I share part of his European dream of America and part of his perpetual puzzlement at some American habits:

I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads—something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe the mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television.

Karabashliev_grisAfter saying this, he stops to buy CDs and listen to his own free-of-ads music. When we visited California, we did the same. The radio was unbearable and we bought CDs. The TV was unbearable as well. It’s not music or a show with ads, it’s ads with music or shows. We wanted to watch TV and listen to the radio, you learn about a country that way, but we couldn’t. Zack points out the same things that attract our attention as being different from Europe: the huge size of everything, the greasy food everywhere, the preachers on TV or on the radio, the religious stickers on cars, the trailers or the mail boxes in the middle of nowhere.

I also felt close to Zack when he relates how he abandoned his dreams and how it probably cost him his relationship with Stella. Zack drives and thinks about Stella. We learn how they met in Bulgaria and their relationship was based upon a strong connection. When he was a student, Zack wanted to be a rock star but failed, the band disintegrated as its members started to grow up. He learnt photography in Ohio, after they moved to America and it became his passion. Stella’s passion was painting. She had always wanted to paint. When they moved to California, they couldn’t find a job, Zack started to work for a pharmaceutical company and Stella gave lessons. He made good money and lost himself in the process. Stella stuck to painting.

I loved this book, the three paths and lay-outs weren’t artificial. I loved the story, the encounters on the way, the honesty in Zack’s description of his failed marriage. I loved the voice behind the characters of this novel and I had wonderful hours reading it. This is a book I owe to Guy (again), so Guy, a thousand thanks for this. You can read his review here.

PS: The title of this post is a song by French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman. The lyrics talk about the American dream of each immigrant knocking on America’s door, the dream of success and the disappointment that often follow. You can read the lyrics here.

We, damaged people

October 21, 2012 22 comments

Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller. 1949. French title: Mort d’un commis voyageur.

You’re going to read about theatre again as I renewed my subscription to the city theatre. The first play we chose was Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. I read it before attending the play and I was both excited and curious when I entered the theatre. Excited to see the play on stage as I found it very good on paper and curious to see what the director would do with the numerous stage directions Miller included in his text.

Willy Loman is the salesman mentioned in the title of the play. When the lights appear on the stage, Willy is coming home from work, it’s late, he’s exhausted. His wife Linda wakes up and greets him. We quickly learn that he’s over 60, that he has worked as a salesman for the same company since 36 years and that he’s in charge of New England sales for his company. He travels the whole week and comes back on weekends.

But tonight, Willy is distraught and came back home on a Monday night when he should have been in Boston. He can’t drive anymore because he can’t focus enough. He was almost in an accident and when back driving very slowly, afraid as he was to kill someone in a car crash. Willy is no longer a good salesman, he’s burnt out and his employer stopped paying him a salary, he lives on commissions.

Willy and Linda make too much noise and wake up their sons Biff and Happy. Biff has come after a three months errand and at 34, he’s not settled yet. Happy usually lives by himself but is back in his old room for now.

The play has two intertwined stories. In the first place, it’s Willy’s story, his professional fall and his small life. Willy is a true believer in the American dream and its pendant, the consumer society where you buy on credit. He constantly regrets not following his brother Ben in Alaska to seek fortune. Ben died a rich man. Willy has lived the life of a middle-class man: he worked to support a wife, two kids, buy a car, a house and all kinds of domestic equipment but starts doubting, now that he’s older:

Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.

And with hindsight, his life seems a bit meaningless.

Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.

With the loss of his professional standing, his confidence is shattered and he speaks to himself aloud, ruminating conversations with his brother Ben or with Biff. Willy worked for a better life for himself and a better life for his boys but he failed miserably on both sides.

Biff has tried dozens of different jobs and can’t keep one for a long time. He never had a serious relationship with a woman and is nowhere near getting married. All this isn’t a choice but the result of a vast personal failure. His younger brother Happy works in company, usually lives in his apartment and is a womanizer. Sex is almost an addiction, he sorts of suffer of the all-whores-but-mommy syndrome. Here are the two brothers talking about women and sex:

HAPPY: I get that any time I want, Biff. Whenever I feel disgusted. The only trouble is, it gets like bowling or something. I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything. You still run around a lot?

BIFF: Naa. I’d like to find a girl—steady, somebody with substance.

Willy’s relationship with Biff is broken and the clue to the damage only comes at the end of the play. They can’t communicate and we soon understand that Biff had a brilliant American future before him: he was popular in school, a good football player, he had scholarships for university. But he failed his math final in high school and never graduated. All his hopes of glory and a good job evaporated with this.

As the story unravels before our eyes we understand Willy’s responsibility in Biff’s failure. He never had his feet on the ground, indulged his sons in everything. They lived in a mutual adoration fueled by Linda’s blind adoration for her husband. This is a family where people don’t see reality as it is but nurture childish dreams of grandeur, a family where nobody questions Willy’s opinion or vision. He can only be right and no one could undermine his confidence. Willy is the king of his family but the king is naked. He isn’t open to advice or to the thought that he might be mistaken. Unfortunately, he based his faith in life upon the silly concept that to be successful, you must be popular, loved and daring. Isn’t that childish?

The play is powerful, painfully up-to-date when it comes to Willy’s work life and the treatment of senior employees in companies. It made me think about my carrier and brought me back to a question I’ve already asked myself many evenings: how on earth will I be able to work at the same rhythm as today when I’m 60? What will become of us in such a competitive corporate world when we’re old? How can a play written in 1949 resonate that strongly on that part? Perhaps it’s because working conditions are going backwards nowadays or because so many young people in their twenties have difficulties finding a permanent job and settling down.

The family dynamics gives a universal tone to the play and deals with the parents-children interactions. Do we expect too much of our children? How can you raise children to be themselves, unique, detached from you and pursuing their own goals and not the ones you decided for them, while giving them the right amount of guidance for them to have the best chance to make the most out of their potential?

On a literary point of view, Miller managed to break the codes of theatre. There is no unity of time, place or action here. Some scenes are flash backs from Biff’s adolescence and help the spectators understanding the events that led this family in this cul-de-sac. They also show Willy’s appalling principles of education or lack of principles actually. The characters are at the Lomans’ but some scenes are in a restaurant or in the office of different side characters. It’s like a film.

Death of a Salesman is Miller putting the American dream to pieces: Family? Dysfunctional and toxic. Climbing the social ladder? Useless. Working hard? What for? To buy more? This play is clever, witty, profound and powerful. For those who don’t like reading theatre, my friend watched the film directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Dustin Hoffman plays Willy and John Malkovich plays Biff. The scenario was written by Arthur Miller. I heard it’s excellent.

PS: one last quote, for the road:

CHARLEY: Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.

BEN [clapping WILLY on the back, with a laugh at CHARLEY]: And the stock exchange, friend!

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