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Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 22 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet – San Francisco Noir

May 23, 2020 6 comments

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (2013) French title: Petit traité de la fauche. Translated by Catherine Richard-Mas

Klinger didn’t waste a moment. His door, being the one that had impacted the light pole, was jammed. So, as they’d been robbing liquor stores with the top down, since they couldn’t figure out how to get it up, he tried to step up and out of the stolen sports car with dignity. But the remnants of the airbag entangled his legs, and he and his dignity spilled headlong into the street.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Klinger, the main protagonist of Snitch World by Jim Nisbet. He’s a middle-aged thug, a weird concept because people should grow out of being a thug.

He and his accomplice Chainbang have just robbed a liquor store. They are in a car accident in the middle of the street, the police, the firemen and the paramedics are on their way. Klinger takes his share and ditches Chainbang, disappearing into the night while his partner is getting arrested. That’s Klinger for you.

He loves to drink and steals to pay for his booze and spend nights in cheap hotels, in North Beach, San Francisco. Nisbet takes us to this city, which seems to have turned its back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to fully embrace the tech era. Klinger is old school, he doesn’t even own a mobile phone. Walking down the SF streets, he gets reacquainted with Frankie, a pick-pocketing artist who was just released from prison.

Living in the tech world is Phillip Wong, a genius in programming and designing phone apps. He’s been working night and day for a start-up founded by Marcie, a girl he has a crush on. After working himself into exhaustion, he finally understood that Marcie took advantage of him and he decided to hop off the train.

Klinger and Wong’s worlds collide when Klinger and Frankie pick Phillip as their mark and accost him on the street. Klinger distracts him, Frankie visits his pockets. Problem: Phillip fights back and both he and Frankie are unconscious on the pavement when Klinger scurries for cover.

The next morning, Klinger reads in the paper about the aggression and that one man is dead and the other is in the hospital. Who is dead and who is alive? He gets his answer quickly when Marcie knocks on his hotel door. She has geolocated Phillip’s phone and she wants it bad as it is the key to his latest IT developments.

Klinger can’t say no to Marcie’s money and embarks in a fatal journey.

This is Noir territory. San Francisco is used as an atmospheric background and rain pours down on Klinger, the same kind of rain Chandler describes in Los Angeles. Nisbet takes us on the rainy streets of San Francisco, from Tenderloin to North Beach. We visit shabby bars and decrepit hotels that could not survive COVID-19 health code regulations.

Nisbet has a great sense of humor, he makes fun of this new world we’re in, with phone owning our lives and all the various apps we use. Klinger is out of his depth in this tech-dominated world.

Professional robbers don’t pick coat pockets anymore, Nisbet tells us. Marcie and her kind pick at other people’s brain and pocket the money. But since it’s technology, it’s socially acceptable.

As his name suggests it: Klinger clings to his old ways and to life. He’s always been a drifter and his main goals are to avoid jail and to get enough money for booze, food and a dry place to sleep. He’s not a very pleasant character, probably because he’s lazy, selfish and has no loyalty. I guess we can sympathize with a criminal who lives by his own moral code, provided that he has a code and abides by it.

I was invested in the story and wondered how it would end. I enjoyed Nisbet’s style and the barbs against the tech world that transformed San Francisco into one of the most expensive cities of the USA.

Recommended.

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 25 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

Run River by Joan Didion

November 23, 2014 31 comments

Run River by Joan Didion. 1963. French title: Une saison de nuits.

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

It’s August 1959, it is the first paragraph of Run River and I was hooked. I wanted to know about Everett and Lily and about this shot. She remains quiet, as if she expected it, as if she were in her own world, where the outside world hardly penetrates. I saw Lily as the woman on the painting Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)

Hopper_MORNING_SUN

What happened? Everett shot Ryder Channing by the river, where Channing was to meet his lover, Lily. From the very first chapter we know this murder happens, we know why but what we don’t know is how Everett and Lily are going to react to it. Is Everett going to tell the police it was intentional or are they going to disguise it into an accident? Will Lily help Everett? Will Everett want to be helped?

After that, the novel goes back in time from 1938 and dissects Everett and Lily’s marriage. It is set in Northern California, in a ranch on the Sacramento River, near Sacramento. Everett McClellan has inherited the ranch from his family who comes from the first pioneers in California. We are near Sacramento, it means that the ranch is on the land which belonged to Sutter less than a century ago. So Everett’s great-grandparents were probably part of the locusts I mentioned in my billet about Sutter’s Gold by Cendrars.

Lily Knight comes from the same background. As her father repeatedly points out You come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it. He owns and runs a ranch in the same area, mostly growing fruits. Mr Knight was involved in politics and was even candidate to be the governor of California.

Didion_Run_RiverEverett is freshly graduated from Stanford when he meets Lily again. She’s his little sister Martha’s friend. She’s barely 18 and home after a year at Berkeley. She didn’t like her experience at university and she’s happy to be home, in safe territory. Everett realizes she’s all grown up and they start a relationship. Although he hardly knows how to express his feelings, we gather that he’s crazy in love with her and insists upon marrying as soon as possible. It is as if he wanted to secure her as his before she had a chance to meet someone else and leave him. She’s not sure to love him but prefers to go with the flow than take action. I think that there are two decisions in life that don’t need much thinking: getting married and having a child. No thinking is needed because the decision should be obvious. If the answer is not obviously “yes”, then it’s “no”. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him but after all, he represents the kind of man she should marry. That opens a wide and clear path to a disastrous marriage. Lily and Everett have common values and they both enjoy life on the ranch. Everett can’t imagine doing anything else than growing hops and Lily always pictured herself in that environment, so they do have this in common. However, they have little to say to each other and fail to communicate and create the deep connection that keeps a marriage alive despite the ups and downs.

Except when she was in trouble (when her father died, or when she was pregnant with Knight), she could think of little to say to Everett: she was not, nor was he, a teller of anecdotes or gossip, and sometimes weeks passed without their having what could be called, in even the crudest sense, a conversation. Usually in bed she pretended she was someone else, a stranger, and she supposed tat Everett did too; when she did not pretend she was someone else, she pretended that Everett was.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? It feels like she has given up on him. Everett is there physically and he loves her deeply but he doesn’t manage to reach out to her.

Martha turned off the light again. “Everett thinks the sun rises and sets with you. You should realize that.”

“I realize it.”

“I mean you should realize how simple Everett is.”

Everett may be simple, the problem is that Lily isn’t. On her side, she’s not grounded enough to live well with someone as simple as that. She’s not the perfect rancher’s wife. She’s not much interested in wifely duties even if she plays her role. But that’s a role for her, not her real identity.

Joan Didion describes Lily as a representative of a generation of women who don’t have careers but went to university. She goes straight from her father to her husband, from daughter to wife and mother. She never gets time to be a woman, except maybe during that short time at university. But for Lily, that time was wasted. She’s shy, she comes from a sheltered environment and she’s not ready to integrate into student life. She gets married and doesn’t know who she is and what she wants in life. It doesn’t help their relationship. She’s not a very likeable character, in my opinion. The story is told from her point of view and I would have liked to have Everett’s side of the story. I’m left wondering how things were for him. Since he’s not communicative, even Lily can only speculate. They fail each other but are never able to talk about it openly.

Martha is a disturbing element their marriage. Lily and Everett live on the McClellan ranch, with Mr McClellan senior and Martha until her untimely death. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) Lily and Everett have known each other forever and they both love Martha dearly but I couldn’t help thinking Everett and she had almost an incestuous relationship:

“You might marry Everett,” Martha McClellan had suggested to Lily, once when they were both children, “if I decide not to.” “You aren’t allowed to marry your own brother” Lily had said.

You could think of it as a coincidence but I don’t think that all little girls profess that they’d want to marry their older brother. This passage also shows that Lily and Everett ending up married was a given in their microcosm.

Martha is a bit unbalanced. She’s prone to fits and melancholy. She acts out and has a love-and-hate relationship with Ryder Channing, the man Everett will kill years later. He’s not a rancher, more someone in business, always seeking a new venture. To people from their milieu, he’s not a suitable husband and Martha knows it. She pretends not to be in love with him because she always imagined herself as the wife of a rich rancher. And that he’s not. Her untimely death leaves her ghost hanging over Lily and Everett’s marriage. Lily always knew that deep down her friend never thought her worthy of marrying her brother. Everett has a hard time dealing with his grief. Martha’s shadow is always lurking in the shadows of their lives.

Apart from Lily and Everett’s individual story, Run River is also fantastic analysis of the culture and roots of the Sacramento area. Everett and Lily are the last representatives of the pioneer’s spirit. Ryder Channing represents the new California.

Like Clark McCormack, Channing conveyed the distinct impression that he could live by his wits alone. They were both free agents, adventurers who turned whatever came their way to some advantage; both pleasant, knowledgeable, and in some final way incomprehensible to Everett.

Becoming a rich rancher is not Channing’s idea of success. Like Sutter, the McClellans are rooted on their ranch and have a hard time imagining that their life could change. Martha couldn’t let go of her dream to marry a rancher to marry a man like Channing. They like the old ways and they look down on the Channings around them. Their parents tried to infuse them with the pioneer’s spirit but failed. Everett has no other ambition than to grow hops. Lily can’t grab what she wants out of life, she doesn’t even know what she wants.

Didion was born in Sacramento, she comes from that culture and she observes a turning point in her environment. Lily and Everett’s story is seen as the epilogue of the pioneer’s experience in California. I’ve also read a collection of her essays, L’Amérique and to me she’s the writer of this other California, the rural one, where the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath were headed. I read it not so long after Steinbeck’s novel and I was surprised to read that in 1938 the Okies were still pitching tents at the far end of the ranch, near the main highway south. When did it stop? When did all these people find a job and have a decent home? Of course she describes the landscapes, the city and life near the river. For example, she mentions the intense heat very often. It dictates people’s schedule in the summer, disrupts sleep and impacts their everyday life.

Didion’s style is stunning and sharp. She’s not into overgrown sentences but more into clinical description of events and feelings. Her characters are human but she’s not too complacent with them. Subtle touches of her literary paintbrush create a palpable microcosm. Her style reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. I love Hopper. On his paintings, the details of the scene are precise. The characters look away from us. They’re in their world and they seem a little sad. The scenes leave me a bit unsettled, wondering if something terrible is hovering over these people’s life or speculating about what’s going on in their mind. The subjects are often pensive, physically present but retreated in their thoughts. They don’t give away what they think or who they are. The light on the paintings enforces this impression. We only see the scene as the painter wants us to see it. We only see Lily and Everett’s life as Didion wants us to see it. Hopper and Didion both picture America from the 1920s to the 1950s and it probably explains why I had images of Hopper’s paintings in mind, even if Hopper’s scenes are set on the East coast. See Lily and Everett together in Room in New York (1932)

EDWARD HOPPER

As you have probably guessed by now, this is an excellent novel. It’s a page turner, a subtle description of a relationship and a parallel analysis of a part of California’s history. Didion is rather critical about this novel but I think she should be proud of it. Great news: Run River is her debut novel and it’s not considered to be her best! I can’t wait to read something else by her. I have The Year of Magical Thinking at home and I dread to read it because I know it’s well written and I expect it to be engaging, emotionally.

I leave you with a last quote, one that made me think:

Maybe the most difficult, the most important thing anyone would do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 36 comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

Not a cinch, a Pynch

July 30, 2014 28 comments

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. (1966) French title: Vente à la criée du lot 49.

Pynchon_Lot_49I have all the symptoms of the book-to-be-abandoned illness. What are they? You glance at the book and you think about watching TV. You see the book on the table and you think about the next one you’ll read. You open the book and you don’t remember what you’ve read before. Normal, because you left days between now and the last time you opened it. You can’t remember the characters’ names or who is who. You look at the number of pages to read before you reach the next chapter and until the end. You sigh a lot. All this happened to me with The Crying of Lot 49.

In other words, Pynchon and I weren’t on reading terms. I never managed to enter into the plot, I was constantly distracted by details such as the names of the characters (Oedipa Maas, Mike Fallopian…), losing sight of the plot’s thread (I needed an Ariadne, not an Oedipa). I really tried to be interested in the mystery of the book but I couldn’t. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and run.

Sorry to disappoint Pynchon’s fans, but I couldn’t make it. This writer was on the daunting list and on the daunting list it stays. Please leave comments and tell me what you thought about The Crying of Lot 49 if you have read it. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about Kosztolányi.

Reality show, pre-TV era

February 28, 2014 14 comments

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. 1935 French title: On achève bien les chevaux.

Now I know you can be nice and be a murderer too. Nobody was ever nicer to a girl than I was to Gloria, but there came the time when I shot and killed her. So you see being nice doesn’t mean a thing. …

The man speaking that way is Robert Syverten. He’s in court waiting for the verdict in his trial for murder and he relates what led him there.

We’re in 1935, in California. Robert accidentally meets with Gloria. She’s an aspiring actress and not surprisingly, she’s broke. He’s an aspiring film director, and not surprisingly, he’s broke. They have cinema and poverty in common. They need food and being noticed by someone influent in the film industry. Gloria suggests that they take part in a dance marathon as the organizers provide the participants with free food and there are cinema people in the audience. The rules of the dance marathon are quite simple: you dance non-stop, or at least, you have to keep moving.

One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

As if dancing wasn’t providing the spectators with enough entertainment, derbies are organized to spice it up.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby – but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit – the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are – if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’

Doesn’t it sound awful? Robert describes the marathon, the atmosphere. He explains the little tricks Gloria and he gathered to survive and keep going.

Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the John, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first. I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.

mcCoy_HorsesThe style is very cinematographic something you could expect from a book that was first written as a scenario. I saw the place and the people in my mind. We follow Robert and Gloria along the way, see their interactions with other contestants and some spectators. We have a glimpse at their lives. Most of them are poor fellows who are after the prize. I was surprised to read about “professional” marathon participants. I wondered how desperate someone could be to enrol more than once in that kind of circus. The first time is an error of judgement, the others border to stupidity or desperation.

I found incredible that such shows existed. He talks about the other contestants, the anchor men and the spectators. People paid to see this and it was advertised in newspapers. Companies sponsored couples, giving them clothes and shoes with their logos. In the afterword, it is said that Horace McCoy had worked as a bouncer for such a contest. He knows what he was writing about. I could say I can’t believe such degrading events existed but living in the era of reality shows on TV, I’m perfectly aware that some fellow humans would do anything for fame and money. I still don’t know who I pity most: the participants who are desperate enough to accept this or the spectators who pay to see this show. There’s no end to human voyeurism.

In addition to the vivid picture of the contest, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is also a psychological novel and the relationship between Robert and Gloria is central in the story. The dancers stay inside of the building and after a while, Robert would do anything for a bit of sun. They are well-fed but lack of sleep. As exhaustion gets at the dancers, the atmosphere heathens. As days pass, the relationship between Gloria and Robert deteriorates. She’s moody, impolite and more importantly, she’s gloomy. She wants to die but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. She’s spiteful and keeps moaning about being alive. She’s obnoxious. Her temper weighs on Robert’s patience. She’s the kind of person you don’t want chained to your ankle because you know she’d make you sink and drown. She adds mental fatigue to Robert’s physical exhaustion from the dancing. She wears him down until he relieves her from her life. Out of mercy. They shoot horses, don’t they?

The novel isn’t suspenseful, you know from the beginning what Robert did. It’s worth reading for the description of the dance marathon, the side characters and the ups and downs of the contest. Robert is a good guy who found himself in a wearying situation. Gloria is a curse and despite the warning bells ringing in his head, he sticks to her. I wondered why he didn’t drop out of it and let her fend for herself. I guess he was still hoping for a positive outcome, money or a push for his career. It’s a good example of how we are led to acting out of character or are swept along a path that we didn’t really choose. It’s Great Depression in all its glory, economical and mental.

I have to thank Guy and then Caroline for reviewing this book. Their posts are here and here.

I’m busted

August 10, 2013 9 comments

You Never Know with Women by James Hadley Chase. 1949. French title: Garces de femmes.

Close your eyes and imagine. Azure blue sky. Air 30°C (86°F). Sapphire blue sea at 28°C (82°F). Since I’ve changed from my business suit to my swimsuit, the only thing I’ve been working on is my tan. The only bottom line I’ve worried about is the net result of the above mentioned swimsuit and tan. *contented sigh* Is there any better moment to read a good James Hadley Chase?

Chase_WomenFloyd Jackson just decided to quit his job as a PI in San Luis Beach, California. He’s run out of money; the Lieutenant of the Police Redfern wants him in jail. Floyd is both a PI and a crook. He’s been involved in blackmail in another state and Redfern knows it. Floyd is about to drink goodbye to his office when a man shows up to propose him a job. His name is Gorman and he’s an agent who sells the services of strippers to moneybags for their private parties. One of his girls, Veda Rux was at Linsday Brett’s house the night before. During the party, Brett showed off an antique Cellini dagger, so precious it is kept in a safe. Gorman relates that Veda Rux walked in her sleep, opened the safe, took the dagger but left her compact in the safe. Gorman wants to return the dagger and have the compact back but he doesn’t want to involve the police. He proposes one thousand dollars to Floyd to do the job: enter Brett’s house, open the safe and make the exchange. Floyd sniffs that Gorman’s story is phony but he needs the cash too badly to be picky.

Of course, the job isn’t as simple as it seemed and when Floyd accidentally meets Veda Rux in Gorman’s garden while preparing for the job, her big blue eyes fry his brains and after a searing kiss, his decision making process crashes. Veda Rux is living trouble and Floyd heads there straight on. I won’t tell more about the plot. You’ll find the usual femme fatale, gunshots, punches, whiskey, gambling joints, rotten policemen, millionaires, powerful friends and a well-knitted intrigue.

Floyd narrates the whole story and we know things didn’t turn right for him. When he starts his story, he presents himself as a loser and he’s disappointed with himself. As the plot unravels, he’s confronted to circumstances that push him to question his motives and his set of values. He discovers that his values are stronger than he imagined and that he’s not as disillusioned with life as he thought he was:

I drew a line at murder. Even if no one ever found out, and the betting was that they wouldn’t, I still had to live with myself and although I hadn’t been very fussy the way I had acted in the past, I was changing my ideas now. I was going to walk upstairs instead of down for a change, and see if I liked myself any better for doing it. I thought I should.

He hopes for a better future but can he escape from his past? Will Veda be his redemption or his fall?

You Never Know with Women is a classic of the genre and it was a great read. It’s lighter than No Orchids for Miss Blandish because Floyd is a more likeable character than Slim Grisson who is positively a sick vicious man. Floyd reminded me of the characters in Johnny Cash’s songs from the album At Folsom Prison. Weak men, making the impulsive wrong decisions for a woman or for money.

The title You Never Know With Women comes from Floyd’s assessment of women, which comes early in the book when he first meets Veda:

I’ve been around and I’ve known a lot of women in my time. They’ve given me a lot of fun and a lot of grief. Now women are funny animals. You never know where you are with them—they don’t often know where they are with themselves. It’s no good trying to find out what makes them tick. It just can’t be done. They have more moods than an army of cats have lives, and all you can hope for is to spot the mood you’re after when it turns up and step in quick. Hesitate, and you’re a dead duck, unless you’re one of those guys who likes a slow approach that might get you somewhere in a week or a month or even a year. But that’s not the way I like it. I like it quick and sudden: like a shot in the back.

I leave you with that piece of male philosophy about the other sex.

Human fauna and enchanting landscapes.

September 22, 2010 4 comments

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

All is said in the first paragraph introducing the book. Everything is there : Steinbeck’s urgent and rhythmic prose, his compassion, his genuine interest in these people’s lives. He gives them a voice, reveals their existence to the outside world.

 Who are they ? Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer. Doc, the owner and operator of the Western Biological Laboratory. Dora, the madam who methodically runs the local brother named the Bear Flag. Mack and the boys, former bums who moved in the Palace Flophouse owned by Lee Chong. Mr and Mrs Sam Malloy, who live in a ancient boiler. Henri, the frightened painter. A unique and colourful crowd of unpaired misfits. All are damaged by life. None of them runs really right. Steinbeck observes them with tenderness and sympathy trying to show the better of them, without hiding their flaws. His voice is musical, the images original.

 The book is composed of short chapters, sometimes of only two or three pages. The first ones are the description of the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Then comes a thin plot centred around Mack and the boys who decide to throw a surprise party for Doc, to thank him for all the good he does for the neighbourhood. They decide to collect living frogs for him, who needs them at the laboratory and thus earn money to purchase at Lee Chong’s the items they need for their party. The chapters of their outing in a antique Ford T in Carmel to hunt frogs are marvellous. I have not read Mark Twain, but this is how I imagine Tom Sawyer, especially for the technique used to gather frogs.

Their party is a predictable disaster. After a period of social ostracism following the failure of the party, they decide to throw another one, but this time with the complicity of the whole community. Much love is put in preparing the new party because they are grateful to Doc for his prodigal goodness.

 These people live in the edge of town and on the fringe of society. However, they are their own society and stick together. Doc is a central figure, he alone has a relative wealth, an honourable and stable job. He reads, listens to classical music. He is socially above them but his being eccentric prevents him from living in the city. He works in Cannery Row, shares their lives and is a sort of good Samaritan. Everyone on Cannery Row is indebted to him, for an advice, a medicine, some money. He acts like a self-invented social worker. Is he Steinbeck’s alter ego ? We understand why Steinbeck likes them through Doc’s voice:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. An while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

 These people live with few things and never complain. It is how life is for them. Their respectability is their treasure, although they have their own idea of what “respectability” means. They do not envy the people living in better conditions but imitate their way of life. Mrs Malloy hangs curtains in her boiler-home which has no windows. Mary organizes tea parties with the stray cats wandering around her house because she has no money to throw real ones. All this is pictured with a tender irony.

 Aside from the lively portray of this crowd, Cannery Row is also a tribute to California. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, not very far from Monterey, Carmel and Point Lobos. This area is the wild coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. He depicts the landscape, the sea, the fauna with devotion. Doc’s trip to La Jolla, the beach located between San Diego and Los Angeles is an opportunity to praise the beauty of the panorama.

“The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble”

I felt like being there and walking on this beach too.

 Cannery Row is undoubtedly a remarkable book. Steinbeck’s voice is engaging but not bewitching. It took me time to walk on these streets and not look down on them from a reading tower. However, I enjoyed the descriptions of California and appreciated the generosity Steinbeck put in his attempt to give eternity to this little world. He shows their material poverty and their wealth of heart. All along the novel, their behaviour breathes with dignity. But it lacks the comical touch which makes John Fante a better writer.

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