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Agnes by Peter Stamm

December 14, 2014 24 comments

Agnes by Peter Stamm. 1998 French title: Agnès. Translated by Nicole Roethel.

Preamble: I have read Agnes in French. Sorry for the crash course in French conjugation included in this post but it was relevant to my reading. It also means that I had to translate the quotes into English, so they may not reflect Stamm’s style as well as they should.

Agnes is dead. A story killed her. The only thing I’m left of her is this story. It started nine months ago when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. (my translation) Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte. Sie beginnt an jenem Tag vor neun Monaten, als wir uns in der Chicago Public Library zum ersten Mal trafen. Agnès est morte. Une histoire l’a tuée. Il ne me reste d’elle que cette histoire. Elle commence il y a neuf mois, le jour où nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois dans la bibliothèque municipale de Chicago.

These are the first sentences of Peter Stamm’s novella, Agnes. You’re mentally prepared to read a story with a bad ending.

Stamm_AgnesThe unnamed narrator is Swiss and temporarily living in Chicago. He’s a writer of non-fiction books and his publisher commissioned him to write a book about luxurious train carriages in the USA. He’s in Chicago for research. Agnes is writing her thesis on a scientific theme I’m not able to translate into English. They meet at the Chicago Public Library, go for coffee, smoke together outside the building and gradually fall into a relationship and in love.

The narrator is a lot older than her (at a moment he says he could be her father). He’s writing non-fiction because it pays the bills and has abandoned the idea to write a novel. Agnes encourages him to write a story about them. He starts reluctantly but he’s soon caught in the game. He writes what happened, writes in advance how he would like things to happen. And their lives become muddled and influenced by the story. There’s a sort of twisted pattern where what he writes must happen and eventually guides their actions. It also generates discussions afterwards about Agnes’s and his vision of moments they spent together. It’s a bit like those books boys used to read when I was a teenager: it’s called gamebooks in English but in French it was marketed under livre dont vous êtes le héros. (book in which you are the hero.) You create your own story. That’s what Agnes and the narrator embark on and it’s a dangerous game.

This novella is excellent, well-constructed and I wanted to know how things unravelled and what happened to Agnes.

Peter Stamm’s style sounds formal in French. The translator chose two tenses that are a little dated for contemporary literature in French. For example, Agnes says Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je détestasse cela. (My father was adamant about it, although I hated it). The détestasse is no longer used in French, especially in dialogues. It is a tense called l’imparfait du subjonctif and nobody uses it in spoken language and hardly ever in written language. The ending in asse sounds heavy and pompous now. Although grammatically incorrect, it has been replaced by the subjonctif présent in common language. It means that the sentence would have been Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je déteste cela.

I also noticed the use of a past tense called passé simple in the first and second person plural. It’s not as dated as the imparfait du subjonctif but it’s not so used now for the first and second person plural. In Agnes, I mostly noticed it in descriptions, when the narrator relates his time with Agnes. Again, it sounds heavy and emphatic. For example: Nous louâmes une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous prîmes la direction du sud. (We rented a car and early on Friday morning, we headed South) I’m not sure a contemporary French writer would have written like this. I imagine more a sentence using another past tense, the passé composé : Nous avons loué une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous avons pris la direction du sud.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List has read Agnes in German and he also speaks excellent French. So I twitted him to know if the German text sounded as formal as the French translation. (See his review of Agnes here) He said that Stamm uses the subjunctive more than other German speaking writers. I hope that Caroline drops by and gives us her opinion about that. So I assume that the translation is accurate and that the use of these tenses in French is the best way to give back the flavour of the German prose.

I’ll go further. I also noted down the use of passé antérieur like in this sentence said by Agnes, Même si parfois je l’eus souhaité. (Even if sometimes I wished I did.) Nobody says Je l’eus souhaité anymore. We would say Je l’aurais souhaité. Choosing Je l’eus souhaité gives a sense of narration to the phrase. Indeed, the passé antérieur is not used in spoken language but in written language. It’s as if Agnes was speaking in written language because this scene is destined to be included in their novella. It sort of prepares the transcription of what they’re living into future literature.

It participates to the feeling of aloofness oozed by the narrator and Agnes. He’s always preferred keeping his total freedom than give it up partly to be in a relationship:

Et la liberté avait toujours été pour moi plus importante que le bonheur. Peut-être était-ce cela que mes petites amies successives avaient appelé égoïsme. Freedom had always been more important to me than happiness. Perhaps it was what my successive girlfriends had called selfishness.

Although he claims to be deeply in love with Agnes, he holds himself back. And Agnes does the same about her past and doesn’t share much about herself. Both characters are rather hard to define. In appearance, they don’t have much in common. They’re different in gender, age, nationality, occupation. But they do have the same detachment from their life, as if they were more spectators than actors. I have the impression that they watch themselves live through a glass wall and that the story they write is a literal way to indulge in this tendency. Their love is passionate but cold or reserved. It is difficult to nail, that cold passion. They’re detached but not indifferent.

The narrator’s voice is strong and unique. Stamm recreates Chicago very well and his characters came to life in my head. It would make a great film by Won Kar Wai or by a French director. I leave you with one last quote that left me thinking…

Nous pensons tous vivre dans un seul et même monde. Et pourtant, chacun s’agite dans sa propre tanière, ne regarde ni à droite ni à gauche, et ne fait que défricher sa vie en se coupant le chemin du retour avec les déblais. We think we all live in one and only world. And yet, each of us stirs in their own burrow, never looking left or right and only clears their life path while cutting their way back with debris.

 

Efficient, entertaining but not literary enough

August 8, 2014 13 comments

Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky 2005 French title: Chicago, banlieue sud.

Paretsky_ChicagoFire Sale is the 13th volume of the V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky. The heroin, Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is a private detective who grew up in the poor neighbourhood of the South of Chicago. She has left her past behind but this volume leads her there. It starts with a call from her former basketball coach Mary Ann Farlane. Coach Farlane is fighting cancer and she needs someone to coach the girls basketball team at the highschool Bertha Palmer. Victoria accepts reluctantly, out of respect for the coach who won her a scholarship to college and a ticket out of Chicago South. She’s not keen on walking that memory lane and she doesn’t have a lot of free time for voluntary work between her PI agency, her clients and her boyfriend Morrell who’s slowly recovering from an injury. He took a bullet when he was in Afghanistan as a journalist.

Victoria starts training the girls and slowly gets to know them, especially Celine, Josie and April. She knows the neighborhood and the unwritten social rules to respect. She knows the area, the gangs, all the street culture she needs to lead these girls. One day Josie comes to her after the session and asks her to meet with her mother Rose. She has troubles at work and would need a PI’s advice. Victoria doesn’t have time for a pro bono case on top of the coaching hours but doesn’t want to let Josie down. She meets with Rose who works at Fly the Flag, a company specialized in sewing flags. Rose explains that the workshop has been sabotaged and she worries about the company; they pay well (13$ per hour) and she needs her job to support her family.

Victoria doesn’t have the heart to refuse the case coming from a woman who struggles to raise her four children and grand-daughter. This case will make Victoria renew with her past.

Her personal life mingles with her professional one as Marcena Love, one of Morrell’s oldest journalist friends stays with him to write an article for the Guardian about the hidden face of America. Victoria feels obliged to take Marcena to Chicago South where she can find relevant material for her article. Marcena is gorgeous, confident and an excellent journalist. Victoria feels insecure when she’s with her since Marcena seems to suck all the attention in a room. She also gets involved with some inhabitants of the neighborhood and has a fling with one of Victoria’s former acquaintances who is also April’s married father.

Victoria will investigate the incidents at Fly the Flag and it becomes a serious case when the workshop burns out after an arson, killing its owner Frank Zamar. Meanwhile, Victoria also decides to visit the major companies settled in Chicago South to find sponsors for the basketball team. Her objective is to get enough money to pay a part-time coach for the team and stop her work there. This is how she meets with the Bysen family, owner of the By-Smart empire, a competitor of Wal Mart. It is involved in Chicago South as the main employer but also through the youngest son of the family, Billy, who is in an exchange program between his church and the one led by the charismatic Father Andres in Chicago South. That’s the church where Josie and Rose go.

Efficient is the best adjective to describe Fire Sale. It’s a page turner with enough action to make you keep on reading and it’s not necessary to read the previous volumes to read this one. It’s like a TV series. Sara Paretsky describes the social misery of Chicago South where steel industries used to provide the population with good jobs. Now the biggest employer is By-Smart and its jobs paid $7 per hour. She pictures the difficulties of the poor families and their struggle to support a family with such a low salary. She points out the difficulties of the high school Bertha Palmer, the lack of public money. The basketball team doesn’t have enough balls for training and the gym and locker rooms are not maintained. We find what we expect in poor neighborhoods: high unemployment, violence, parents who struggle to make ends meet, drugs and criminality. What’s different from Europe and therefore for me typically American is health insurance problems, teen pregnancies and Christian activists.

That’s what Sara Paretsky does well and it made me eager to know the ending. The problem is that it’s been done before, and better done. Her style is…efficient but I came to expect more of crime fiction. I’ve read it in French and it sounded flat. It lacks literary luster, a unique view on the events and the neighborhood, inventive sentences. Victoria’s turmoil about her past, her feelings for Morrell and Marcena deserved a deeper exploration. It lacks depth and I missed that additional psychology and style that changes good old crime fiction into literary crime fiction.

Good for beach and public transport but not much more.

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin

January 19, 2014 14 comments

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.

Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit » To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”

Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:

Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi. When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.

Grandin_françaisIsn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.

Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.

Grandin_EnglishShe needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.

Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.

She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.

An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:

D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté. By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.

I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.

I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.

On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:

Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite. The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.

Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?

All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.

The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!

I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.

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