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Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

Theatre: The Island of Slaves by Pierre de Marivaux

November 1, 2021 19 comments

During a weekend in Paris, I had the opportunity to go the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse and see The Island of Slaves by Marivaux, directed by Didier Long. It is a play written in 1725 and one of the most widely studied in French schools. I couldn’t find any free online translation, so you’ll have to make do with my translation of quotes.

The opening of the play is the outcome of a shipwreck. Iphicrate and his valet Arlequin, Euphrosine and her maid Cléanthis run aground an island. Iphicrate and Euphrosine are two Athenian noblemen. Iphicrate soon understands that they have arrived on The Island of Slaves.

The leader of the island is Trivelin and he soon explains to the four castaways that on this island, new comers switch roles. Masters become servants and vice-versa.

Therefore, Iphicrate becomes Arlequin’s valet and they exchange their names and their clothes to make it more real. The same thing is done between Euphrosine and Cléanthis. The idea is to do a “live-my-life” experiment and force the masters to improve.

The rule of the island is simple and as Trivelin explains what is going to happen to the deposed noblemen.

Nous ne nous vengeons plus de vous, nous vous corrigeons ; ce n’est plus votre vie que nous poursuivons, c’est la barbarie de vos cœurs que nous voulons détruire ; nous vous jetons dans l’esclavage pour vous rendre sensibles aux maux qu’on y éprouve ; nous vous humilions, afin que, nous trouvant superbes, vous vous reprochiez de l’avoir été. Votre esclavage, ou plutôt votre cours d’humanité, dure trois ans, au bout desquels on vous renvoie, si vos maîtres sont contents de vos progrès ; et si vous ne devenez pas meilleurs, nous vous retenons par charité pour les nouveaux malheureux que vous iriez faire encore ailleurs, et par bonté pour vous, nous vous marions avec une de nos citoyennes.We don’t take revenge on you, we fix you. We are after more than your life, we want to destroy the barbary in your hearts. We throw you into slavery to make you aware of all the ills that one feels in these circumstances. We humiliate you for you to see in our arrogance your past behavior and have regrets. Your slavery, or I should say, your class in humanity will last three years. After that, we let you go if your masters are happy with your results. If you don’t improve, we keep you here, out of charity, to prevent you from doing more harm and out of kindness, we marry you to one of our citizens.

Iphicrate and Euphrosine are horrified. After they have taken their servants’ clothes, Trivelin questions Arlequin and Cléanthis to make their masters understand that they were cruel and disrespectful to their servants. While working on the masters, Trivelin also works on the servants and warns them against taking revenge and abusing of their new power.

Souvenez-vous en prenant son nom, mon cher ami, qu’on vous le donne bien moins pour réjouir votre vanité, que pour le corriger de son orgueil.My dear friend, in taking his name, remember that we give it to you more to cure him from his pride than to satisfy your vanity.

The play is a comedy and the scenes are vivid and played brightly but it deals with very serious issues.

It is not acceptable to be cruel to one’s staff. It points out that most of the masters don’t possess the qualities that they require out of their servants. The new slaves want the new masters to pity them but they can’t since their former master didn’t have any empathy for them.

The question of the servants’ behavior, now that they have the power, is important too. Trivelin explains to Arlequin and Cléanthis that they must refrain from being mean to their former masters and from inflicting on them what they had to endure. It’s hard to let go and not take advantage of one’s newly gained power.

Trivelin works on both sides. He drives the confrontation between Iphicrate and Arlequin on one side, Euphrosine and Cléanthis on the other side. He believes that people can be reformed and he will do his best for Iphicrate and Euphrosine to acknowledge their past behavior, truly understand the error of their ways and change them into better masters, better persons and people better fitted to be in power.

The play was written in 1725, 64 years before the French Revolution. It’s easy to see a political message behind it. Those in power shouldn’t humiliate their people because they never know, things might turn around. Imagine translating this in the corporate world with managers switching with their subordinates. It all comes down to a simple question: how to handle power?

In addition, Marivaux tells us that one’s worthiness shouldn’t be linked their status, their name or their position but should rely on their qualities as human being.

Il faut avoir le cœur bon, de la vertu et de la raison ; voilà ce qu’il faut, voilà ce qui est estimable, ce qui distingue, ce qui fait qu’un homme est plus qu’un autres.One must have a good heart, be virtuous and reasonable. This is what is needed, admirable and worthy. This is how a man is better than another.

I couldn’t help noticing the misogynistic tendency of the author. Iphicrate is quicker than Euphrosine to admit he was in the wrong. Arlequin is more willing to forgive his master’s past actions. The men seem to have an honest conversation, a real acceptance of their equal value as humans and reach an agreement for the future. I thought that Iphicrate had learned his lesson and that he’d change his ways when they got back to Athens.

The women seem more devious. Euphrosine is really reluctant to accept her faults. Cléanthis isn’t quite on board with “no retaliation” rule issued by Trivelin. They seem to patch things up as a façade, it’s a means to an end for Euphrosine who wants to go back home but needs Trivelin’s approval for it. Women are more fickle and pettier.

As an audience, we didn’t have the same opinion of the outcome. My husband and son thought that the noblemen were hypocrites who said what Trivelin wanted to hear in order to leave the island and go back home. In their opinion, nothing would change for the servants. I was a bit more optimistic about Iphicrate and Arlequin’s future, they seem genuine in their good resolutions.

An excellent play I highly recommend and for Tom’s pleasure if he reads this, I included the cover of one of those school editions he loves so much.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 28 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

Slobozia by Liliana Lazar – a Romanian tragedy

October 3, 2021 25 comments

Slobozia by Liliana Lazar (2009) Original French title: Terre des Affranchis. Not available in English.

Liliana Lazar is a French writer of Romanian origin. She was born in 1972 in Moldavia and she arrived in France in 1996. She writes in French but her debut novel, Terre des affranchis is set in her native Moldavia, where her father was a forest warden.

The Luca family lives in the village of Slobozia. The village is a small community and life revolves around work and the Sunday mass at the orthodox church run by Părinte Ilie. The village is close to a deep forest that has a malefic lake, named La Fosse aux lions (The Lion’s Den) or La Fosse aux Turcs (The Turk’s Pit). The villagers avoid the lake like the plague as it is known to attack people and it’s haunted by moroï, living dead spirits.

Life isn’t funny in the Luca household. The father Tudor is a brute who beats his wife Ana and his children Victor and Eugenia. Nobody goes too close to the lake but it always protects Victor, even when he becomes a teenage murderer. His mother and sister hide him at the farm.

Meanwhile, Ceausescu comes to power and priests are persecuted. So, when Părinte Ilie discovers that Victor hides at the farm, he doesn’t give him up to the police but he hires him as a copyist to pass on religious texts and feed the resistance against Ceaucescu. Victor is under control during that time.

After Părinte Ilie disappears from Slobozia and is replaced by the fanatic Ion Fătu, Victor goes off track again. Ceausescu falls, another regime replaces him and the country has to atone for its sins.

At some point the novel gets bogged down in the question of good and evil, finding redemption and a terrible vision of criminals turning into heroes in the post-Ceausescu Romania.

The good thing about writing a billet several weeks after finishing the book is that you can see what stayed with you. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Terre des affranchis by Liliana Lazar is “bleak”. I’d even say it’s grim/Grimm because it mixes magic realism, local traditions and superstitions, historical facts and a serial killer. Victor is a really disturbing character and the whole book is creepy. I was engrossed by it anyway and was curious to know how it would end, even if I wasn’t convinced by the ending.

Have a look at the cover of the book as it is visual summary of the atmosphere of the story. It also reminded me of the dreadful Passport by Herta Müller.

For another take on this unusual book, see Bénédicte’s review here. (in French)

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek – Translation tragedy. This book needs an English translator.

September 11, 2021 12 comments

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek (2017) Translation Tragedy: not available in English. Original Franch title: Entre deux mondes.

Our first book for our new Book Club season was Entre deux mondes by Olivier Norek. The title’s literal translation is Between Two Worlds. Olivier Norek is a French crime fiction writer who was a humanitarian worker during the war in Yugoslavia and who is now a police officer is the tough department of Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris. For once, we have a French writer who is neither a journalist nor a teacher or an academic.

Entre deux mondes relates the story of Adam Sirkis, a Syrian who worked undercover in the Syrian police department but fought against Bashar al-Assad. The book starts when one of his accomplices has been caught and is now tortured.

It’s time for Adam to flee the country. He knew it was a risk and he’s ready for it. First, he sends his wife and daughter abroad, to Libya where they will hop on a boat towards the Italian coasts.

Early on, we know Nora and Maya won’t make it. Adam arrives in France in the Calais Jungle. It was a camp for migrants who repeatedly tried to go to UK (Youké, as it is spelled in the book)

Bastien Miller, a police lieutenant freshly transferred to the Calais police force, arrives in Calais at about the same time as Adam. His wife is depressed, his teenage daughter isn’t exactly happy with the move. His colleagues at the station introduce him to the particularities of their job in Calais.

As a murder occurs in the Jungle, Adam and Bastien collaborate.

Entre deux mondes is one of these vital books that make you understand a tricky political and humanitarian situation. Norek manages a tour-de-force with this book. There is no sugarcoating the situation. We encounter various migrants, each with their personal story and nothing is ever black or white.

We see the terrible job of the police force in Calais, caught between doing their duty, trying to protect the Calais population’s lives and at the same time hating the operations against the migrants that they have to do. Norek describes extremely well the controls performed by the police before trucks are allowed through The Channel Tunnel.

We see migrants with their despair and their hope for a better life in UK, where they may have family and often know a bit of the language. We see that they arrive from countries at war with deep scars that nobody sees in Europe because they have seen and lived through things that we cannot imagine. Through a child character, Kilani, we understand how wrong our perception can be, because we have a mental set of references that conditions how we grasp situations.

We see how life is organized in the Jungle, the violence, the closed camp for women to avoid rapes, the trafficking and the powerplays between ethnic groups and people.

There is no naïve optimism in Entre deux mondes. No bad or good people. Only humans who aspire to a better life and other who try to do their best and to not hate themselves for it. Norek shows that there is no obvious solution, no ready-made action plan and how helpless the police and humanitarians feel. Law enforcement characters sound real and the migrants aren’t only victims. Norek demonstrates that difficulties to communicate between people who don’t speak the same language may have dramatic consequences and that it doesn’t help with already complex circumstances.

We were all deeply moved and quite stunned by the book. It brings something to the world. Through a nuanced story, we have a raw picture of the migration Catch 22.

THIS BOOK NEEDS AN ENGLIH TRANSLATOR.

Another book about this topic : Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. This one is available in English.

PS : As a bonus, Olivier Norek has lovely words for libraires and book bloggers in the Acknowledgment section of the book.

I’m thankful for… (…)

Libraires whose daily fight to exist is commendable. When we won’t have independant bookstores anymore, we’ll only have the phone book to read.

Bloggers. For small blogs, big ones, the ones full of emotions, the ones with mistakes, the heartfelt ones, the poetic ones. For bloggers who become more than mere acquaintances, those who write about any kind of authors, those whose walls hold up with TBRs, the ones who tell you when your book is bad and go to book fairs with you. You are the real chroniclers of crime fiction.

Sundborn by Philippe Delerm – about Scandinavian impressionists

August 5, 2021 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Larsson: Köket.NMB 270

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards Beauty by David Foenkinos – does art heal wounds?

August 3, 2021 15 comments

Towards Beauty by David Foenkinos (2018) Original French title: Vers la beauté.

I think I purchased Vers la beauté by David Foenkinos at the Musée d’Orsay bookstore. I was drawn to its cover with the Modigliani picture.

Antoine teaches art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lyon. When the book opens, he has taken a leave of absence, fled from Lyon without telling anyone where he went. He got hired as a museum attendant at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. We don’t know why he left so abruptly, just that he’s desperate and doesn’t want to interact with anybody. He just wants to lick his wounds at the museum and hope that the beauty of the paintings surrounding him will heal him. He’s a specialist of Modigliani and he loves to have silent conversations with the portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne.

Mathilde, the HR manager of the museum is intrigued by her new employee. She guesses that he’s wounded and she wants to understand why an art professor would want a job as a museum attendant. Slowly, she manages to break through Antoine’s defenses and we understand that he was already vulnerable after a painful breakup with his long-term girlfriend when a traumatic event happened in Lyon.

In the second part, we switch to Camille’s life and personal drama. Like Antoine, she sought solace in her painting and her art studies.

I can’t tell more about the characters without spoiling the book. Let’s say that both Antoine and Camille try to find hope and a healing balm in art. It is soothing but, in the end, talking to people, letting them in and accepting their help seems the most efficient way of healing one’s wounds.

Foenkinos writes well, his novel has a certain musicality, built out of a clever balance between melancholy, soft irony and musings. It’s a nice book, one you can read in one sitting. It is set in Paris and Lyon, I enjoyed reading about places I knew.

It’s not available in English, yet. Other books by Foenkinos have been translated, like Delicacy.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

July 18, 2021 25 comments

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier – Highway to guitar heaven and hell

June 16, 2021 9 comments

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. (2016) Not available in English.

I bought Vintage by Grégoire Hervier at the crime fiction bookstore Un Petit Noir but it’s between crime fiction and literary fiction.

Thomas Dupré works in a classic guitar store and workshop in Paris when his boss sends him to Boleskine House in Scotland to deliver an expensive guitar to a rich collector. Lord Winsley has an impressive collection of classic electric guitars and bought Boleskine House because it used to belong to Jimmy Page.

Lord Winsley owns two protypes of the mythic Gibson guitars Flying V and Explorer. He says that the protype of the Gibson Moderne guitar was stolen from his collection and he wants Thomas to find it and bring it back.

It’s supposed to be worth 10 million euros and he promises 10% as a reward. Thomas sees it as means to pay the bills while he tries to become a professional guitarist.

Thomas embarks on a trip that will take him to Sydney, New York and Chicago but mostly on the US Route 61. Memphis, Nashville, the mythic Crossroads at Clarksdale, Greenwood. In search of the Gibson Moderne, he will discover a forgotten (and fictionnal) blues and rock artist, Li Grand Zombi Robertson. He was an outcast and experimented new techniques of recording music and was ahead of his time.

Vintage is an ode to classic rock and blues music, the one that inspired the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and so many artists. It brings us to roots of the blues and what we owe to black music of the Deep South.

There are a lot of explanations about classic guitars, their sound and the musicians who played them. Grégoire Hervier is passionate about music and he conveys his love for rock music to the reader. Even if I don’t play the guitar, I was really interested in the history of these mythic instruments and the music attached to them. I even did a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.

It was an enjoyable road trip for this reader. OK, he was preaching to the choir since I have in mind to travel along the US Route 61 one day, when I won’t travel with kids under 21 who can’t get into bars and listen to live music.

PS: This is my second 20 Books of Summer read. This one was on the list. 😊

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan – excellent

March 31, 2021 15 comments

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (2018) Original French title: Les Loyautés.

Les loyautés.

 

Ce sont les liens invisibles qui nous attachent aux autres –aux morts comme aux vivants—, ce sont des promesses que nous avons murmurées et dont nous ignorons l’écho, des fidélités silencieuses, ce sont des contrats passés le plus souvent avec nous-mêmes, des mots d’ordre admis sans les avoir entendus, des dettes que nous abritons dans les replis de nos mémoires.

Ce sont les lois de l’enfance qui sommeillent à l’intérieur de nos corps, les valeurs au nom desquelles nous nous tenons droits, les fondements qui nous permettent de résister, les principes illisibles qui nous rongent et nous enferment. Nos ailes et nos carcans.

Ce sont les tremplins sur lesquels nos forces se déploient et les tranchées dans lesquelles nous enterrons nos rêves.

Loyalties.

 

They’re invisible ties that bind us to others –to the dead as well as the living. They’re promises we’ve murmured but whose echo we don’t hear, silent fidelities. They’re contracts we make, mostly with ourselves, passwords acknowledged though unheard, debts we harbour in the folds of our memories.

They’re the rules of childhood dormant within our bodies, the values in whose name we stand up straight, the foundations that enable us to resist, the illegible principles that eat away at us and confine us. Our wings and our fetters.

They’re the springboards from which our strength takes flight and the trenches in which we bury our dreams.

This is the foundation of Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan. Through four characters, she will explore this notion of loyalties and how they affect our vision of the events we live and our decision-making process.

Hélène is a science teacher in a Parisian collège (middle school in France) and she has Théo and Mathis in her class. When the book opens, she has noticed that something is wrong with Théo but, based on her own experience, she makes the wrong conclusion. She thinks he’s molested at home.

She’s right in her observation, though. Théo is on a dangerous path. His parents are divorced and he’s split between his loyalty to each parent. Her mother is embittered by the divorce and doesn’t want to know anything about the weeks Théo spends with his father. Théo’s father is unemployed, broke and depressed. He barely makes it out of bed. Théo has promised not to say anything to his paternal grandmother. He remains silent. Théo has discovered that alcohol brings a welcome numbness and experiments drunkenness.

Mathis is Théo’s best friend and they’re each other’s only friend. Mathis drinks with Théo, in a hidden spot at the collège. As Théo’s drinking increases, Mathis feels more and more ill-at-ease with their games. But talking to an adult means betraying his friend.

Cécile is Mathis’s mother. She notices that something is different with Mathis and she doesn’t like Théo. She’ll make a discovery about her husband that will shatter her life and destroy the personality her husband shoed her in.

Delphine de Vigan explores how Hélène and Cécile’s pasts shaped them and still influence who they are and how they react to problems. As they got older, a new web of loyalties added to the one they weaved in childhood. When things go wrong, which loyalty will be the wings and which one will be the fetter?

Théo and Mathis are bound by their loyalties to their parents and to each other.

Hélène turned the loyalty to the frightened little girl she was to a loyalty to her students. She knows something is seriously wrong with Théo, even after the school nurse has examined him and assured her that there was no trace of violence on his body. She still watches him, tries to talk to his mother, shows that she cares, even if her actions are sometimes over-the-top and put her at odds with her hierarchy.

Will Théo get the help he needs? That’s for you to discover in this excellent novella. Delphine de Vigan expertly explores the concept of loyalty through a plausible story.

Highly recommended.

PS : Sorry, I haven’t found out how to insert a book cover with a proper layout with the new WP editor. I’m going to ask for help…

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

March 7, 2021 24 comments

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

A Summer With Proust – “Reading is a friendship”

January 31, 2021 24 comments

A Summer With Proust by Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. (2014) Not available in English. Original French title: Un été avec Proust.

La lecture est une amitié.

(Reading is a friendship)

Marcel Proust

In 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Un amour de Swann by Marcel Proust (Swann’s Way, in English translation), France Inter broadcasted a series of moments entitled A summer with Proust.

Several Proust specialists talked about a side of A la Recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time) In French, this masterpiece’s pet name is La Recherche. The panel was composed of Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. They are teachers, philosophers, writers, essayists, film-makers or historians, all Proust lovers.

Each of them has a section in the book and writes about Proust or something in La Recherche. The topics are various: Time, characters, love, imagination, places, Proust and philosophers and arts. All chapters are structured the same way: a quote, a short introduction, an essay and a longer quote to illustrate the essay. They make Proust easy and the burin of their love for Proust chips away the ivory tower where this monument of literature has been locked into. They demystify Proust, the author of a literary cathedral.

This team of writers knows La Recherche in and out and addresses all readers with maestro. I imagine that the newcomer will want to start reading Proust after this appetizer. The Proust reader will experience a mise en abyme, living the madeleine episode while reading about reading Proust.

I opened this billet with a quote by Proust stating that La lecture est une amitié and this is exactly how I feel about literature in general and Proust in particular. Like the writers of A Summer With Proust, I have a long and standing friendship with La Recherche. Of course, I’m far from being as literate as they are about Proust but reading A Summer With Proust is like receiving a letter full of news from old friends who would live on another continent.

I discovered Proust when I was in high school. I read it slowly, La Recherche is not a book you devour and it required a lot of attention. This slow rhythm mixed with the presence of characters coming in and out of the pages all along the volumes is such that the characters and events stay with you. I started to read it again as an adult. (See my Reading Proust page) and I got reacquainted with a world I had not forgotten.

Like all readers I have experienced this: I read a book I enjoy immensely and a few months later, I don’t really remember it, its plot or its characters. For my memory and my senses, some books are like the rain of a summer storm. I get drenched, I get dry and I move on. Lots of rain and pleasure at the time I read, but most of the flow is flushed from my memory. Storms don’t help with groundwater, moderate rains do.

La Recherche is not a storm, it’s a long, persistent and warm drizzle. It reached my bones, penetrated my memory the first time I read it and settled in me. I developed a familiarity with the characters of La Recherche and I can only compare it to crime fiction series, with their recurring character. When you open a new volume of the series, you’re on familiar grounds, happy to spend some more time with the lead character. When I started A Summer With Proust, I re-connected to Proust’s world immediately, like you do when you meet up with good friends, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time. The reconnection is instantaneous. 

In La Recherche, Proust is the master of all masters. He wrote a book about the power of imagination, about memory and its effect on us. Through the power of his memories, his literary skills and his intelligence, he wrote a masterpiece that dissects the workings of memories and sensorial experiences on our beings and at the same time imprints himself and his lost world in our souls and memories. His experience helps us understand our experience.

Proust left us keys to enter into our memories, analyze our feelings and enjoy little moments in life. For he is also the writer who dissects small moments, sees the beauty in them and tells us that beauty is within our reach if we pay enough attention.

In other words, it’s good to be friends with La Recherche, a book that gives its friendship freely to readers who seek for it.

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 22 comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.

Years

Political Regime

Leader

Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

Hugo’s age

1768-1792

Monarchy.

King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

Not born

1792-1804

First Republic

Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

Born in 1802

1804-1815

Empire

Napoléon

1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

2-13

1815-1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X

 

47-62

13-28

07/1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution

62

28

08/1830-02/1848

July Monarchy

Louis-Philippe

 

62-80

28-46

02/1848

Second Republic

Lamartine

Abolition of slavery

80

46

12/1848-12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President

Dead

46

12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état

Dead

49

1852-1870

Second Empire

Napoléon III

 

Dead

50-68

09/1870

Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic

 

War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories

Dead

68

1871-1885

Third Republic

(1870-1940)

 

1871 Commune de Paris

Dead

69-83

It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

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