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Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

February 9, 2011 14 comments

Un homme à distance by Katherine Pancol. (152 pages) Not translated in English. The title means “A man at a distance”

Un homme à distance is a disconcerting little book. It’s an epistolary novel between Kay Bartholdi and Jonathan Shields. Kay is a bookseller in Fécamp, Normandy. Jonathan is American, travelling across France to write a tourist guide. He stopped in Fécamp, left a note and bank notes at Kay’s book-store. The note includes the addresses of the hotels he will stay in during his tour of France. The money is for Kay to send him books. They start a correspondence, talking about the books they like. They bounce on each other’s references. Jonathan guesses right. Like the reader, Kay is disconcerted.  

Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres?Est-ce que les livres sont le moyen de tout se dire, même l’inavoué, le plus terrible secret?Si vous m’aviez parlé de livres qui m’indiffèrent, si je vous avais annoncé des livres qui vous laissent froids, auriez-vous pensé à moi comme si vous saviez tout de moi?

Et pourquoi me suis-je livrée à vous aussi facilement?

Pourquoi suis-je allée vers vous en aveugle confiance?

Parce que j’avançais sur des livres, complices muets, farfadets malicieux?

Parce que vous me répondiez en glissant d’autres volumes sous vos pas?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?Are books a way to tell everything, even the unspoken, the most terrible secret?If you had talked about books that are indifferent to me, if I had chosen books that left you cold, would you have thought of me as if you knew everything about me?

And why did I open to you so easily?

Why did I go to you with blind trust?

Because I was walking on books, silent accomplices, impish elves?

Because your answers would slip other volumes under my steps?

 

 A thought-provoking question, indeed and I don’t have the answer.

Unlike my Guernsey marshmallow friends from the other day, this doesn’t turn into ridiculous mawkishness. And I was surprised by the denouement.

I’m embarrassed with this post because writing more about the text would reveal important pieces of the plot. It’s a book about books but it is more than that. It’s a book about love, but it’s also more than that. It’s a book about how book lovers can find help, comfort, shelter in novels.

It’s a book about the freedom brought by solitude. He has a bird name. She has the name of the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Each of them has their idea of what freedom is. In French, Un homme à distance means at the same time a man who is far away and a man to keep at a distance. And Jonathan is both.  

I enjoyed this one-evening read and I thank Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for recommending it to me. I’m curious about the books Kay and Jonathan talk about, especially The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, since I really loved Letters to a Young Poet last year.

I wish Katherine Pancol had made a moderate use of exclamation marks, but apart from that, her style is flowing. It improved in her following novels, Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles and La Valse lente des tortues. In the latter, there are references to Romain Gary. In this one, Jonathan is American but has spent his childhood in Nice, where his father was a consul. My one-track-Gary mind saw here a discreet allusion to Gary’s own adolescence in Nice. And as he was the consul of France in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help thinking about him. Incurable me.

Something else. I always have a lot of fun reading clichés about CPAs. They are always dull and shy little men with glasses. They supposedly love nothing else than numbers and usually have no imagination. Whenever a writer wants a boring character, you can be sure he’s an accountant. No writer can imagine a CPA as a thirty-something woman who loves books. Life is more imaginative that literature, I suppose.

PS : For readers able to read in French, it is easy to read.

Crocodiles, turtles and then squirrels

May 27, 2010 4 comments

The Turtles’ Slow Walz follows The Crocodiles’ Yellow Eyes, which I read last year with pleasure. I was not eager to read the following, though. As I was to spend a whole week-end with half-strangers in a chalet, I thought I’d rather not take Swann’s Way with me. I would not have the quiet environment required to fully appreciate Proust’s lacy prose and follow Swann through his winding passion for Odette. Moreover, I didn’t want to draw attention on me with such a difficult author and look like a boring highbrow. The Turtles’ Slow Walz seemed a safe choice.

 It’s a novel about the life of a family and their relatives. The main character is Josephine, a widower of 43, with two teenage daughters, Hortense and Zoe. Her sister, Iris, is married to Philippe and has one son, Alexandre. Josephine is a history researcher, a specialist of the 12th century. At the beginning of the book, she just moved in a fancy apartment in Paris, after she earned much money from the success of her first historical novel. The story jumps from one character’s life to another, always describing the events through their eyes.

Josephine is insecure and struggles to discover who she really is. She trips on flat floors and gets her feeling all muddled up. Her mind has the small but beautiful melody of Verlaine’s Arriettes or Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The title of the novel is a reference to her: she likes to muse, walks slowly and has a protective shell.

 The good surprise for me was a Romain Gary’s quote as a foreword. Katherine Pancol must be a fan as several details are linked to him. Philippe reads Clair de Femme, one of Gary’s novels and several first names are connected to Romain Gary : Josephine’s friend’s son is named Gary, Iris & Philippe’s son is named Alexandre, as Romain Gary’s son, a dead baby is named Romain. Now that I think of it, in The Crocodiles’ Yellow Eyes, Iris and Josephine create the same kind of literary mystification as Romain Gary did in 1974. Indeed, when he wrote The Life Before Us, he didn’t want people to know he wrote it, so his cousin, Paul Pavlowitch played the role of the author, under the name of Emile Ajar. He talked on TV shows, gave interviews. The truth was discovered only after Gary died. Josephine would be Romain Gary and Iris Paul Pavlowitch.

 Katherine Pancol is not a great writer but she has a lovely style. Her sentences are like all kinds of water, from sparkling, light and airy with bubbles to tumultuous flood. Its rhythm leads the reader through the story, she uses pretty images. She has an agreeable voice. Her novel is a strange mix of genres: romance for Josephine’s love life, chick-lit for Hortense’s London fashion school, fantasy for voodoo references and crime story as a serial killer is on the loose in Josephine’s neighbourhood. That last part was a weakness in the book; I guessed at once who the killer was and who would get murdered in Josephine’s circle.

 This book brought me what I expected, a nice distraction and I would recommend it for that. I saw in a book store that the third and apparently last volume, Central Park’s Squirrels Are Sad on Mondays, has just been published.

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