Posts Tagged ‘Literary criticism’

How you tell the story by Yasmina Reza

January 17, 2015 30 comments

Comment vous racontez la partie (written and directed) by Yasmina Reza. Not available in English. (yet)

It’s been a while since my last billet about theatre. I’ve seen a play version of Novecento by Alessandro Barrico with André Dussolier and it was marvelous. I’m still not convinced that Barrico is such an extraordinary writer as critics let us think but Dussolier on stage is a delight. The play holds together more by the obvious pleasure Dussolier experiences on stage than by the depth of the text. The fact that he was acompagnied by a jazz pianist didn’t hurt either. I’ve also seen Les aiguilles et l’opium (Needles and Opium) by Robert Lepage, a play that features a brokenhearted man from Quebec, staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. It also displays Cocteau’s impressions about New York at the same time. I’ve rarely seen such a creative and poetic stage direction. Everything was perfect from the music, the lights, the decors bringing us from Paris in 1949 to Paris in 1989. If you ever have a chance to see these plays, go for it.

That brings me to the last one I’ve seen, Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. (How You Tell the Story.) I want to write about this one because it deals with literature, readers, journalists and authors.

Nathalie Oppenheim is a famous writer who won the Germaine Beaumont prize. Her last novel, Le pays des lassitudes (The country of wearinesses) has just been released. She accepted an invitation to participate to the literary Saturdays of the small provincial town of Vilan-en-Volène. She is welcomed by Roland, the manager of the médiathèque (multimedia library) and the meeting will take place at the community centre. Nathalie will be interviewed by Rosanna Ertel-Keval, a famous literary journalist who grew up in Vilan-en-Volène. As always in such circumstances, the mayor of the town attends the meeting and the inevitable subsequent cocktail party.

This is a funny and serious play because the characters are subtly drawn. Nathalie is comparable to many writers you see in salons, signing books and loathing it. Not that they don’t want to meet their public or that they don’t respect them. It’s just that it’s out of their comfort zone. Rosanna is the perfect polished Parisian literary journalist. The actress, Christèle Tual, played the smooth interviewer at perfection. She tries to ask deep and articulate questions while casually name-dropping to remind Nathalie that she’s friendly with major great authors. She speaks with that unctuous tone that literary journalists use on France Inter when they talk with writers. Roland is the perfect literary nerd you meet in mediathèques everywhere. He’s extremely literate, totally overwhelmed with meeting a dream writer and also well anchored in the community, creating bridges between books and people in his town.

Everything in the setting and in the characters rings true. The name of the small town sounds like a country town in Normandy. Germaine Beaumont was a writer and member of the jury of the Prix Femina. Nathalie’s book The country of wearinesses, sounds like a French contemporary novel. (Right in the never-forget-you’re-going-to-die category). Roland and the major look like and sound like characters you meet in small towns. The major is so proud of his community centre; he fought for it for three years to get it financed. Yasmina Reza could make fun of provincial life. She does – we laugh a lot, thanks to the text and an amazing direction – but we laugh with benevolence. In a sense, it is also a tribute to all the Rolands in France who do ground work to bring literature to people.

The serious part of the play is about the relationship of a writer with their books. Nathalie is not comfortable with reading out loud passages of her novel or discussing it. The more Rosanna tries to pull out commentaries about such or such paragraph, the more she dodges the questions and tries to derail her and talk about something else. Nathalie’s idea is that her book should stand by itself, that even if she put something of herself in it, the public shouldn’t imagine that she’s the character of the book. She doesn’t want to overanalyze her work. She’s caught between the need to promote her novel and her deep belief that she shouldn’t be discussing her book. She doesn’t want to desiccate her feelings or what she meant by this or that sentence. She refuses to compare the men of her novel to the men of her life, to assume that her character’s vision of men is hers.

Nathalie doesn’t want to overshadow her work. She’s private, she doesn’t want that her interview about her novel becomes a public shrink session about her issues under the (false) pretense of analyzing the hidden meaning of her work. Rosanna finishes her interview with a reference to Philip Roth. For me it’s not a coincidence. Exit Ghost deals with that question: what becomes of a literary work when its author is not there anymore to rectify wrong interpretations or to correct inaccurate biographies? What happens if the writer’s life appears more interesting than his work? What happens to a literary work if a scandal hits its author’s life?

Rosanna is only doing her job, in appearance. The problem lays in the particularity of being a literary journalist. The material you’re interviewing people about is not their political program for their next campaign or their strategy to develop their company or simply talking about their field of expertise. Literary journalists interview authors about works that come from their imagination. It’s their brain’s child. This is why some of Rosanna’s questions are nosy even if she doesn’t mean to pry. I felt sorry for the poor Nathalie squirming on her chair, trying to pick non-committal answers while not giving away too much. Otherwise, it fuels Rosanna’s questioning as she’s like a dog with a bone once she’s onto something.

The actors were on chairs on the stage, facing us, as if we were the public of Vilan-en-Volène. We were watching the play and participating to the show as the extras playing the attendance. We are also participating in this masquerade, in general, by reading interviews of authors and listening or watching literary shows. What’s our responsibility in this circus?

It’s a brilliant play that helps us readers live for a while in a writer’s shoes. It combines fun and serious and that’s for me the seal of a fantastic playwright.

Barthes for dummies

October 12, 2013 8 comments

Introducing Barthes, a graphic guide by Philip Thody and Piero. 1995.

 Literature is the proof and the assertion of human freedom.

I know this is strange, I’m French and I’m reading a book introducing Barthes in English. It’s not natural, it’s a conscious choice coming from me stumbling upon a graphic guidebook about Barthes at the Tate Modern. I browsed through it, saw no complicated words, liked the drawings and thought “That, my mind can grasp and I’ll finally know why everybody talks about him.”

BarthesIt’s well-done, I think I understood the concepts. Of course, I’m totally unable to assess if it’s faithful to the original thinking of Barthes, if it simplifies too much his works or if it leaves aside relevant part of his texts. Hell, I’ve read this because I knew his name –not from a street plaque, I’ve never encountered a Barthes street— and had heard about him. The only time I tried to read his prose, I couldn’t link the signs with any content. It was filled with too much unknown jargon to be understandable to the philistine I am. Battre en brèche la naturalité du signe doesn’t make much sense to me. Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian –I can invent whatever adjective I want, words are just arbitrary signs— task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work.

So this graphic guide goes through Barthes’ major works in chronological order. I knew some of the titles but had no idea of what they were about. It happens that I’m the Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Barthenism: lots of concepts I partially knew from I don’t know where (Business school probably) and without knowing it came from him. Not that he’d be happy to be associated to anything containing the word “bourgeois” in it.

As it is I agree with a lot of what I’ve read. I don’t believe in Fate, in things being “natural”. Most of what the society wants us to accept as natural is cultural and language is as cultural as anything else. Trying to sell things as natural is a way to keep the society in a stand-still and let the power in the hands of those who already have it. Take women and how convenient it is to talk about maternal instinct and the nature of women that predetermines them to stay at home and nurture kids.

I also agree with the idea of a reader, a spectator setting their mind upon reading a book or watching a play as if it were reality while knowing at the same time that it isn’t. We’ve all experienced this: sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to accept a book as it is. Think of Thomas Hardy. Some readers reproach him for the use of implausible and most convenient coincidences to move the plot forward. When I read Thomas Hardy, I know that it’s implausible but I’ve decided that I’ll believe it while I’m reading the book, just to enjoy the ride. It’s a sort of prerequisite to my reading and I accept them. Just like I accept objectified women in hard-boiled as part of the genre.

Later, Thody explains:

“Barthes’ thinking about literature criticizes the view that an author’s work has to be seen in the context of his life. It rejects any idea that the way to understand a literary work is to find out what the author was consciously trying to do”.

Regular readers of this blog know I don’t really care much about a writer’s biography. I don’t think a reader needs to know about the writer’s life to enjoy and understand a book. I like to approach a novel without prejudice and see it as a stand-alone, apart from the author’s life. The literary worth of a novel is independent of the worth of the writer as a man. Lots of writers would disappear of our shelves if we decided to disregard the works of writers whose life goes against our definition of a good or honourable man. And I think Voyage au bout de la nuit is worth reading despite Céline being anti-Semitic and Emile ou De l’éducation by Rousseau is still widely read even if Rousseau abandoned all his children.

This passage compares Barthes’ view on literature to the traditional technique to study texts and it helped me understand why I hated literature in class. I like Barthes’ vision, a lot. It suits me. And I’ve been doing the exact opposite in class. I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer. This was digging out what the author was consciously trying to do. I was young but I thought it pointless and opposite to what I wanted from literature: pleasure, evasion, knowledge, enlightenment and emotions.

Then, there’s this “The only literature worth writing or reading is the one that is about something. In short, it is content and not form that creates literary value”. It’s a little extreme and I’m convinced that great literature allies content and form. The best plot in the world won’t work for me if it’s poorly written. And a good style isn’t enough. That’s why I struggle with experimental literature that emphasizes more on experiment than on trying to say something. I’m fond of Exercice de style because Queneau doesn’t try to wrap it into what it’s not. I’m less tempted by La disparition by Perec; I can’t help thinking that such a constraint as writing without the letter e had inevitable impact on the quality of the plot. Yet it is tagged as a novel.

Well, this is what interested me in Introducing Barthes. I expected it to be more difficult than that and more distant from my experience as a reader. I hope I didn’t write anything stupid that will make specialists roll their eyes. In my defence, I’ll say that it’s not my line of work, it’s not what I majored in, so be lenient with me and correct me gently in the comment section.

I found this graphic book entertaining and easy to read. It’s aimed at Anglophone readers so it explains many French facts that I knew from my background. For example, if you’re French and you’re reading something about Barthes theories, you don’t need so many details about who Racine was, you already know. It’s like Shakespeare for an Anglophone. And also, there’s one minor slip: the Abbé Pierre fought for downs-and-outs in the winter 1954, not 1952.

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