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The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

September 30, 2013 25 comments

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. 1956 I don’t think it’s been translated into French.

London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.

It’s quite rare that I write a billet about a book more than a month after finishing it. It’s interesting to see what remains of it after several weeks.

Sam SelvonSam Selvon was from Trinidad and lived in London in the 1950s. The Lonely Londoners describes the life of immigrants from the West Indies. It starts with Moses who goes to Waterloo Station to welcome a fellow Trinidadian who’s arriving to London. His name is Henry Oliver and Moses quickly renames him Sir Galahad. The same day, Tolroy is also at the station, waiting for his mother’s arrival from Jamaica and he’s filled with dismay when he realises she didn’t come alone, but also took FIVE other family members along with her. Follows a funny scene at the station where the mother plays on the guilt chord, is interviewed by a journalist while Tolroy wonders how everybody will fit in his lodgings.

Henry’s arrival is the opportunity for Selvon to introduce us to the life of the Trinidadian immigrant. He mentions the difficulty to adjust to the cold, the lurking racism and the constant articles about the flow of immigrants from the West Indies in the papers. Moses regrets that so many of them arrive in London, building up a community visible enough to catch attention from the media. I loved the part where he describes how easier it  becomes to find food from his home country in London, as Jamaicans gather in a neighbourhood. Shopkeepers adjust, they have in store what they customers want.

Selvon depicts a vivid picture of the daily lives of immigrants in Notting Hill. Moses stays away from trouble but his life never really moves on. He doesn’t spare any money and doesn’t manage to climb any social ladder. He lives in a shabby room, cooks there, sleeps there and shares it with fellow countrymen until they can live on their own. He’s a stable figure of his community. He explains British social rules to Galahad and guides him in through paperwork at the labour office to find a job. Here’s Moses mentioning how job agencies classify unemployed people according to their origin and colour of skin:

‘Now, on all the records of the boys, you will see a mark on the top in red ink. J-A Col. That mean you from Jamaica and you black. So that put clerks in the know right away, you see. Suppose a vacancy come and they want to send a fellar, first they will find out if the firm want coloured fellars before they send you. That save a lot of time and bother, you see. In the beginning it cause a lot of trouble when fellars went saying that they come from the labour office and the people send them away saying it ain’t have no vacancy. They don’t tell you outright they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled.’

Selvon portrays several colourful characters, fete among immigrants (I didn’t know that this French word had migrated into English). Moses and the others barely survive. Some never really work but float on the surface living off other people’s help. Selvon also describes Sundays in Hyde Park, men dressing up to chat up women, nights at the theatre. The lingering feeling is that they all fight against loneliness and homesickness as best they can.

Moses belongs to early immigrants. He’s been in London for ten years when Galahad arrives. He knows he will probably never go back to Trinidad but still entertains the fantasy. He likes to evoke his old life and to hear from people he knew there. He reminded me of Maghrebi workers in France in the 1960s. They lived in dreadful conditions and had the toughest jobs. Some are retired now and still live in their old and decrepit “foyers Sonacotra”, in other words, special council flats built for migrants.

The Lonely Londoners is also an ode to London, the city of the immigrants’ dreams:

The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Picadilly Circus is my play-ground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.

Living there is still a dream, no matter how tough their circumstances are. Selvon describes streets, parks, shops and places. It seems that belonging to this place is a privilege that overcomes any hardship. They don’t have an American dream, they have a London dream. Galahad is happy to be in places he had only heard of before. In a way, NW by Zadie Smith is a child of Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. They make you feel the city.

Selvon’s tenderness for London doesn’t prevent him from being realistic. He mentions that the environment is sometimes hostile. He also doesn’t give a rosy picture of his people. Some are on survival mode which means that honesty isn’t as crucial as it should be. That’s something Hamsun describes very well in Hunger. When life gets too hard, honesty and moral principles cost too much to be followed.

The Lonely Londoners is written in vernacular English (is it the right adjective?) and it wasn’t always easy for me to read it. See: ‘Yes, yes,’ Galahad say, so relieved to see Moses that he putting his hands in his shoulders like they is old pals. Phew! I needed more attention than usual to keep on reading. It gave an authenticity to the text though; how could have Moses spoken perfect Oxford English? He would have sounded all wrong. I also had trouble with a ten-page passage where there was no punctuation at all. (p92, if someone has the same edition as me). It’s nice stream of consciousness but it’s hard to follow, at least for me.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its style, its picture of these immigrants’ way-of-life and of working class London in the 1950s. Selvon shows their neighbourhood from the inside and gives a voice and a face to people we hardly hear of. I don’t know if a Moroccan or Tunisian writer has written such a book about North African immigrants in France. I hope so, it could be worth reading.

Thank you Max for recommending this book when I mentioned I wanted to read something set in London.

Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook

September 20, 2013 21 comments

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. 1941 French title: Hangover Square

Set in London in 1939 and more precisely in Earl’s Court, Hangover Square describes the obsessive, consuming and destructive passion that George Harvey Bone has for the attractive Netta Longdon. But, let me introduce you to George:

He was thirty-four, and had a tall, strong, beefy, ungainly figure. He had a fresh, red complexion and a small moustache. His eyes were big and blue and sad and slightly bloodshot with beer and smoke. He looked as though he had been to an inferior public school and would be pleased to sell you a second-hand car.

This short description conveys information about his features and his character. George is weak and reminds me of Charles Bovary. It must be the beefy look –literally bovin in French— and the apparent slowness of mind. Contrary to Charles, George suffers from mental illness; sometimes his mind snaps and he starts living in an alternate reality. Hamilton mentions schizophrenia. George was born like that, is used to living with his funny moods and has never seen a doctor for this. He’s known and mocked for his stupid moods and people around him wait for him to come out of his mindless state.

Poor George is incapacitated by strokes of schizophrenia and he’s intoxicated to the point of stupor by alcohol and his special brand of dope, Netta Longdon. Alcoholic states have been abundantly described in literature and I don’t think I need to add anything to it. Plus, you may have experienced drunkenness yourself. However, you’ve mostly likely not experienced schizophrenia and this is how Patrick Hamilton pictures it for us:

A silent film without music – he could have found no better way of describing the weird world in which he now moved. He looked at passing objects and people, but they had no colour, vivacity, meaning – he was mentally deaf to them. They moved like automatons, without motive, without volition of their own. He could hear what they said, he could understand their words, he could answer them, even; but he did this automatically, without having to think of what they had said or what he was saying in return.

Hamilton has a fascinating way to describe George’s inner mind when his brain is off-balance. When he’s in his other mood, he has an idée fixe; he must kill Netta Longdon and then go and live in the country, in Maidenhead. The book alternates between chapters when George is “normal” and chapters when George is “gone”. Each time he’s “gone”, he goes further in the preparation of the murder. And the reader wonders: will Netta die?

George’s mind is assaulted by two illnesses: his schizophrenia enhanced by his heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages and his desperate and unrequited love for Netta Longdon which results in the said heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. He’s in a vicious circle and his life spirals out of control. He can’t fight the attraction and loves her and hates her at the same time for the hold she has on him:

Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.

And Netta is what Guy would call a nasty piece of work. She’s lethal as a syringe full of heroin. She’s lovely outside and rotten to the core inside. George is aware of her lack of qualities, of her brutal use of her beauty. She’s a bully. She’s a beauty and uses her charms as a weapon. But she’s not charming. Netta is not a courtesan who flatters, entertains and bewitches a man with agreeable manners and stunning looks. Netta is a black witch who oozes fatal attraction and George is caught is her spell like a butterfly to a light:

Then it happened. At one moment she was just something he was talking to and looking at; at the next she was something of which he was physically sensible by some means other than that of sight or sound: she was sending out a ray, a wave, from herself, which seemed to affect his whole being, to go all through him like a faint vibration. It was as though she were a small amateur wireless station, and he alone was tuned in to her and listening. And the message she was tapping out was, of course, her loveliness.

George is helpless. He despises himself for his weakness and loathes her for her power as soon as he’s far enough from her range of attraction. She’s stupid. Some people are stupid and nice; some are stupid and mean. Netta falls into that category. She uses George for his money and at the same time can’t bear his presence. She has no conscience, no moral compass, no compassion. Hamilton says she’s like a fish:

Her thoughts, however, resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering slowly sideways without fully conscious motivation.

I don’t know how it is in English, but in French, if someone compares your brain to that of a goldfish, it’s more than derogatory. She acts like an animal, taking what she needs without thinking about other people’s feelings or the consequences. George has no chance to fight the attraction and he knows it. That’s why killing Netta is the only solution he sees but only voices when his mind has snapped. George seems stupid with his strange moods but he still has quite a good grasp of political matters and people. He sees people and events with clarity. He can’t defend himself because he lacks confidence. He’s always been treated as inferior by teachers, family and comrades. I felt compassion for George because he’s lucid about the lethal attraction and can’t help it. I also felt compassion for him because he’s lonely, isolated by his illness which he doesn’t recognise as an illness.

Hamilton_HangoverApart from Netta and George, Hangover Square is full of colourful second characters, London being one of them. Netta’s friends aren’t better than her and Peter is particularly repulsive. He’s a fascist and George loathes him for his privileged relationship with Netta and despises him for his political involvement with fascist activists. With Peter and Netta, Hamilton evokes the fascist current in England in 1939 and the country on the eve of WWII. I liked Johnnie, George’s only friend. He’s ambiguous and kept me wondering if his friendship for George was sincere or not. I mentioned London as a character. The novel is set in Earl’s Court but it also describes other neighbourhoods and part of the action takes place in Brighton. Hamilton describes the city and its pubs where George spends most of his time. I wonder if George’s desire to kill Netta Longdon and go and live in the country isn’t a metaphor for the city. Is the corrupted and insensitive Netta a metaphor for London and its failings while the good and slow George represents the countryside? London is the place where George is currently unhappy; the countryside is where he feels peaceful and happy.

Hangover Square is a multi-layered book. The toxic relationship or lack of relationship between Netta and George is interesting in itself. The description of George’s mental illness, its effects on his consciousness is brilliantly done; it could be a book in itself. Then there’s the ambiance in London just before the wart starts, the divisions among the citizens and the fascist movements which have touched part of the population. All this is enveloped in the global atmosphere of the city, its streets, its pubs, its boarding houses. I’ve read that Hamilton drank heavily, used to live in a boarding house and lived in London. This is probably why his descriptions sound so right.

Hamilton’s style is excellent, sharp and spot on. Few words bring the reader where he wants them and nail a character. See what he writes about Netta She looked like a Byron beauty, but she was a fish. or about George He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded. I can imagine him pretty well, his loneliness showing through his postures, his looks, the way he carries himself. I liked George, despite everything. I pitied him and the idea that someone like Netta could have such a hold on somebody else’s life made me shudder. I think this book will stay with me for its characters and the beauty of its language.

One last thing: many, many thanks to Max, from Pechorin’s Journal for recommending this fine piece of literature. I owe you one.

Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 44 comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

August 6, 2013 15 comments

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 2003. French title: Sept mers et treize rivières. 

Nazneen was a premature baby born in 1967 in rural Bangladesh; her survival was left to Fate. Deliberately, her mother decided not to take action to save her but let Fate decide if her baby should survive or not. This part is very important because it’s the crux of Nazneen’s education.

What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.

Ali_Brick_LaneNazneen was born in a village and she and her sister Hasina hardly receive any education. In 1985, when she’s eighteen, Nazneen is sent to London to marry Chanu, a Bangladeshi emigrant. Chanu is in his forties, he’s an old man to her. She moves with him in an apartment in Tower Hamlets, near Brick Lane, London. Brick Lane relates Nazneen’s story, her slow adaptation to her new life and her new environment. She doesn’t speak English, her only contacts are with other Bengladeshi women in the apartment complex. At the beginning, Chanu works for the council as a clerk and is dissatisfied with his job. He’s educated and hopes for a promotion that never comes.

Brick Lane is a four dimensional book. The first dimension is the slow opening of Nazneen’s mind to her right to individuality. The second dimension is Chanu’s personal journey. The third one is the evolution of the neighbourhood, the Bengladeshi community and the children of the first immigrants. The last one is Hasina’s life, back in Bangladesh.

As I said before, Nazneen is a simple woman. She barely knows how to read and write, she has no opening on the world, she’s a devout. She’s passive because that’s how she was educated. She’s a woman therefore she was born to serve her husband. She cooks, cleans the apartment, cuts Chanu’s hair, nails and corn. All this is normal to her. She had no preparation for what she would find in London. She tries to adjust to her new environment as best she can. Things puzzle her:

This woman was poor and fat. To Nazneen it was unfathomable. In Bangladesh it was no more possible to be both poor and fat than to be rich and starving.

She’s introduced to respectable women of her community. Her life really shifts when her children grow up enough to bring the outside world at home and when she starts sewing at home and earning money. The whole novel is told through Nazneen’s eyes. She has difficulties to process her thoughts. The prose of the early chapters reflects her struggle. She doesn’t know how to think by herself but her being left alone in her apartment in a foreign country forces her to. Progressively, she opens her mind, lets herself assess her husband, the community around her. She dares to act, to go against fate and her ingrained acceptance of others choosing her life for her.

Her husband Chanu likes to read and to learn but isn’t really a man of action. He’s discontent because he wants to succeed. He thinks his education is his passport to success and he wants to make it in the English world. For example, he doesn’t want to rule a successful business aimed at his community, he wants to be a success among the whites.

But he was slighted. By customers, by suppliers, by superiors and inferiors. He worked hard for respect but he could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished.

When you read Chanu speaking, although he’s bombastic, you realise he is actually cultured. Nazneen is too ignorant to realise her husband is cultured. His political analysis of the consequences of 9/11 is good. He has a good knowledge of the history of India and Great Britain. He reads intelligent papers, loves poetry. In a way, doing what he does for a job, he’s wasting his intelligence and he resents it.

Nazneen and Chanu’s mind follow adverse courses. While Nazneen slowly learns that she has a value as a person, that she can think, act and take care of herself, Chanu realises his ambitions will not be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the neighbourhood undergoes through changes. The parents want their children to be Bengladeshi but they are English instead. Chanu tries to teach Tagore to his daughters, to infuse pride of their culture into them. It only leads to conflicts. Children crave for normality. They were born in England, they are in the English school system and they want to be English. At the same time, rampant racism doesn’t help and some have trouble building their identity. The years go by and drugs appear in the building. Foreign imams open prayer groups and preach about oppressed Muslims in the world. They teach about the jihad. The youth are stuck between their parents’ culture and their country’s culture.

To be honest, I almost abandoned Brick Lane along the way but I was interested enough to push a little farther and finish it. I ended up liking it a lot and the flaws that almost made me give up on it appeared to be strengths. There are interesting passages about immigration. Chanu has a negative analysis of the immigrant’s situation:

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

However, other Bengladeshis see their circumstances differently:

 ‘Why do you make it so complicated?’ said the doctor’s wife. ‘Assimilation this, alienation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that’s no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!’

Where is the truth? Somewhere in the middle. If I lived in London, I’d cook French meals and I’d want my children to speak French. As I come from a Western country, everybody would find this natural or that this bi-cultural environment is a chance for my children. If I came from Bangladesh, would people find it normal? Don’t we think in the West that our culture is superior to theirs and isn’t it why we don’t understand why immigrants don’t drop it to embrace ours? Chanu points out that when it comes to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, we don’t hear about Tagore, we hear about floods and misery. Sadly, it’s true.

Ali_sept_mersI think Monica Ali wrote a great novel. Being in Nazneen’s head is not for everyone as she can be annoying when you look at her with your Western eyes. I tried to detach myself from my cultural background to see things through her eyes. It is hard for her to allow her mind to wander out of the path her education programed her to follow. I thought it was a fair portrait of a woman’s life. Chanu is a good man. He’s much older than Nazneen but he’s kind, respectful, sober and faithful. Monica Ali could have thrown her heroin in a terrible marriage. She didn’t, it would have been too obvious. Chanu is nuanced and she didn’t make a tragedy of this arranged marriage. I appreciated that she didn’t go for the easy dramatic path.

The life of the neighbourhood seeps through Nazneen’s thoughts and it is clear that she doesn’t see or understand everything that’s going on. Monica Ali describes the fights between gangs, the search of identity for young men. For example, Karim, the young man Nazneen knows, idealises Bangladesh but he’s never been there. He sees her as the perfect Bengladeshi wife. For him, religion is a way to find his roots. He changes from sweat pants to Panjabi clothes and grows a beard. What Monica Ali describes applies to French banlieues as well for young French people coming from the North African immigration. The only difference is that they’ve all been to the country their parents or grand-parents came from. It’s not far; you can drive and take the boat to visit for the holidays, even if you don’t have much money. It’s different story to plan a trip from London to Dhaka.

Through Chanu, Monica Ali also points out the behaviour of white people. She remains factual but I think she nails it. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to picture the abuses inside the Bengladeshi community. How women gossip and spy on each other. How some take advantage of poorer members of the community and lend money at usurer rates. How people back home beg them to send money. Every time I wondered if Nazneen would have been happier in her home country, a letter from her sister Hasina popped in the book, reminding me that her life could have been much worse. Hasina is beaten by the husband she married out of love. Her life becomes a constant struggle when she leaves him and tries to survive by herself.

I also enjoyed this book because it is well written. Monica Ali’s prose adapts to Nazneen’s thought process. Her writing is more assured as Nazneen broadens her mind. She also has a knack for descriptions, like this:

DR AZAD HAD the misfortune of youthful hair. It was hard not to smile at his thick and shiny pelt, especially as the years had not bypassed his face. They had, in fact, trampled it. His cheeks hung slack as ancient breasts. His nose, once so neatly upturned, appeared to crumble at the end. And the puffy skin around his eyes was fit to burst.

Brick Lane has a message but it’s not black and white. Immigration is a complex issue on a human being level (Nazneen, Chanu) and on a collective level (how to “integrate” these migrants) Monica Ali shows both sides, doesn’t make accusations or portray victims of an unjust system. She states facts. Chanu’s unsuccessful life is both due to his lack of personal skills and to his origins. Thinking he wasn’t slighted because he was an immigrant would be hiding from the truth, thinking it was the only reason is equally wrong.

I value books that make me think and this one did. For another take about this book, here’s the review published in the Guardian.

PS: I hate the title of the French translation and I hate the cover of the paperback edition. It’s not faithful to the book.

Not even good enough for a beach read

August 4, 2013 28 comments

Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson 2006. French title : Le diable vit à Notting Hill.

I don’t know what woke me up – I drank no alcohol last night, I observed the carb curfew, I had only one espresso during the day, plus I did a Pilates class and hours of gardening in the fresh air – but I’m definitely awake now. Wide awake.

Johnson_Notting_HellThis is the first paragraph of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson. I know what you’re thinking: Why on earth did she pick this book? Well, I didn’t, I got it for my birthday. It’s not a book I would have chosen for myself but I decided to give it a go. We’re now in the South of France, for a couple of weeks of R&R by the sea. I’m exhausted by the last weeks at the office and I thought this would be the perfect time to read Notting Hell. My brain cells are frozen by fatigue and it sounded smart to not to waste good books on the first couple of days of reading at the beach. That’s why I went for this book that didn’t require many brain cells. Actually, it didn’t require brain cells at all and the few I had left threw a tantrum in my skull, urging me to abandon the book. I followed their lead after 80 pages of silliness, not with a capital S, that wouldn’t be big enough, but with a huge initial letter S like in the book of Kells.

The story is about rich families living around a private square in Notting Hill. They’re rich and they have problems. Every sentence mentions a brand of some sort, there are so many of them that I wondered if their marketing VPs paid the “writer” on their advertising budget. I have little patience with that kind of setting. The characters are thin, they have obvious professions; the husbands are bankers, the wives are a free-lance journalist specialised in deep articles such as the pros and cons of being flat-chested or, of course, stay-at-home mothers. Heaven forbid that the women have a job in a scientific field. Their main concern is who sleeps with whom around the square. They observe each other and gossip. Zzzzzzzzz.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some snobbish intellectual who only raves about Proust. I enjoy light reads too. But light doesn’t mean stupid. Now, my beach read is You Never Know With Women by James Hadley Chase (THANKS GUY) and I’m having a great time.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about the excellent Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Nothing beats English politeness

July 20, 2013 9 comments

‘We want diner,’ said Adam, ‘and a room for the night.’
‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’  said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

I just love this dialogue from Vile Bodied by Evelyn Waugh. You’ll never find anything like this in a French novel.

More of Waugh in an upcoming billet.

What if John Self and Lou Ford had a merger?

March 25, 2012 23 comments

Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton

Matt, I know all this. You’ve told me countless times, but as I’ve said before, and as plenty of other people have said too, including Mum – she was always saying it – you’re not the easiest person to live with. You’re obsessive, you get paranoid, you can have a horrible temper, made worse by drink, half the time you live in a fantasy world, and you’re a snob, too. You don’t help yourself, Matt. It’s weird but you also have this horrible, macabre side to you – part of your overactive imagination? I don’t know. You should have done something that required a little more imagination. You should have been an artist. But you do tend to think the worst of every situation, and then you try to make everyone else think the same. It’s scary. I’m not surprised it didn’t work out with Fran.’

I wanted to read Get Me Out Of Here after reading Guy’s review. This was a shattering book. The more I progressed in my reading the more I was screaming internally Get Me (Emma) out of here (Matt’s head). As you can guess, it’s a first person narrative. Matt Freeman is a totally unreliable character. He’s a Londoner who lives in a complex designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, silly admirers of Le Corbusier, responsible for hideous post-war suburbs in France. Matt got on my nerves right from the first pages when he makes a fuss about his spectacles in the optician’s shop. He’s obnoxious, obsessed with luxury brands and treats awfully the poor sales clerk. He supposedly works as an independent ???, maybe marketer, I never quite figured out what his profession was supposed to be. He’s obsessed with leaving for North Korea, which is in itself a proof of his insanity. He despises other people and feels superior to everyone:

I couldn’t put up with this for a moment longer. It wasn’t just public transport that was insufferable, it was the public, too.

Nice man, right?

At the beginning, he sounds picky but rather normal. The more you read, the more you discover his true self, the more you want to run away from him. The novel unravels his talent for lies, his violent relationships with women, his total lack of interest for others. Here is Matt, describing his supposed best friend Roger:

She and Roger had two hideous, red-haired children. One, in theory, was my godson. I still hadn’t got his christening present engraved. In fact I couldn’t remember where I’d put it, or what it was. He was possibly six or seven. I had no idea when his birthday was.

He has trouble remembering his sister-in-law’s name and of course doesn’t know the names and ages of his nephews. He only thinks of himself, never questions his perceptions and always sees other people’s reactions in a twisted way.

Why this post title? John Self is the hero of Money by Martin Amis. Matt is also obsessed with money, wealthy people and also fosters unrealistic career prospects. He’s attracted to the same kind of women. Lou Ford is the hero of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Matt is as psycho and disturbing as Lou, they are both highly despicable characters.

Sutton is excellent on the plot side and the style side. The book slowly reveals evidences of Matt’s craziness and the style is cutthroat but dark funny:

This was a chunk of Westminster barely touched since the days of Orwell. It made Bobbie’s flimsy abode look like a designer penthouse. Just being at Suze’s made me feel down and out.

The only thing I regret is all that brand quoting, I missed some references, my interest in fashion being null. I supposed they were all expensive clothes and equipment. I’ve been to London only once and I remembered enough of the tube to follow Matt in his underground wanderings but it’s true this book must have another flavor for a Londoner than for a foreigner.

Henry Sutton is an excellent writer but I didn’t have a nice moment reading his book. It took me a lot of time, being in Matt’s head was really uncomfortable, claustrophobic. In a way, Sutton is too good a writer, Matt invaded my consciousness to the point I had to put the book down and rest. After this, I needed light and funny.

PS: Another review by Kevin here

Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London: the review

July 26, 2011 17 comments

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. 1984.

“The heart has its reasons that reason ignores.” Blaise Pascal.

Vinnie Miner is a fifty-four year old, petite, gray haired, plain, single literature teacher. She teaches Children’s Literature in Corinth University, New England. She just got a foundation grant to spend six months in London to study the folk-rhymes of school children and compare them to their American equivalents. When the book opens, she’s settling on her plane to London and prepares for her flight. Vinnie has an imaginary dog named Fido which represents her self-pity.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad.

Vinnie Miner is Anglophile and she can’t wait staying in London once more. She feels better when she’s abroad because Fido is under good check and she can leave behind her usual self. Chuck Mumpson, an average American from Tulsa sits by her. He’s on a fifteen days tour in Europe. He breaks into her privacy and start talking to her. She responds with as short phrases as politeness allows and here is how Vinnie feels about the intruder:

She wonders why citizens of the United States who have nothing in common and will never see one another again feel it necessary to exchange such information. It can only clog up their brain cells with useless data, and is moreover often invidious, tending to estrange casual acquaintances.[…] In the British Isles, on the other hand, the anonymity of travelers is preserved. If strangers who find themselves sharing a railway compartment converse, it will be on topics of general interest, and usually without revealing their origin, destination, occupation, or name.

Meanwhile, we get to know Fred Turner. He’s  a 29, heartbreakingly handsome, married literature teacher in Corinth University. He just won a grant to spend six months in London and write a book about John Gay. Fred’s wife Ruth was supposed to accompany him but they had a terrible fight just before his departure and she stayed behind. (I won’t say what she did to upset him, it’s too funny). So he feels terrible and is not so excited about living in London.

On her side, Vinnie Miner feels good. She’s in London, in a British flat, among her British friends, working in British libraries. Unlike Vinnie’s, Fred’s first weeks in London are miserable. He misses his wife and tries to cope with being single again. His wages aren’t high enough for him to enjoy London now that he lacks Ruth’s income. He hates the British Library. He pays regular visits to American friends who hate London too and mopes with them. They try to convince him that Ruth wasn’t the right woman for him. They mean to help him but Fred realises that “When things have gone wrong it is no consolation to hear that your friends expected it all along and could have told you so if they hadn’t been so polite.”

When Vinnie realises that Fred is unwell, she invites him to a party she’s giving for her English friends. There he meets Rosemary, a British actress and they soon start an affair. Rosemary is older than him, beautiful, fairy, unpredictable and unbalanced. On the other side, Vinnie runs into Chuck again and starts a friendship with him, a bit against her will. As you imagine,  Foreign Affair will be the interlaced adventures of Fred and Vinnie in England and I won’t tell more about the plot.

Fred and Vinnie are like a pair of scissors. They are bound by the Literature Department in Corinth University. As they cut through their life in London, some events bring them together, some separate them. Vinnie feels responsible for Fred in spite of her. As a fellow American and as a more experienced colleague, she finds herself paying attention to him whereas she wouldn’t have at home. She is led by the hand of duty, pride – He represents Corinth University, he must behave – and sympathy too. He could be her son; I thought she acted like a mother figure sometimes.

Alison Lurie explores several topics through her tale. The most important one I think is the impact of beauty on people’s lives. Vinnie is described as plain and Fred as beautiful. Vinnie resents her lack of beauty whereas Fred doesn’t consciously take advantage of it but sometimes thinks it doesn’t make his life easier. In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq states:

Sans la beauté, la jeune fille est malheureuse, car elle perd toute chance d’être aimée. Personne à vrai dire ne s’en moque ni ne la traite avec cruauté mais elle est comme transparente, aucun regard n’accompagne ses pas. Chacun se sent gêné en sa présence et préfère l’ignorer. Without beauty, the young girl is miserable because she loses any chance to be loved. Nobody mocks her or treats her with cruelty but she is transparent, no look follows her footsteps. Everyone feels ill at ease in her presence and would rather ignore her.

Somehow, that’s what happened to Vinnie and she never recovered from it. Her childhood ended when she became aware of it. She deducted that she’s too plain to be loved and has built walls around her to protect her from actually truly loving anyone. She expects to be dumped so she doesn’t let anyone the opportunity to do it and leaves first. Her life is full of soothing rituals supposed to bring her safety but her orderly life is artificial. She fills her life with activities but doesn’t really live it.

Fred is too handsome for his own good. He is propositioned all the time and can’t be as friendly with his students as he’d wish to. Indeed, as he’s young and attractive, he ends up being chased by grapes of female students. He dresses seriously not to look too young. His beauty prevents him from enjoying his job as much as he could. When his wife leaves him, he’s lost. He never had to work to win a woman’s attention. To be honest, I felt little empathy for the trials and tribulations of Fred’s love life and he sounded a little too spoiled. I thought his voice was less convincing than Vinnie’s. Even when he feels pretty low, he has an ingrained self confidence and optimism which help him recover. He’s young, handsome, and successful; his present miseries can only end soon. Really I can’t pity beautiful people.

I loved Vinnie Miner despite her flaws and her apparent coldness. She has a very disillusioned vision of her possibilities in life:

As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks, and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirements for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy, and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life.

I felt her fragility under her protective shell and I watched her improve as her wall of self preservation crumbles. At 54, Vinnie has decided she’s old now. Too old to dye her hair and dress nicely. Too old for sex. Too old for love and relationships. Too old for any life outside work and work related activities such as lectures, art and theatre. She has a terribly self depreciating vision of herself. Alison Lurie is a teacher of Children’s Literature in Cornell University. She was 58 when Foreign Affairs was published and was separated from her husband at the time. Is her analysis of over-50 “love market” a first hand experience?

I felt tenderness for Chuck. He’s the caricature of the American middleman from the South. He’s huge, wears cowboy outfits with a leather tie, a plastic raincoat, speaks with a terrible accent and sprinkles his phrases with grammar mistakes. In other words, he’s the exact opposite to Vinnie’s acquaintances. But he’s also a decent man who disregards appearances. He’s not impressed by people’s wealth or by London’s glorious past.

In Chuck’s opinion, London isn’t much of a place. He doesn’t mind the weather: “Nah. I like the variety. Back home it’s the same goddamn thing every day. And if you don’t water, the earth dries up hard as rock. When I first got here I couldn’t get over how damn green England is, like one of those travel posters.” On the other hand, he complains, the beds in his hotel are lumpy and the supply of hot water limited. English food tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant. The traffic is nuts, everybody driving on the wrong side of the road; and he has a hell of a time understanding the natives, who talk English real funny. Vinnie is about to correct his linguistic error rather irritably and suggest that it is in fact we Americans who talk funny, when their tea arrives, creating a diversion.

Apart from Vinnie and Fred’s love lives and how beauty impacted their self-confidence, this novel is also about cultural differences between American and English upper classes. Here is Fred’s first steps in British parties:

She had asked him where he was living; that was a good sign, he had thought, not having yet learnt that in England such inquiries don’t precede or hint at an invitation, but rather serve to determine social class; they are the equivalent of the American question “What do you do?”

People are all friendliness and politeness but it is mere hypocrisy. The friendliness disappears at the first wind of change. I’m not British and I don’t like to generalize but I have to admit it reminded me of Nick’s misadventures (The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst) and of the way Linley treats and hurts Barbara Havers in What came before he shot her by Elizabeth George.

There are also interesting thoughts about the influence of novels on people’s vision of love relationships. I’ll try to post about it later, if I can find the time. It echoes Notes on a Love Story by Philip Langeskov that I reviewed in The Best British Short Stories 2011. It had already left me thinking.

I’m fond of books in university settings, they sound so exotic to me. Usually they’re about literature teachers; I don’t recall reading one with a science teacher, except Rebecca Connell. Are they like their writers? The only thing that bothered me in this book was the parallels Fred could make between his life and John Gay’s literature. I’ve never read John Gay – and I dare think I’m not the only one – I felt confused or left apart as if the character and its author were whispering secrets I couldn’t hear. This was a minor flaw, though. I loved this book; it made me stay up late on a working night to finish it. It had been a long time since my last Alison Lurie and I had forgotten how sensitive, subtle and lucid she can be.  

PS : Summer quizz: now try to reconcile the characters mentioned in the review with the one on the drawing in the teaser post!

 

Like a rolling stone

May 25, 2011 25 comments

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. 1936. (230p)

Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

I wanted to read Down and Out in Paris and London after reading Lisa’s review. I discovered in the introduction that I was actually reading an English version reconstituted from the first English version published and the French translation approved by Orwell himself. Indeed, the first English edition was bowdlerized (tut tut tut: no swear words allowed!) whereas the French one was not. So here I am, French native, reading a book in English and discovering that reading the French version would have been easier and better. How ironic. Things became even more ironic when I came across foot notes added to the text and translated back from the French edition. That’s what happens when you buy books online. *Sigh*

Apart from this slight inconvenience, I really liked this book.

In the first part, Orwell is in Paris, working as a plongeur (the one who washes dishes) in a fancy hotel. Before finding this job, he had started to experience poverty and hunger, both appalling and weakening body and mind:

You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. (…)

You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.

He details the rush in the hotel when it is breakfast, lunch or diner time. He works from “seven in the morning till quarter past nine a night”. He gives a vivid picture of the heat (110°F), the dirt, the noise. In the hotel, hierarchy is as important as in the army. The plongeur is on the lowest part of the scale. Orwell relates how people insult each other in their hurry but also how the hierarchy disappears during breaks, allowing friendly discussions. His work is stupid but requires attention. He is exhausted at the end of the day, sleep is a delight. I was disgusted when he recounts the dirtiness of the hotel cuisines:

Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered – a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.

He relates the dirt, the insults in the kitchen and the luxury and politeness to clients, just on the other side of a slim door. Some issues seemed still accurate or brought comparisons to mind.

Despite the dreadful working conditions, employees of the hotel take pride in what they do. The management is not as inhuman as it seems at first sight. After reading Underground Time and Company, I noticed that these were terrible working conditions and thankfully laws were passed to change them. But they were hard for bodies but not soul-destroying. However, they have no life besides work and the week-end drinks.

Nothing is quite real to him [plongeur] but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.

In France, we have a phrase to sum up life in Paris: “Métro, boulot, dodo”. (literally: Métro, work, beddy-byes). Some things have not changed, I see.  

Orwell also tries to analyse the situation of what we call now poor workers, ie people who have a job but with such a low income that they only survive. He questions the necessity to maintain such jobs as plongeur as fancy restaurants are not indispensable to the society and states that:

This instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

Now it is safer to keep them too entertained to think. The president of TF1 (French TV channel) once said in an interview “The spectator’s brain must be available. Our programs aim at entertaining them, unwind them to prepare them between two commercials” It was a scandal inFrance. But then, he had just said aloud what all these upper-classes representatives think about the working class. 

This part is also enjoyable for the description of life in Paris. Orwell portrays all kinds of colourful characters from work and his local bistro. It is full of French phrases such as « Tu t’es bien saoulé la gueule, pas vrai ? » or « foutre le camp ». And I loved the neologism « we were tutoied », sure I’m going to use this one. All the French words gave a real flavour of Paris but I wonder how an English speaking reader perceives it. 

Then Orwell crosses the channel and lives as a tramp in London and my reading became less fluent with phrases as these:

A can o’ hot water wid some bloody oatmeal at de bottom; dat’s skilly. De skilly spikes is always de worst.

It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ to dem bloody spikes.

Now I knew what the English speaking reader had felt in the first part with the French words… 

The part in England is different as Orwell lived as a tramp. He describes the spikes (workhouses) and their terrible rules: no smoking, no keeping money, no privacy, no beds. Tramps are treated like animals. They wash in terrible conditions and can hardly sleep because of the cold, the promiscuity, the absence of beds. It stinks.

Orwell denounces the absurdity of laws against tramps: they can’t sleep twice in a month in the same spike, so they keep moving from one spike to another. Sometimes, tramps are locked in a room for the whole day and boredom is awful. It’s inefficient because tramps spend their time looking for a shelter for the night instead of looking for a job.

A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps on the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so.

As begging is against the law, they sell matches to be considered as sellers. The police would catch them if they sit on the ground.  

Orwell depicts different characters; the most likable one is Bozo the screever – the pavement artist. Despite his living condition, he keeps his humanity alive.

He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.

How remarquable. He fights against poverty. He doesn’t want poverty to invade his brain and destroy his dignity.

There is also a fascinating chapter about the evolution of London’s slang and how bloody became middle-class and fuck had to replace it in the working-class.

 I could write pages about Down and Out in Paris and London. Why is this book so good? Because Orwell is compassionate and tolerant. Because he gave a voice to these second-class citizens and immigrants. Because he never lost his sense of humour.  

There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.

 Poor Orwell, if he heard of Dan Browns and Marc Levis, he would be devastated.

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