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Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook – What happens in The Yabba must stay in The Yabba

December 12, 2018 8 comments

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961) French title: Cinq matins de trop.

Welcome to our next stop on my crime fiction reading journey. We’re with John Grant, a schoolteacher who has been appointed in the remote tiny town of Tiboonda in the Australian outback. He hates it there and he still has another year to serve but now it’s the end of the school year and he’s on his way back to civilisation, which means Sydney to him.

The schoolteacher knew that somewhere not far out in the shimmering haze was the state border, marked by a broken fence, and that further out in the heat was the silent centre of Australia, the Dead Heart. He looked through the windows almost with pleasure, because tonight he would be on his way to Bundanyabba; tomorrow morning he would board an aircraft; and tomorrow night he would be in Sydney, and on Sunday he would swim in the sea. For the schoolteacher was a coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west.

He has to stay in the mining town of Bundanyabba for a night to catch his flight. It’s hot as hell in this place in the summer. After checking in in his hotel room, he decides to have a beer in a pub before going to bed. He starts chatting with a policeman who takes him to the local two-up gambling game. Grant is fascinated by the show, the bets, the atmosphere. He leaves unscathed but is caught by the gambling bug later in the night. He goes back and of course, he loses all his money. He’s now stranded in Bundanyabba, or as the locals call it, The Yabba.

What the loss meant to him was so grievous in import that he could not think about it. His mind had a small tight knot at the back, and around it whirled the destructive realisation of what he had done, but until that knot unravelled, he need not think too deeply about what was to happen now. He went back to the hotel, stripped off his clothes, fell naked on to the bed, and stared, hot-eyed, at the ceiling until suddenly he fell asleep with the light still burning.

The morning after, he wanders in town, enters another pub and befriends with Hynes, the director of the local mine. Hynes takes him home to diner with his wife, adult daughter and friends Dick and Joe. They drink themselves into a stupor and Grant wakes up in a shack which is the home of the local Doc. Grant barely recovers sobriety before drinking again and being dragged into a nightly kangaroo hunt.

How will he get out his predicament?

No wonder Wake in Fright has become a classic. Cook draws the tale of a man who’s in a two-years hiatus from his life as he has to serve his two years in the Australian outback and he loathes it. He’s bored, ill-prepared for the climate and so ready to have a break from it all during the Christmas six weeks holidays.

He’s puzzled by the bush and its people. All the people he meets in The Yabba love it there, something he can’t understand. The heat turns his brain into mush, thirst leads to drinking too much beer and his willpower is quickly eroded and crumbles. The poor, candid and virgin John Grant is taken in a storm of drinking and sex topped up by a hallucinating hunting trip in the wild.

Cook draws a convincing picture of life in the outback. He brings the reader there, especially in the descriptions of the landscape and wild life. Like here when Grant is in a truck on his way to the hunting trip:

Out over the desert plains, behind the roar and grind of the ancient engines, the dreary words and trite tunes of modern America caused the dingoes to cock their ears in wonder, and deepened measurably the sadness that permeates the outback of Australia.

I imagine them all in the truck’s cabin, listening to the only radio available and disturbing the peace of the wildlife with their loud Western attitude. Meanwhile, nature goes on with its natural course and gives us humans a magnificent show.

Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.

Wake in Fright has a strong sense of place, The Yabba is almost a character, playing a decisive role in the days Grant will spend in this dreary place. The book is tagged as psychological thriller, probably because Grant falls into the sick hands of the Hynes clique. Moral compasses are not aligned between Sydney and The Yabba. Propriety is not the same and Grant is a stranger with no clue of the code of conduct he should abide by.

Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy. What the hell?

I’m not so sure about the psychological thriller tag. Sure, Grant falls victim to a group of sickos. But he had opportunities to opt out of this destructive journey. He knew he should not go back to the gambling game. Yet he did. He could have looked for Crawford and ask for help at the police station. Yet he didn’t. Cook doesn’t let us see Grant as a victim, except of his own weakness as he writes:

He almost smiled at the enormous absurdity of it all. But what was so fantastic was that there had been no element of necessity about it all. It was as though he had deliberately set about destroying himself; and yet one thing had seemed to lead to the next.

Wake in Fright is a hell of a ride with a man unconsciously led to self-destruction in the hard environment of a small outback town in Australia. In a way, Grant is a bit like Meursault, the main character of L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Both have their mind altered by heat and live moments of their lives as in a daze, not willing to engage with life, probably unable to find a proper meaning to it all.

Kenneth cooks us a stunning and memorable story of a man left in a harsh environment whose codes he fails to understand. A man not sure enough of who he is and where he stands in the world to resist the destructive forces of The Yabba.

Highly recommended.

Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 18 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

June 27, 2015 14 comments

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. 2009. French title: Long week-end. (Translated by Françoise Adelstain)

For June our Book Club was reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. Our narrator is Henry, he’s older now and he comes back to the Labor Day week-end that changed his life when he was 13.

Henry lives with his mother in Holton Mills, New Hampshire and this is how he describes his family:

IT WAS JUST THE TWO OF US, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie’s son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.

Maynard_FrenchHis mother is rather depressed, I don’t know if it’s the right medical tag but she works from home, hates going out of the house. She barely manages to take care of her son. Henry sees his father every week-end but he doesn’t feel welcome in his new family. Henry doesn’t like sports and his father would like him to play baseball, something Henry doesn’t like. He feels like Richard is a better suited son for his father. So he endures the dreadful weekly diners and grows up with a mother who’s different from other moms.

That Labor Day, they went to the mall to buy some new clothes because school starts in a few days. While they’re in a supermarket, Frank comes to them and asks him to invite him to their home for the week-end. Frank has just escaped from prison. Well, he was in jail, had appendicitis and jumped out of the window of the hospital. Adele takes him in.

Then the unforeseeable happens. Frank is a sweet man and he makes himself at home. He fixes the house, cooks, plays ball with Henry. He and Adele fall in love in front of Henry. And witnessing this upsets him. He’s already troubled by puberty. He thinks about sex all the time. Being around his mother and Frank in a closed space makes him uncomfortable.

Yet, in a sense, he’s happy about it.

Your mother and I thought we’d take a little walk on the beach, son, Frank says to me. And the thought occurs to me that here is one of the best parts about his showing up. I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance.

He’s never seen his mother that way and he really likes Frank. He’s happy for her but has to learn to share her, to leave room for a man. He’s been everything for her for too long.

At the same time, Henry’s forced to see that his mother is a woman, that she and Frank do what’s on his mind all the time. He’s obliged to acknowledge his mother’s sexuality while his in under construction.

And then, there’s the power to know that he can end their love story whenever he wants. He just needs to give a call to the police…

Maynard_EnglishI enjoyed reading Labor Day but was disappointed by its Hollywood ending. I would have liked it nastier. Here, what could have been a really twisted tale becomes rather tame. I had read half of it when Jacqui published her review of Agostino by Alberto Moravia. On paper, the stories have similarities. However, I’m sure they differ in their tone and that Moravia has added that little wicked turn I’m missing here. Well, I’ll see that in a few months when we read Agostino for our Book Club.

That said, Joyce Maynard writes well. I wasn’t an adolescent boy but I suspect that what she describes is accurate. Adele is a rather unusual woman, broken by a past that the book reveals, just as Frank. Henry’s voice is strong and rings true. He reveals his mother and Frank’s backgrounds and stories with a lot of calm and humanity. Touch by touch, their portraits come to life. Maynard creates a strong atmosphere around this novel and the reader feels part of Henry’s world. She pictures the cracks life has inflicted on her characters’ souls.

Labor Day was made into a film by Jason Reitman in 2013. Kate Winslet was Adele, Josh Brolin was Frank and Gattlin Griffith was Henry. Why not. I haven’t seen it but without Maynard’s prose, the story becomes rather ordinary. It has salt under her writer’s pen; I’m not sure it translates well on screen. Have you seen it?

PS : I prefer the French cover. Less corny. Is there a secret competition among American publishers to reward the one who comes with the corniest cover? Sometimes I wonder.

So I’ve seen Far From the Madding Crowd

June 8, 2015 18 comments

Given my fondness for Hardy’s novels, I had to see the 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, screenplay by David Nicholls, with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as Mr Boldwood, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy and Juno Temple as Fanny Robin. Good cast, according to me.

To be honest, about 75% of the audience in the cinema was female and the men who were there seemed to be fulfilling some conjugal duty. My husband was at home, seeing Sense and Sensibility years ago left a permanent scar on him and a new nickname for Hugh Grant, Indeed, which is all he seemed to utter in Ang Lee’s film version of the book. But back to Far From the Madding Crowd.

Télérama rated it average but the journalist seemed to know nothing about Thomas Hardy’s work. Otherwise she wouldn’t have had the idea to compare Far From the Madding Crowd to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wonder that the first was less dramatic and bleak than the latest. No kidding.

Hardy_film_farI remembered the book well, I read it last year and the film is faithful to the novel. The main events are there, except for the two important scenes of the beginning, the one when Gabriel Oak sees Bathsheba Everdene for the first time and finds her proud and the one when she saves his life. I wonder why the director cut those off as they are part of the foundation of the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel.

The story and characters struck me again as very Austenian, more that The Hand of Ethelberta. I developed this idea in my billet about the novel. And thanks to the film, I now know how to pronounce Bathsheba. 🙂 Watching the film and hearing the characters names out-loud gave them a new meaning. I guess Gabriel Oak has a name that suits his temper: he’s solid and has the patience of an angel. Mr Boldwood is not made of the same wood, his obsession with Bathsheba makes him bold. And Sergeant Troy is like a Trojan horse in Bathsheba’s ordered life.

The film is well done but a bit too polished to my taste. Although there are wonderful landscapes –it really, really makes you want to visit England—, I thought the director overused meaningful eye contacts between characters and morning light. It is centered on the plot which is normal for a film but it lacks the salt of Hardy’s writing: the humour, the tenderness for life in Wessex, the peasants’ accent and all the little thoughts about life and human nature that he drops everywhere along the way. I guess it’s hard to capture on film.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good version, equivalent to reading an abridged version of the book. Not as good as reading the original but close enough for you not to feel betrayed by the choice of actors or unforgivable alterations of the plot.

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 25 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

November 1, 2014 26 comments

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960. French title: Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur.

book_club_2After The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. I swear I’m not trying to read every book on the usual syllabus in American high schools. Actually, Harper Lee’s only novel is our Book Club choice for October. (Yes, I’m late with the billet but work took over last week). I have read the French translation by Isabelle Stoïanov, revised by Isabelle Hausser in 2005. She also wrote the afterword. I could probably read the original but I already had a copy in French. So be it.

A small paragraph about the well-known plot: we’re in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch raises his two children Scout and Jem on his own after his wife died. He’s an attorney in Maycomb and when a white woman accuses Tom Robinson of rape, he’s the lawyer appointed by the court. Tom Robinson is a Black man; Atticus will put himself on the side of law and examine the facts with objectivity. His involvement in the case –although involuntary—will stir strong reactions in the community and affect his family.

Lee_To_KillHarper Lee could have written an openly militant book. The novel was published in 1960, during the fight for civil rights in the Deep South. It could have become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 20th century. She avoids this with a child narrator. Even though Scout relates the events years after they occurred (although Atticus is still alive when she tells the story so she’s not an old lady herself), she relates them with the eyes of a child recapturing her vision of the events. In appearance, it’s not a pamphlet but we know with Candide and Persian Letters that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m not overly fond of child narrators, which is why Life Before Us is not my favorite Gary even if it’s an excellent piece of literature and if Momo’s voice is quite unique. It took me time to adjust to Scout’s voice and I was only hooked when the case actually started. Scout’s introduction to her everyday life helped understanding the cultural background of the Maycomb county, of Atticus’s unorthodox parenting and of the special relationship between Scout, Jem, their black governess Calpurnia and their neighbours.

Through Scout’s eyes, we see Maycomb as it is, without judgment. It’s her town, her life. It’s all she knows and it’s her normality. With hindsight, we see a small town prejudiced against African Americans, a deeply religious community, a county that has not totally healed from the Civil War and a town with economic difficulties. Coming along with small town life, we learn about family reputations, leaders of opinion and we realize that men of good aren’t heard if what they have to say disrupts the community’s balance. Everyone has their place and it can’t change.

Of course the trial doesn’t go well for Tom Robinson. It opens the Pandora box of feelings and opinions everybody knew but hid for the sake of living together in peace. To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity, in human rights but it’s not seen in black-and-white terms. We see that Atticus was appointed by the judge on purpose: he knew Atticus would give Tom a fair defense. It’s the judge’s way to support Tom. There is no strong demonstration of support to Atticus’s choices but steady and strong backup in the wings. The men of good choose indirect action, refuse to resort to violence and help each other. That’s the honorable way to drive change, Harper Lee seems to say. Scout understands the undercurrents and her position reminded me of Momo’s comment is Life Before Us:

Il m’a expliqué en souriant que rien n’est blanc ou noir et que le blanc, c’est souvent le noir qui se cache et le noir, c’est parfois le blanc qui s’est fait avoir. Smiling, he explained that nothing is only black or only white and that the white is often the black in hiding and that the black is sometimes the white that has been conned.

I think that’s what Scout learnt too. Harper Lee manages to get her book out of the State-of-the-Nation box to the coming-of-age box. Scout’s perception of the world changed after these events and they were probably even more striking to the thirteen-year-old Jem. Her narration is charming, funny and candid. It alleviates the tension created by the terrible events the novel depicts.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vivid description of life in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It pictures the flowers, birds and surrounding nature. We experience the stifling summer heat that slows human activities and make people sleep outside in their hammocks. We discover the various religious groups and the local customs and dishes. Harper Lee doesn’t embellish things, though. It’s a poor county and there is no space for individual achievements outside the ones the community expects from you. If you want to live differently, you need to leave. Conservatism is almost a religion in itself.

Names are also interesting. Atticus and Calpurnia are Roman names. They rang a bell and I researched them. Guess what: Atticus was Cicero’s correspondent and another Atticus was a philosopher and Calpurnia was Julius Caesar’s last wife. Harper Lee chose to name her lawyer after a philosopher and a litterateur. The Black governess has the name of a great noble Roman family. And Atticus’s sister who settles in his home as a general in a colony and appoints herself as the children’s mother figure is named…Alexandra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

My only regret is that I would have wanted to know more about Scout’s family. Why do the children call their father Atticus and not Dad? How did the mother die? What will become of them after the events? Will Jem become a lawyer too?

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece for the same reasons as The Grapes of Wrath is one. It mixes beautifully thoughts about the society it is set in with the personal destiny of the characters. Both book raise relevant questions. Both are too complex and subtle to be enjoyed in class without the input of an excellent teacher. To grasp at 16 the desperation the Joad family had to feel or to realize what it meant for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson in this State, at that time and in such a small town, you need a middle man to put the context into perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird is also an ode to childhood, to innocent games and beliefs, to scratches on the knees, t-shirts stained with mud and imaginary worlds. Highly recommended.

PS: If you’re in high school and landed here in search of ideas for an essay about this novel, please note that I’m French and that nobody in the English speaking world knows anything about Romain Gary, except the few aficionados following this blog. Just to point out that using Momo’s wisdom will not impress your teacher.

Driver, the drifter

October 28, 2014 13 comments

Drive by James Sallis (2005) French title: Drive. 

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

Pretty evocative, isn’t it? It’s the first paragraph of Drive by James Sallis. Driver –we’ll never know his real name—is a stunt driver in Hollywood. A good one. He also uses his driving talents to participate in robberies as a getaway driver. His life seems to suit him just fine until one robbery turns wrong and he’s embarked in a pursuit that threatens his life.

Although the crime plot has its importance, the novel is a lot more than that. The plot is a backbone to give the book a skeleton while I felt that the real purpose was Driver himself. Who is he? He lives a lonely life working to satisfy basic needs, like food and shelter. He doesn’t want to have roots or to be involved with anyone on a personal level. He moves from one place to the other, meets his employers in bars and has mostly acquaintances, not friends. He keeps to himself, protects his reputation and reads the books of the films he’s hired for.

As Sallis reveals his past, we realise that Driver has always lived on the shady side of life.

Up till the time Driver got his growth about twelve, he was small for his age, an attribute of which his father made full use. The boy could fit easily through small openings, bathroom windows, pet doors and so on, making him a considerable helpmate at his father’s trade, which happened to be burglary.

Sallis_DriveHe’s always been involved in robberies and developed his driving skills later, in Arizona when a friend introduced him to racing cars. He has a gift for the speed, the precise driving and mechanics. On set, he’s an artist, wanting to achieve the perfect stunt, the perfect ride for the camera. He’s nothing less than thorough. But he acts like an animal. He does what’s needed to put food on the table, lives in a flat in an anonymous apartment complex like it’s a burrow and when his safety is threatened, his survival instincts kick in and put him into motion. He never questions the morality of his actions; he’s on full survival mode and sometimes I thought it’s the only way of living he knew.

Driver was in a foster home and that may explain his restlessness: he never found his place in this family and left at a young age. He was on the road early, arrived in LA and had the chance to meet a man who helped him make a living out of his passion for driving.

Things change slightly when he befriends his neighbour Irina and her son Benicio. Standard, Irina’s husband is in prison and when he eventually comes out, Driver keeps in touch with Irina and gets to know him too. That’s a first hint that he can interact with other human beings. Although he states firmly to his criminal employers…

“I drive. That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons. I drive.”

…he’s still a participant in their crime and he has no qualms about being the driver. If he doesn’t want to know anything about the project, it’s more for security than because of a guilty conscience. Again we face someone who does whatever he needs to earn money to buy food and pay rent.

Drive is what crime fiction should be: well-written, like any other literary book. Sallis has a gift for setting an atmosphere, describing LA and its Mexican joints, Arizona and its deserts and brushing the portrays of the characters in a few sentences. He’s very visual and it’s not a surprise this novel has been made into a film. I’ve seen it when it was released and I have to admit I didn’t remember anything about it except for Ryan Gosling behind the wheel. I remember I thought it was good but now I only have fleeting memories of it. It could be a sign that it’s not that good. For me, it’s a sign it captures well Driver’s evanescence. I only have a blurred vision of him and that’s what he wants: he wants to drift on life without being seen or caught.

For excellent reviews of Drive, see Guy’s here and Max’s there and Caroline’s over there.

PS: I’ve seen on Wikipedia that James Sallis translated a book by Queneau, Saint Glinglin. For the records, when a French tells you they’ll do something A la St Glinglin, it means they’ll do it when pigs might fly.

The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 36 comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 13 comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.



No French toast from me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s

May 24, 2014 29 comments

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.

Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • House of Flowers
  • A Diamond Guitar
  • A Christmas Memory.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisBreakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.

I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.

I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.

That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.

And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

April 20, 2014 26 comments

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

   Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

   Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

April 16, 2014 13 comments

Les Racines du Ciel. 1956 English title: The Roots of Heaven.

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary won his first Prix Goncourt with Les Racines du ciel. It was published in 1956 and it’s the story of Morel who is in Africa to save elephants. Great challenge. This novel is an ode to wilderness and a plea to humanity to preserve natural resources. Gary advocates that preserving natural beauty is a way for humanity to prove its superiority to its basic instincts. Elephants are at stake, but there’s more to the story than preserving elephants and stopping illegal hunting. Morel is an idealist, a type of character Gary liked to explore. I picked a quote that sums up Morel’s fight and vision of nature:

Est-ce que nous ne sommes plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps ? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? Translation more than reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I had a lot of trouble translating this; the French sentence with all the commas isn’t easy to put together in English. Many thanks to Erik for his help. That quote asks the ultimate question: are we still able to admire and respect beauty for free.  Where is our civilisation going if we can’t value beauty for itself not for what it brings us?

Les Racines du Ciel was written nearly sixty years ago and I can’t help wondering what Morel would do about global warming. The preservation of elephants is the cause Morel fights for. Gary takes advantages of his character’s presence in Africa, in the soon-to-be former French colonies to discuss decolonisation and more importantly, its aftermath. He always has a sharp analysis of the world he lives in. These regions will be free from the French in the early 1960s and Gary already sees the dictatorships coming. I admire Gary for his capacity to decode the world around him. He’s sharp about politics but he also feels the trends in society in France or abroad. White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid…a lot of his books have that side analysis seep through the pages.

In my opinion, The Roots of Heaven is an excellent book but perhaps not the one I’d choose for a first Gary. It’s been made into a film which I haven’t seen.

PS: The celebration of Gary’s centenary continues in France and you’ll find useful links here, in Delphine’s post. I really want that version of Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joan Sfar. It weighs two kilos so it’s not very handy but I’m really curious about it.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Twelve

April 2, 2014 8 comments

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou. 1962 English title: Birds in Peru.

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou is a collection of short stories and a film directed by Gary himself, starring Jean Seberg. The film is notoriously bad, so don’t bother. I picked this quote from the first short story of the collection:

Il faut espérer que l’âme n’existe pas : la seule façon pour elle de ne pas se laisser prendre. Les savants en calculeront bientôt la masse exacte, la consistance, la vitesse ascensionnelle… Quand on pense à tous les milliards d’âmes envolées depuis le début de l’Histoire, il y a de quoi pleurer. Une prodigieuse énergie gaspillée : en bâtissant des barrages au moment de leur ascension, on aurait eu de quoi éclairer la terre entière. L’homme sera bientôt entièrement utilisable. On lui a déjà pris ses plus beaux rêves pour en faire des guerres et des prisons.

Let’s hope that the soul doesn’t exist, it’s the only way for it not to get caught. Scientists will soon compute its exact mass, its consistency, its rate of climb… When you think about the billions of souls that have ascended since the beginning of times, you have good reason to weep. Such a tremendous amount of energy wasted: if we had built dams at the moment of their ascent, we would have had enough energy to light up the entire planet. Humanity will soon be entirely usable. Their best dreams have already been taken away from them to start wars and build prisons.

Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Gary_LecturesFor me, this quote shows two of Gary’s obsessions. The first one is that everyone should keep their part of mystery. It’s not necessary to know everything, to explain everything with science or rationally. We live better if there’s room for dreams and imagination in our lives. Love isn’t that magical if you think of it in terms of hormones.

The second idea is that humans can’t be disposable goods. He rejects the trend considering that anything is marketable. Not everything is marketable. Humans are not. Wilderness should be protected and also everything related to art. Not every human activity should be evaluated according to its return on investment or its usefulness. I wonder what he’d think of surrogate mothers, fights to exclude films and books from international trade agreements and in general of how money has become the unique compass to assess someone or something’s worth.

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