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Genealogical cracks and earthquakes.

March 8, 2011 10 comments

Lignes de faille, by Nancy Huston. (475 pages) English version : Fault Lines.

 In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement. Large faults within the Earth’s crust result from the action of tectonic forces. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes, such as occurs on the San Andreas Fault, California. A fault line is the surface trace of a fault, the line of intersection between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface. (Wikipedia)

Fault Lines opens with a genealogical tree and includes four parts:

I) Sol 2004

II) Randall 1982 – Sol’s father

III) Sadie 1962 – Randall’s mother

IV) Kristina 1944-1945 – Sadie’s mother

Each section of the book is narrated by a child of the tree and relates the formative events that happened to them in the summer between their 6th and 7th birthday. Each had to face a tough moment and a change of life, a fresh start in a new place. I won’t tell about the events, to avoid spoilers.

Each time, war was part of the environment, distant or close, with particular massacres. For Sol, it’s the war in Iraq and the torture at the prison in Abu Graib, for Randall, the Lebanese Civil War and the Sabra and Chatila Massacre, for Sadie the Cold War and the 1962 Cuba crisis and for Kristina, WWII, the destruction of Dresden and the defeat of Germany.

Each of them has a specific beauty mole. Sol has it in the neck, Randall on his shoulder, Sadie on her left buttock and Kristina inside her elbow. They all have a particular relationship with it, either a talisman or a curse.

We gradually understand the family history, as Sol talks about all the members, his father, his grand-mother and great-grand mother. Randall has his own view of the relationship between his parents and gives us hints on Sadie’s temper and obsessions. Sadie adores her mother and let us have a glimpse at Kristina’s life in her twenties.

Sol is a disturbing child. Forget about the image of purity, innocence and kindness. Huston makes of him a nasty unbalanced boy. He made me feel ill at ease, I thought, “this is a future executioner, a future terrorist, a root of extremism, whatever extremism it is, religious or political.” Is that what Nancy Huston wanted to tell? How terrorists grow up? Where they come from?

Je vais commencer l’école cet automne et j’ai l’intention de tout écouter, de tout enregistrer et obtenir des notes brillantes mais en gardant un profil bas ; pour l’instant les autres ne doivent pas savoir que je suis le roi, Soleil unique et Fils unique, Fils de Google et de Dieu, Fils immortel et omnipotent de la Toile. WWW à l’envers c’est MMM : à part Ma Mère Miraculeuse, à qui j’en ai donné des aperçus, personne ne soupçonne la brillance, le rayonnement, la fabuleuse radiation de mon cerveau qui, un jour, va transformer et sauver l’univers. I’ll be starting real school in the fall and I intend to listen to everything, record everything and get sterling grades while still keeping a low profile; for the time being I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web. WWW turned down is MMM: apart from My Miraculous Mother to whom I’ve allowed brief glimpses, no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe. (Nancy Huston)

Creepy, isn’t it? Sol believes it, it’s not just a boy dreaming about being superman.

I liked Randall a lot, a little boy, living with a dysfunctional couple and feeling guilty, not enough. 

Ce n’est pas que tes parents ne t’aiment pas comme tu es, c’est juste que quand on est petit on a beaucoup de choses à apprendre et on se dit que plus on apprend, plus ils vont t’aimer, et peut-être que le jour où on reviendra avec un diplôme universitaire on n’aura plus de souci à se faire. It’s not that you parents don’t love you the way you are, it’s just that when you’re little, you have many things to learn and you think that the more you learn the more they’ll love you and maybe the day you come back with a degree, you’ll be off the hook. (my translation)

I pitied Sadie, a little fat, self-conscious and who craves her mother’s love. She thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s absence:

Si j’étais vraiment une petite fille sage au lieu de seulement faire semblant, j’habiterais avec ma mère et mon père comme tout le monde. If I really were a quiet little girl instead of just pretending, I’d live with my mother and my father like everyone else. (my translation)

As for Kristina, her stolen identity will be her DNA as her wordless songs.

In these children’s lives, the men are absent (Sadie’s father, Kristina’s fathers) or relaxed, funny and involved in the education of the child. (Randall for Sol, Aron for Randall, Peter for Sadie). The mothers default their children, except for Tessa, Sol’s mother. But then Tessa is the exact opposite of Sadie: she’s a stay-at-home mother, devoting her whole life to Sol and thoroughly implementing modern methods of growing up children. But ironically, Sol who lives in the most stable environment sounds the most unbalanced of all the children talking here.

 Each generation has to deal with the burden left by the former generation. Several images float through my head. Events bouncing on lives like an uncontrollable wild ball. A doctor unfolding bleeding lives until he reaches the original cause of all the following pains.

Re-read the definition of a fault line at the beginning of this post. This book is full of genealogical fault lines, cracks in souls that create disasters in lives. It is also full of moves linked to these fault lines (Sadie’s researching her mother’s past, for example) that end up in earthquakes for other members of the family. 

Fault Lines is a marvellous book, haunting and masterly crafted. Nancy Huston left clues everywhere to let the reader collect the information and create their own mental picture of the family. Events click together, completing the puzzle in the end.

I’m not particularly fond of books with children as narrators. But here, using children as narrators is powerful, they have a limited knowledge of the world, mix words and come to their own explanation of situations. For example, Sadie innocently says her mother got pregnant from a beatnik named Mort and with whom she used to “play music, drink wine and smoke kerouac” They candidly depict situations and the adult reader reads between the lines. — Are the children’s words another kind of “fault lines”?

I included the covers of the French and American editions. I prefer the French one, the American one focuses on Kristina, the origin of the family and gives a wrong image of the novel. This is NOT a misery book. It is a book about guilt, about responsibility of adults toward children, about secrets and lies and about inherited grief.

Lignes de faille won the Prix Femina in 2006, a well-deserved prize. I found another review at the Guardian, but I think it reveals a lot about the plot. This one by another blogger, Another Cookie Crumble is interesting.

PS : Of course, I’ve read the French version. I translated most of the quotes but Nancy Huston’s version will unequivocally be superior.

The mother who could not be a Mom

September 27, 2010 13 comments

La Virevolte, by Nancy Huston. Translated as Slow Emergencies: a novel.

Lin Lhomond is a famous dancer and choreographer. The novel opens with a crude and harsh sentence: “This body came out of her”. Lin is giving birth to Angela, her first born. Lin is married to Derek, a teacher at the local university, somewhere on the East Coast of the USA. The first part of the book describes her life as a mother-dancer. The mother was born with Angela and motherly duties absorb Lin and smother the dancer. A second child arrives, Marina. The motherly duties increase. The dancer, the creator in Lin claims some space. The need to create, to express through the dance, the absolute need to feel her body move are stronger and stronger.

Second part of the novel: Lin makes the choice. The one choice that will irrevocably damage lives. She flees away from her family, accepting an assignment in Mexico. She cuts off the bridges. She shuts the mother in her. The second part relates the parallel lives of Lin and of Derek and the girls, how it is to have done the unforgivable, how it is to grow up with a mother who left you behind and preferred the dance to you.

 La Virevolte was published in 1994. I had already read it, and have thought about it regularly since. It’s quite rare that a book stays in mind that way. This one had disturbed me, probably because the idea of a mother abandoning her children for dancing is disturbing. But for Lin, dancing is more than a job, it is a way to feel alive. To quit dancing is to die. She’s an artist. Rainer Maria Rilke said one is a real writer if not writing is synonym to death. Lin is that kind of artist, dance is her art.

 “Yes this is why I was born

And nothing – no nothing

can equal this pleasure to make bodies

move into space

fill the air with movements

embrace the music with chanting silence

leaps and leaps

mute howls of the joys and sorrows of the universe.”

 Lin has done what society cannot understand: being a mother and turning her back on her children. Yet Nancy Huston never judges her or tries to find psychological explanations. She clinically describes the wreckage Lin left behind and how she fully accepts the consequences of her choice. As in the passage I poorly translated before, the flow of sentences is sometimes broken. Her voice is scattered, like a breathing disturbed by dancing or by smothering.

 When Angela was born, the narrator says of Lin:

“She isn’t dead and she has not become someone else. Not only is she always herself but she is a mother. Not only is she always alive but someone else is also totally alive, over there, at the end of the corridor and she feels the life of this little human pull on the fibres of her heart.”

 She loves her daughters but she shouldn’t have been a mother and with horror realizes it deep inside.

 “What did I do?” Lin thinks

Oh my God what did I do

The dance, already so fragile so dependant, which dies at the very moment it was born, the dance already a mortal child of my mortal body and now these two girls too, these moving and breathing little girls, what did I do”

 I had no children when I read it for the first time and it’s been interesting to read it again now that I am a mother too. Parenthood is not something you can imagine; you can read about it, think about it and all the mental construction you will have elaborated will crumble into sand when reality comes. No one can understand this kind of love and relationship without living it. And no one can picture the “no-man’s-life” of parents of under five-years-old children. Lin was glued in that time. I cannot judge Lin though I probably should. Dancing and creating were stronger than anything else. How could she have known that before? Parenthood is a life experience that is definitive. You cannot try to be a parent, like you try yoga and then quit, thinking “this is not for me”. It is a unique experience in life because it is definitive. The only other irrevocable experience I found is death.

 Nancy Huston is an Anglophone Canadian, lives in Paris, writes in French and then translates her work in English. Though she writes in French, her characters and settings are American. I beg her pardon for the poor translation I made of her voice, but I couldn’t find quotes and I wanted to show how she sometimes turns the language as Lin bends her body. I’m always impressed by authors able to beautifully write in another language than their mother tongue. Maybe it is a way to tell things they would dare writing in their native language. Maybe their inner voice, their author voice sounds just speaks another language. That’s a question I’d like to ask her. And I’d like to see how a writer translates their own work.

 I liked this book a lot. I was taken in the twirl of Nancy Huston’s sentences and the story is not one you can forget.

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