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20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 11 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

20 Books of Summer #6: Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira – Educational and thoughtprovoking

July 19, 2020 11 comments

Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira (2002 – revised in 2015) Original French title: L’esclavage raconté à ma fille.

I bought Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira at the temporary bookshop set up in the Musée d’Orsay at the end of the exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.

Christiane Taubira is a French politician who was, among other political achievements, Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016. She a literature lover and a feminist, as mentioned in my billet here.

As you can see it on the cover of the book, she’s a black woman. She was born in Cayenne, in French Guiana, one of the French overseas departments. And yes, Cayenne is where Dreyfus was deported, in a penal colony. Taubira was deputy of French Guiana from 1993 to 2012.

She has always fought against racism and for France to deal with its history as a slave state. During her mandate she pushed for a law about slavery. The Loi n°2001-434 was promulgated on May 13th, 2001.

In its first article, the law states that France acknowledges that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe and against Africans, indigenous people, Indians and Madagascans is a crime against humanity.

The second article imposes that the history of the slave trade and of slavery be taught in schools with sufficient details and taking into account historical sources from Europe and from Africa, America and the Caribbean.

The third article says that France will push the Council of Europe, the UN and other international organizations to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity too. France must also push for a common date to commemorate the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

No wonder Taubira’s favorite author is Toni Morrison. Slavery Explained to My Daughter reflects who she is: combative, passionate, factual and non-violent. As a French, she mostly pays attention France’s history. Through the exchange with her daughter, I learnt or reread about historical facts but what I liked the most is her views on the matter.

She says that a formal and legal acknowledgment of the crime is a necessity, a ground to build the future.

She also says that Europe fabricated false reasonings to justify their crime and that even then, people knew it was not right but clung to their arguments to ease their conscience and keep making money or annexing countries. So, saying it was legal at the time is not a valid argument to brush off the matter and not look at the facts as crimes.

She’s against financial reparations because it would sell her ancestors a second time and it would be a nightmare to organize. How much should be paid and to whom? For her, the only way to compensate now is to put money into programs that will guarantee that the descendants of former slaves and white people have equal opportunities in life. I’m with her. Compensation through investing in the future, that sounds fair to me.

Besides the European side of the issue, she also stresses on slaves’ side. She puts forward slaves who fought against their condition and also reminds us of the new culture that uprooted people created to survive. She takes pride in her ancestry and shares it with the reader.

I thought that Slavery Explained to My Daughter was an intelligent book. The facts and the emotions are there. It’s educational, optimistic but also realistic. There is still a lot to do. It will require a lot of education and political goodwill. I wish my kids studied this book in school.

This was another read for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 8 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 12 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

June 2, 2019 15 comments

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) Available in French.

I never read women’s magazines, mostly because I find them vapid. I’m more of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) person as far as waiting rooms are concerned. A few weeks ago, I forgot my book at home and flipped through Grazia and stumbled upon a fascinating article about Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. I knew I had to read this and indeed, I devoured it in one sitting.

Nomadland is a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder who spent three years living on and off with vandwellers, people who left their brick-and-mortar homes to live in an RV. They move from place to place and survive on seasonal jobs. The seasonal jobs consist in working at campsites or amusement parks in the summer, at an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush or harvesting sugar in Minnesota. Bruder had her own RV, and moved around with them.

We follow Linda, a sixty-four-year-old woman who just finished to prepare her tiny RV and leaves her family to work at a campsite in California. She and her friend Silvianne will work there the whole summer. Through Linda and her friends, we slowly discover the parallel world of vandwellers, the horrible working conditions of these seasonal workers, their annual gathering in Arizona during the winter, in a place named Quartzsite.

There are three sides to Nomadland, and none of them will leave you indifferent.

The most emotional one is discovering this nomadic community, hearing about the personal stories of the people Jessica Bruder met. Most of them are old and should be enjoying retirement but their pension is not high enough for them to do so. They have to work. Some are broke because of the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their house due to a foreclosure. They lost their pension because all their money evaporated in the crash. They had health issues, went through a divorce or lost their job. They had what we call in French, des accidents de la vie, the ones that are covered by social benefits in Europe.

I felt a lot of respect for the people she met. They endure difficult living conditions because no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, living in an RV is hard. It’s tiny, it’s cold during the winter, it can break down and if you’re a city, you need to be invisible. I enjoyed the part about Quartzsite and the RV’ers reunion. It’s full of workshops to help people live better in their RV.

They stay positive, feed their hope for a better future or have decided that this way of life was best for them. They bonded. Some have blogs and Facebook pages. They live on the edge and I couldn’t help wondering what would become of them. They’re all ageing. What happens when they get sick and can’t work anymore? Where are they going to live when they are too old to move around in such a small space? Who will take care of them?

The most infuriating side of Nomadland is reading about working conditions at Amazon. Let me tell you something: besides kindle books, I will never buy anything from Amazon again. Never. The working conditions described here are despicable. We’re talking about exploiting people with an unequaled cynicism. (By the way, in Europe, the unions of 15 countries had a meeting on April 29th, 2019 to fight together for better working conditions at Amazon in Europe. Their slogan was “Treated like robots by Amazon. We are humans, not robots”)

I’m talking about inhuman working conditions regarding the environment, the stupidity of the job to be done, the cadences to be kept and the general management of employees. Their working conditions is the cost of your receiving your parcel on time.

By cynicism I mean: offering free painkillers in the breakrooms because employee ache everywhere; publishing recommendations in an in-house magazine for new employees about getting in shape before coming to be sure they’ll hold on; exploiting the easy RV’ers workforce through their recruitment site Amazon CamperForce and get tax credits for it. Here’s one story about a CamperForce experience:

When Barb and Chuck showed up in Quartzsite for the first time, they were still recovering from their three-month stint at CamperForce. Like their coworkers, they’d faced a triple trial there. First came physical exhaustion. (“Muscles I never knew I had are shouting at me after ten hours of lifting, twisting, squatting, reaching,” Barb reflected.) Then came Kafka-style madness. (After forty-five minutes spent hunting for a bin with enough room to stow a product, Barb had to repeat “breathe, breathe” to stay sane in the warehouse, which she nicknamed “Amazoo.”) Last came flat-out survival: the stress of subzero temperatures in an RV built for warmer climes. (The rig’s water supply got cut off after a filter froze and burst. Then its pump broke. Chuck lost a day of work getting repairs done.)

And the lovely Linda ended up with a repetitive motion injury from using the handheld barcode scanner. It left behind a visible mark, a grape-sized lump on her right wrist. Even worse was what she could not see: a searing pain that radiated the length of her right arm, from thumb to wrist, through elbow and shoulder, ending in her neck. Lifting an eight-ounce coffee cup or a cooking pan was enough to trigger an agonizing jolt. She believed it to be a bad case of tendonitis, but knowing that hadn’t helped abolish the affliction. A year after, she still hadn’t recovered from it. I have lots of quotes and all of them made me really angry. How can they treat people that way? Farm animals have better working conditions than that.

Now, are you going to fatten Jeff Bezos with your next Christmas shopping?

The most educational side of Nomadland was the questioning about poverty and how a rich country as America has come to this. Jessica Bruder doesn’t give lectures but peppers her story with facts and analysis. To sum it up, several factors concur to the problem: rents have increased a lot faster than wages, the American retirement-finance model showed its limits during the 2008 crisis (where is your pension when the financial markets collapse?) and all this is a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims. I’ll add wild capitalism that pushes on the selfishness button we all have in us and a criminal laissez-faire of politicians. Some things cost nothing on the country’s budget: regulations about loans, about the minimum wages, about retirement plans and protect people from corporate wolves.

But this is not a blog about economy or politics, it’s a literary blog. Why should you read Nomadland? Besides the informative content, I thought that Jessica Bruder’s writing was engaging. She writes well and wants us to share her experience. She went all in, living in an RV herself and her comments about how that felt were invaluable. She did more than interviewing vandwellers. She shared their lives, earned their trust and opened our eyes on a parallel world. I hope that Linda is doing well, I’m rooting for her and her projects. Her resilience and optimism are commendable and Jessica Bruder gave her a voice.

Rush for this book, it’s a gem.

PS: This book is in the Beach and Public Transport category, not because it’s fluffly but because it’s so well-written that it’s easy to read.

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis – Insightful

February 3, 2019 10 comments

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (2018) Original French title: Qui a tué mon père.

Ta vie prouve que nous ne sommes pas ce que nous faisons, mais qu’au contraire nous sommes ce que nous n’avons pas fait, parce que le monde ou la société, nous en a empêchés. Parce que ce que Didier Eribon appelle des verdicts se sont abattus sur nous, gay, trans, femme, noir, pauvre, et qu’ils nous ont rendu certaines vies, certaines expériences, certains rêves, inacessibles. Your life proves that we are not what we do but in the contrary, we are what we haven’t done because the world or society was in the way. Because what Didier Eribon calls sentences have descended upon us, gays, trans, women, black or poor and these sentences have made some lives, some experiences or some dreams unreachable to us.

Who Killed My Father is a short non-fiction book by Edouard Louis, the young author of The End of Eddy. It was published on May 3rd, 2018, the exact date is relevant. Edouard Louis is also a graduate of EHESS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Sociology is his territory.

In Who Killed My Father, he comes back to his complicated relationship with his father and his social background. We understand that his father had to stop working because of a work-related accident, that his back is wrecked and that his life has been even tougher than what is described in The End of Eddy.

This short non-fiction opus is a description of the social violence done to his father and by extension, to a large part of the working class. He describes the impact of public decisions on social benefits from his father’s perspective. Through snippets of life, we see what political decisions make on the life of a man broken by hard working conditions. He gives specific examples, gives the names of the politicians who promoted a particular measure and throws them back what this or that decision entailed for the recipients of social benefits or for poor workers.

This is his father. He’s a representative of an important part of the population whose life conditions are degraded after liberal capitalism won the economic sphere and politics became a synonym of managing short-term finances.

Describing how his father was forced to take a job that was not compatible with his health condition, he rocks the boat of the generally admitted law that any job is better than no job. It becomes an excuse to accept with jobs with appalling working conditions. At the Davos summit, Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director mentioned her meeting with poultry workers in the US who had to wear nappies because they had no toilet breaks. I didn’t ven know it was legal. Shocking, right? But not surprising when you’ve read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison.

The end of Who Killed My Father is the following:

Le mois dernier, quand je suis venu te voir, avant que je parte, tu m’as demandé : « Tu fais encore de la politique ? » — le mot encore faisait référence à ma première année de lycée, quand j’avais adhéré à un parti d’extrême gauche et qu’on s’était disputés parce que tu pensais que j’allais avoir des ennuis avec la justice à force de participer à des manifestations illégales. Je t’ai dit « Oui, de plus en plus. » Tu as laissé passer trois ou quatre secondes, tu m’as regardé et enfin tu as dit : « Tu as raison. Tu as raison, je crois qu’il faudrait une bonne révolution » Last month, when I came to visit, before I left you asked me: “Are you still involved in politics?” – the word still referred to my freshman year of high school, when I subscribed to an extreme-left political party and when we argued about it because you thought I’d end up in trouble with the law with my participation to illegal demonstrations. I told you “Yes, I am. More than ever”. You let three or four seconds pass, you looked at me and finally said: “You’re right. You’re right, I think we need a good old revolution”

Publication date: May 2018. Beginning of the Yellow Vests movement: November 2018. Genuine participants to this movement: people like Edouard Louis’s father.

I read Who Killed My Father before the movement started. It stayed with me because it hit me right in the face. Edouard Louis sometimes irritates me, and certainly, he’s got his own issues. But I think it’s good for the country to have thinkers who come from the working class and who understand things that are oblivious to the ruling bourgeoisie because this reality is simply not part of their quotidian.

I wondered what Edouard Louis thought of the Yellow Vests movement and I found a great article here at The Inrocks.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 12 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 19 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 36 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

April 18, 2018 5 comments

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 4 comments

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek (1924) Traduit du tchèque par Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays.

Un grand merci aux éditions LaBaconnière pour m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek. C’est exactement le genre de livre que j’apprécie. Le livre en lui-même est un bel objet, illustré par les dessins de l’auteur. La couverture nous montre l’auteur et la qualité du papier en fait un livre qu’on envie d’avoir en main, envie d’avoir en bibliothèque. Les notes en fin de livre sont utiles pour éclairer la lecture sans être intrusives.

Dans ce court opus d’à peine 175 pages, Karel Čapek nous emmène avec lui en voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse, au Pays de Galles et à nouveau en Angleterre. Nous sommes en 1924. Čapek aurait aimé aller en Irlande mais on lui fait gentiment comprendre qu’il n’y a pas de guide touristique de l’Irlande parce que les Anglais ne vont pas là-bas.

A Londres, il est le touriste émerveillé qui voit de ses propres yeux ce qu’il a lu dans les livres. Il est infatigable et tâche d’expérimenter tout ce qu’il peut de la vie à l’anglaise. Il arpente les rues, visite les musées, a la chance d’être introduit dans un club pour gentlemen. Partout, il observe les gens. Dans les bus, dans la rue, dans les musées, dans les pubs. Il visite l’exposition coloniale de 1924 et remarque l’absence totale des cultures des pays de l’Empire Britannique. Ils sont représentés pour leur production mais pas pour leur âme ou leur population. Son émerveillement ne le rend pas aveugle. Il remarque la pollution, la pauvreté, la difficulté de circuler dans Londres. Il s’interroge sur le progrès incontrôlé et ses dégâts collatéraux.

Illustration de l’exposition coloniale

Sa visite à Londres achevée, il prend le train pour l’Ecosse où il est conquis par la beauté des paysages, les gens. Il semble avoir une affection toute particulière pour les vaches et les moutons. Partout où il va, il décrit les moutons, ce qui apporte un fil conducteur insolite au livre. On pourrait presque faire l’étude comparative des races de moutons en Grande-Bretagne!

Il passe au Pays de Galles, où il moque gentiment de la langue galloise et de son impossible prononciation. Il visite tous les lieux touristiques connus à Londres, il va à Oxford et Cambridge, s’arrête au Lake District. Il se promène dans les parcs, va visiter des villages mais aussi des villes industrielles et des ports. Il s’interroge : où est la vraie Angleterre ? Est-ce celle des traditions et des gazons soigneusement entretenus ou celle grouillante de vie des ports et des quartiers ouvriers ?

Le charme absolu de ce livre réside dans l’humour indulgent de Čapek. Il décrit et décrie l’incroyable ennuis des dimanches en Grande-Bretagne:

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi.

Il nous parle du cliché de l’attitude cool, calm and collected qui fait partie de l’image des Anglais mais remarque avec malice : La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Ce ton alerte cède le pas à un style beaucoup plus poétique quand il décrit les paysages somptueux d’Ecosse. Cela donne envie de sauter dans le premier avion pour voir ce dont il nous parle.

Mais il faut que je dise en sèche prose combien c’est beau ici : un lac bleu et violet entre des collines nues –ce lac s’appelle Loch Tay, et toutes les vallées se nomment Glen, toutes les montagnes Ben, et tous les hommes Mac ; un lac bleu et calme, un vent pétillant, des bœufs velus, noirs ou roux, dans les prés, des torrents d’un noir de goudron et des collines désertes, couvertes d’herbe et de bruyère –, comment décrire tout cela ? Le mieux serait tout de même de l’écrire en vers ; mais il ne me vient pas de bonne rime à « vent ».

Čapek nous fait découvrir la Grande-Bretagne avec ses yeux d’écrivain pragois. C’est un homme qui a déjà voyagé dans d’autres pays d’Europe et qui semble s’être senti moins dépaysé en France et en Italie qu’il ne l’est en Angleterre. Il a trouvé plus de chromosomes communs entre son ADN tchèque et l’ADN des continentaux qu’il n’en trouve avec les Londoniens et les Ecossais.

Lettres d’Angleterre est un petit bijou d’humour, de clairvoyance et d’intelligence. Je n’ai qu’une hâte : lire un roman de Karel Čapek pour voir comment ces qualités se retrouvent dans son œuvre de fiction.

A découvrir absolument et merci à LaBaconnière de nous rééditer ces trésors de la littérature.

PS : J’ai également écrit un billet en anglais à propos de ce livre. Il est légèrement différent de la version française.

Letters from England by Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 2 comments

Letters from England by Karel Čapek (1924) French translation: Lettres d’Angleterre. Translated by Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays. In England, I’d like to be a cow or a child. But since I’m an educated grownup, I observed the people of this country.

I received Letters from England as an advanced review copy from the publisher LaBaconnière and they obviously know the readers they send books to, because this one was exactly for me.

Letters from England are the illustrated travels of the Czech writer Karel Čapek in England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland was on his radar too but he couldn’t make it in these troubled times.

The first chapters are for London where Čapek is a giddy tourist, disappointed not to feel the spirit of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street and overwhelmed with being there, in a place he’s read so much about. He walks around, strolls in parks, visits museums. (His moments at Madame Tussauds are hilarious). He also went to the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. He’s introduced to club culture and pub culture. He’s confronted to poverty in the East End. He’s candid and he’s in awe but not enough to anesthetize his critical mind.

He tends to compare what he sees with home and with what he’s seen in other countries. Čapek very observant and has a marvellous sense of humour. You can sample it here:

La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Here at night, cats make love as savagely as on the roofs of Palermo, despite what everyone says about English puritanism.

After London and surroundings, he takes the train to Scotland. Frankly, all tourist agencies in Scotland should quote Čapek. He’s in love with the landscapes, the people, the atmosphere in the cities. You read him, you want to hop on a plane to Scotland. It seems so beautiful. Again, despite his obvious admiration, his sense of humour never fails him.

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi. On Sundays in Scotland, trains stop working, railway stations are closed and people do absolutely nothing: it’s amazing that clocks don’t stop ticking as well.

He went from Scotland to Wales, discovered that he couldn’t fin any tourist guide about Ireland in Great Britain, and went back to England. In all the places he visits, he stops to describe and draw cows and sheep. He has a fondness for these animals and cannot help comparing the different sheep races he encounters. It’s such an entertaining Ariadne thread along the book.

Čapek is more than a lovestruck tourist. He’s a keen observer of his time, curious about other cultures, critical about colonisation, wary about wild industrialisation and its consequences on the working class’s living conditions. His acute intelligence transpires through his funny and spot on commentaries. He compares what he sees of the English way of life to his Czech life and to his experience in other countries. Life in Paris seems more familiar to him than life in London. He sounds less puzzled by his other travels than by this one, as if countries on the continent had more common chromosomes in their DNA.

His descriptions of landscapes border on poetry and we follow an enchanted traveller. His illustrations of his travels supplement the text in a dashing manner. They capture a person, a scene, a part of a monument. They’re so personal and subjective that this reader felt closer to the writer’s experience.

Highly recommended. There will be a billet in French too, slightly different from this one.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 27 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 11 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

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