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The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 32 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 18 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

20 Books of Summer #13 : Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia – A masterpiece

August 22, 2020 13 comments

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (1971) French title: Le Contexte. Translated from the Italian by Jacques de Pressac, revised by Mario Fusco.

After my trip to Sicily and after reading The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia, I bought his novel Equal Danger. (Il Contesto, literally translated as Le Contexte in French) This book was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi, with Lino Ventura as the main character. Equal Danger made a lot of noise when it was published. It is a thinly veiled attack towards the Italian political scene, on both side, the party running the country and the opposition.

Inspector Rogas investigates a series of murders. All the victims are judges. The more Rogas digs into the judges’ personal lives, the more he unveils muddy relationships between the judges and the political milieu. Nothing is fully honest, nothing is clean. The dice of the political game are loaded, just like they are in Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu.

Equal Danger is built as a crime fiction novel and written as a parody. It is a mix between Candide and political crime fiction. Sciascia blends the two genres perfectly and his book is like a literary bombshell thrown at the Italian ruling class.

The beginning is humorous, as we see Rogas start his investigation, tackle politics and navigate between what he wants to do and what his hierarchy wants him to do. We root for him and hope he’ll beat the system at its own game. But will he?

In the afterword, Sciascia says that he kept this book in his drawer for two years before publishing it, probably because when he started to write it, he was amused but when he was finished, he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. And that’s how I felt as a reader too.

Very highly recommended.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 22 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 31 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

December 7, 2019 4 comments

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre. (2014) Original French title: Pas pleurer

This is my second mini-billet to vanquish the TBW –To Be Written— pile. I think there is a reason why Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre stayed so long on my TBW. I don’t quite know how to write a billet about it and I kept procrastinating. Before diving into the book, one has to wonder how the French title that means No Crying or Don’t Cry became Cry, Mother Spain. The answer to that question is in Simon’s review of the book, here.

Lydie Salvayre is French but her parents were Spanish immigrants. In Pas pleurer, she comes back to her mother’s youth and how the Civil War in Spain changed her life forever. Her mother is named Montserrat Monclus Arjona, “Montse”, and she came from a small village in Spain. She and her brother José went to Barcelona in 1936, to help the Anarchist movement. An adventure and some bitter disappointments later, they are back to their village. This short time in Barcelona changed Montse’ life forever. In comparison to the liveliness and modernity of Barcelona, their village seems frozen in the Middle Ages with its rigid social hierarchy. Peasants remain dirt poor and under the rule of rich families. These immutable social rules remind me of what Mouloud Feraoun describes in The Poor Man’s Son. The 1936 Anarchist movement in Barcelona meant to take down these walls made of smothering traditions and free the country of rigid social conventions and religious constraints.

Lydie Salvayre shows how the hope of a revolution, of a new world with more social justice reached even small villages. Through Montse’s story, we see how Franco’s followers took over and the divides that this conflict created in communities. We see the personal fate of a young woman who embraced life in Barcelona and had to live with the repercussions of her actions. We see how women are often the first victims of conflicts and of society’s rules. We also understand how powerful the resistance to change can be, how inexperienced the young revolutionaries were. People’s fear of change always works in favor of the ones who preach immobilism.

In parallel to her mother’s story, Lydie Salvayre shares her reading of Les grands cimetières sous la lune, the non-fiction book in which Georges Bernanos relates the horror of the Spanish Civil War in Mallorca and how the Catholic Church was complicit of massacres. He was living there when it happened and had a front seat to it. I tried to read Bernanos almost three years ago but I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t like his tone, I didn’t know the people he was pointing at and it was more a pamphlet than calm-and-collected non-fiction. I missed the subtexts. I wished Bernanos had been more like Orwell.

Cry, Mother Spain is a poignant homage of a woman to her mother. Lydie Salvayre transcribes her mother’s creative French, the outcome of learning the language when she left Spain. She’s sometimes crude, sometimes funny as she mixes words. It’s the love of a daughter who gives her mother’s life a chance at eternity through literature. Cry, Mother Spain won the Goncourt prize in 2014 and it put the 1936 Civil War under mediatic lights.

I really recommend Simon’s review, which is a lot more thorough than mine and makes excellent justice to the book.

Address Unknown by K. Kressman Taylor – Brilliant

October 21, 2019 20 comments

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. (1939) French title: Inconnu à cette adresse. Translator : No mentioned. (Grrr…)

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor is a slim epistolary novella. It is the correspondence between two friends, Max and Martin who are art traders and own a gallery together in America. They start writing to each other when Martin moves back to Germany with his wife in 1932.

Max is Jewish and their relationship gets strained when the Nazis take power in Germany. They slowly grow apart as Martin is swept over by the dictatorship in his country.

In a few exchange of letters from 1932 to 1934, Kathrine Kressman Taylor shows how things drift away, one small event after the other and how someone slowly turns his back to who he was as the politics around him indoctrinate him.

She demonstrates how a lethal ideology takes over the mind of a normal man, how he can be led to the unthinkable and how hard it is for a friend to witness this transformation.

This is a powerful read, wrapped up in a seemingly innocent correspondence but it says it all. Step by step, that’s how ordinary people got sucked into the horror. It was published in 1939. It was a warning to the world.

Highly recommended, especially to adolescents.

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah – a chilling and highly recommended novella

April 23, 2019 11 comments

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah (2016) Original French title: Tropique de la violence.

We, French from mainland France, tend to ignore what happens in the overseas territories. Away from the voters’ sight, away from the politicians’ preoccupations. There’s a huge scandal about a pesticide in used banana plantations in Martinique and Guadeloupe that’s barely spoken about. The pollution is widespread, it’ll stay for a long time and will heavily affect the health of the inhabitants of these islands. In Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah, we are in another overseas French territory, Mayotte.

It’s an archipelago near in the Mozambique Channel, near the Comoros Islands and Madagascar. It has 256 000 inhabitants and in 2009, a referendum was organized and Mayotte became a French overseas département. It means that, from a legal and administrative point of view, living in Mayotte is like living in any département of mainland France. Mayotte became part of the EU. One of the consequences is that it faces a huge influx of illegal migrants from Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. It creates tensions between the local population and the newcomers. They are too numerous for the island to absorb and integrate these additional inhabitants.

Tropic of Violence opens with Marie’s story. She’s a nurse in France and falls in love with a fellow nurse, Chamsidine. He’s from Mayotte and they both move to Mamoudzou, the prefecture of Mayotte. Their marriage falls apart and Marie tells us how her adoptive son Moïse came to live with her. Moïse’s mother, an illegal migrant who arrived on a boat in Mayotte one night, abandoned him to Marie. Moïse has wall eyes, one green and one black and in the local popular belief, it means that he has jinn eyes. He has something to do with jinns and he brings bad luck. Marie trades divorce papers with Chamsidine against a recognition of paternity and she gets to keep Moïse and raise him as her son.

He’s a preteen when he starts asking questions about his identity and hanging out with the wrong crowd in school. He’s already rebelling when Marie suddenly dies of a stroke. He finds her in their kitchen and instead of asking for help, he leaves the house and joins a gang led by Bruce, the king of Gaza, a shantytown in Mayotte. He reigns over a people of homeless kids and organizes band thefts and drug trafficking.

We follow Moïse’s fate as he becomes Mo and lives under Bruce’s commandment. He obeys like a well-trained pet. He quickly looses his humanity and Appanah shows the degradation of body and mind under harsh living conditions. Not enough food. No place to sleep. No place to feel safe and relax. No place to shower. No clean clothes. The dehumanization process is implacable.

Moïse becomes Mo and this new and shorter version of his name is symbolic. He becomes a shorter version of himself as poverty and violence strike. He’s no longer Marie’s little boy, the one who used to live in a loving household.

Tropic of Violence is a powerful book. Appanah switches of point of view between Marie, Moïse, Bruce and the representative of France. (Educators, police forces, politicians) They all live on the same territory but their daily lives are so different that they could be living on different planets. The ending is bleak and moving.

The shantytowns really exist in Mayotte. As I said before, there’s a major problem of violence on the archipelago. The locals are exasperated. There aren’t enough public services to cope with the incoming illegal immigration. People die trying to reach Mayotte in makeshift boats. It’s Lampedusa in the Indian ocean.

Out of sight, out of mind. French people never hear of the overseas territory unless there’s a riot, a strike and a blockage. That’s how I knew about this issue, there was a general strike in Mayotte in 2018. Nathacha Appanah transforms a faceless problem heard on the radio into a personalized one with Mo. And that’s one answer to the timeless question “What’s the use of literature?” Well, it gives a face to human dramas and forces us to look them in the eyes.

Tropic of Violence is a political novel but also a symbolic one. Moïse is the French for Moises and it is not a common name for a French child. Like Enée in J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules, it’s a meaningful choice. There must be a parallel between Moïse and Moises.

In the Bible, Moises is a clandestine baby as Pharaon had commanded that all male Hebrew children born would be drowned in the river Nile and his mother placed in an ark on the river. He is rescued from the Nile by Pharaon’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian.

In Tropic of Violence, Marie adopts him when his birth mother arrives in Mayotte after a shipwreck. Rescued from the water. His birth mother is an illegal migrant, from a people not welcome in France and tracked by the police. Marie—another biblical name—is like royalty on the island. She’s white and comes from mainland France. She’s a nurse at the local hospital and has a comfortable life. Moïse is adopted in a privileged home and raised like a French little boy. Marie’s death throws him back to his people and its suffering.

So far so good, I can see the link between Moïse and Moises. But then I’m blocked. After Moïse leaves his house and joins Gaza, I don’t see the reference between Moïse and Moises anymore. So, if anyone has a clue about that, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

I didn’t include any quote in my billet but I could have. Appanah’s style is haunting, like her story. I think Moïse will stay with me, probably because the fate of children is more striking like in Small Country by Gaël Faye. The different points of views give a lot of power to the scenes she describes and they engage the reader in the story. It’s not surprising that Tropic of Violence won the Prix Femina des Lycéens in 2016 just like Small Country won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Highschool students recognized something important in these two political novellas who involve preteens.

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 25 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

Small Country by Gaël Faye – Highly recommended

November 4, 2018 16 comments

Small Country by Gaël Faye (2016) Original French title: Petit Pays.

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment où l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorénavant, il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis comme Francis. J’ai beau retourner mes souvenirs dans tous les sens, je ne parviens pas à me rappeler clairement l’instant où nous avons décidé de ne plus nous contenter de partager le peu que nous avions et de cesser d’avoir confiance, de voir l’autre comme un danger, de créer cette frontière invisible avec le monde extérieur en faisant de notre quartier et de notre impasse un enclos.

Je me demande encore quand les copains et moi, nous avons commencé à avoir peur.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t remember when we started to think differently. To consider that from now on, we would be on one side and on the other side would be enemies like Francis. I keep hunting high and low in my memories, I can’t remember clearly the moment when we decided to be no longer content to share the few things we had, when we stopped trusting each other and started seeing the other as a threat or when we created this invisible border with the outside world transforming our cul-de-sac and our neighborhood into a paddock

I still wonder when my friends and I started to be afraid.

I have read Small Country by Gaël Faye in *embarrassed cough* June. This billet is beyond late and the temptation to just let it go and not write about this novel was strong. But Small Country deserves better than my laziness and most of all, it deserves to be talked about and widely read.

The narrator of the earlier quote is Gabriel. Now an adult, he recollects his childhood in Burundi and how his life was turned upside down in 1993 by the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, resulting in mass killings of Tutsis.

For Gabriel, two major events happened at the same time, shattering his innocence and putting an end to his carefree childhood. First, his parents separated. His father is French and his mother Rwandan. They were probably an ill-matched couple and their love story ended with a separation. Then History in-the-making came around the corner and trampled everything with its dirty boots.

Now living in France, Gabriel tells us about his childhood, his last months in Burundi and the coming of the civil war. He resurrects for us his games with his friends, his relationship with his sister Ana, a visit to relatives in Rwanda and he tries to picture the atmosphere of these terrible times where everyone had to pick a side. His mother is from Rwanda and she’s a refugee in Burundi. Her family is still in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda happened at the same time as the civil war in Burundi. Gabriel’s family is doubly concerned albeit safer than the average Burundian thanks to his father being French.

Adult Gabriel realized that he has gaps in his memories, that he blocked out the terrible three months of the ethnic cleansing:

Au Rwanda, cette chose qui n’était pas la guerre dura trois longs mois. Je ne me souviens plus de ce que nous avons fait pendant cette période. Je ne me souviens ni de l’école, ni des copains, ni de notre quotidien. A la maison, nous étions de nouveau tous les quatre, mais un immense trou noir nous a engloutis, nous et notre mémoire. D’avril à juillet 1994, nous avons vécu le génocide qui se perpétrait au Rwanda à distance, entre quatre murs, à côté d’un téléphone et d’un poste de radio.

In Rwanda, this thing that was not a war lasted three months. I don’t remember what we did during that time. I don’t remember about school, my friends or our quotidian. At home, we were four again [his mother has come back, due to the events] but a huge black hole has swallowed us. Us and our memory. From April to July 1994, we have lived through the ongoing genocide in Rwanda from afar, between four walls, beside a telephone and a radio set.

He has the memories of a child and what helped him through these terrible times was their neighbor’s library. She started to lend him books and he used them as an escaping device, a way to forget his daily life.

Grâce à mes lectures, j’avais aboli les limites de l’impasse, je respirais à nouveau, le monde s’étendait plus loin, au-delà des clôtures qui nous recroquevillaient sur nous-mêmes et sur nos peurs. Thanks to my readings, I had knocked down the limits of our cul-de-sac. I could breathe again. The world went beyond the fences that had us curled up with our fears.  

Literature as a safe haven…

Despite the horrifying context, Small Country is not bleak because Gaël Faye describes the life in the cul-de-sac, the neighbours, the parties and the games with his friends. He takes us with him to his childhood’s world and evokes the smells, the food, the fruits and the rhythm of everyday life.

Rien n’est plus doux que ce moment où le soleil décline derrière la crête des montagnes. Le crépuscule apporte la fraîcheur du soir et des lumières chaudes qui évoluent à chaque minute. A cette heure-ci, le rythme change. Les gens rentrent tranquillement du travail, les gardiens de nuit prennent leur service, les voisins s’installent devant leur portail. C’est le silence avant l’arrivée des crapauds et des criquets. Souvent le moment idéal pour une partie de football, pour s’asseoir avec un ami sur le muret au-dessus du caniveau, écouter la radio l’oreille collée au poste ou rendre visite à un voisin. Nothing is sweeter than this moment when the sun sets behind the mountains. Twilight brings coolness and warm lights change from one minute to the next. At this hour, the rhythm of life changes. People quietly come back from work, night watchmen start their shifts, neighbors settle in front of their houses. It’s the silent moment before the toads and crickets arrive. Often, it’s the ideal moment for a football game, to sit with a friend on the low wall above the gutter, to listen to music with your ear glued to the radio set or to visit a neighbor.

He shows us the beauty of Burundi and the happy memories. It’s told from the view point of a child who doesn’t quite grasp the madness of the adults and the complexity of racial feuds.

Gaël Faye is a poet, a hip-hop and rap singer and a writer. Small Country is his debut novel and it won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Goncourt given by high school students and it’s well-deserved.

Gaël Faye fled from Rwanda with his family when he was 13 and Small Country comes from his own experience, which increases the emotional bond the reader forms with Gabriel.

Highly recommended.

PS: The clumsy translations are all mine.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 37 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

September 2, 2018 32 comments

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa (1922) French title: Le banquier anarchiste. Translated from the Portuguese by Françoise Laye.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa is a novella in which a banker explains to his audience why he is a true anarchist. It has been on my TBW (To Be Written) since April. Why? Mostly because I didn’t know how to write about it. So, it’s Catch 22. I can’t write about it properly but if I don’t, I’ll break my cardinal rule which is “write about all the books you read”.

I feel that if I start allowing myself to skip a billet, other books will be left behind as well. Where does that leave me? I still can’t write a passable billet about The Anarchist Banker but I can’t procrastinate anymore.

Solution? A short cut.

Read this witty, incredible novella where a banker will demonstrate with a lot of self-assurance that he is the only genuine anarchist in the world. If anarchist banker wasn’t such an oxymoron, the reader could believe in the banker’s reasoning.

He demonstrates that anarchism is a good system but since it’s impossible to implement, in the end the only possible system is the bourgeois system.

Pessoa has a fantastic sense of humour. His tone is both light and serious, the man totally convinced by his brilliant reasoning. He’s so ridiculous in his beliefs that it enhances the comedy of situation. This is something that could have been written by a philosophe from the Age of Enlightenment, like Montesquieu.

It is also a fascinating book to read when you think about politics and politicians. It makes you realize how a politician can convince you of something, step by step. He unfolds a reasoning in which each step holds some truth, he asks you to validate each step and one step after the other, he leads you to a path you would never have followed if you’d seen the whole journey on the map right from the start. It’s subtle and frightening and we’ve all heard politicians start with an assertion you cannot refute and then build something totally fallacious from it.

That’s what could happen to the reader here if the constant irony wasn’t a lifeline that reminds you that this reasoning is flawed.

The Anarchist Banker is also a masterful demonstration of how an idea can become the roots of a dictatorship, how radical changes in a society cannot be implemented because it’s impossible to do so everywhere at the same time and successfully. So the new system must be forcefed to the population and only an authoritative system can do it.

I really can’t tell you more about The Anarchist Banker. I highly recommend it as a masterpiece of literature but also as an educational read about all those politicians who want to attract voters through simplistic thinking.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 13 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

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