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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

Paris in August by René Fallet

June 22, 2013 18 comments

Paris au mois d’août by René Fallet. 1964. Not available in English.

D’abord c’est obligé qu’tu craques pour mon ManoucheIl adore la pluie et le ventIl aime René Fallet et y pêche à la mouche

Et en plus il est protestant

Renaud, Mon Amoureux.

You can only fall for my GypsyHe loves the rain and the windHe likes René Fallet and he fly-fishes

And even better, he’s protestant

Renaud, My Sweetheart

I love the singer Renaud and ever since I heard this funny and lovely song Mon Amoureux, where a teenage daughter tries to describe her sweetheart to her father, I wanted to read René Fallet. Well, it’s done now and what a discovery!

Paris au mois d'aoûtHenri Plantin is 40, has a wife, Simone and three children. We’re in 1964 in Paris. The Plantins live near rue Beaubourg, in the center of Paris. The General de Gaulle is still president, the Halles (The Belly of Paris) haven’t been moved to Rungis and Brigitte Bardot is the ideal feminine. Henri works as a salesclerk at the Samaritaine, a nearby department store. He works in the fishing department. This summer is special as he wasn’t authorised to take his days off in August. So his wife and children leave him behind to spend the month at the beach and he will go fishing in September.

During his first days, he enjoys being alone in the apartment, meeting with friends and doing whatever he wants. One day, as he takes a walk along the Seine after work, he meets Patricia. She’s English and she’s spending the summer in Paris. She asks directions to go to the Pantheon and Henri suggests he walks her there. They start talking, Patricia stumbling upon words in French, Henri knowing only a few words of English. Henri is smitten and Patricia likes this shy Frenchman. He says he’s a painter, to impress her. She says she’s a model, to impress him. They develop a summer romance.

The plot is quite simple and it’s not what makes the marvellous bittersweet taste of this novel. The encounter between this Frenchman who’s never left his country and this English young woman is funny at times. Patricia wants to visit the Pantheon to see Napoleon. Henri explains that Napoleon isn’t at the Pantheon but in the Invalides.

– Je croyais. Il y a sur le Panthéone “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.” Napoléon n’est pas un grand homme pour les Français?- Si affirma Plantin qui n’avait jamais tant parlé de l’empereur, si bien sûr.- Alors?Il ne put opposer à cette logique britannique que la plus détestable fantaisie continentale:- Alors, il est aux Invalides. – I thought he was there. It’s written on the Pantheon “To great men. The country thanks you” Isn’t Napoleon a great men for the French?– Yes, Plantin said. He had never talked so much about the emperor. Yes of course, he is– So?He could only oppose to this British logic the most distasteful continental whim:– So, he is in the Invalides.

Patricia challenges him. She looks around her with fresh eyes and a different background. Henri is 40, he married young and never lived alone. This month without his family is the first time he spends not being a son, a husband or a father. He feels liberated. He also feels the weight of his average life. He has a dull job at the Samaritaine, his life is full of routine.

Il n’était pas laid. D’accord il n’avait plus la chevelure ondulée de son adolescence. Ses tempes s’étaient fleuries de pâquerettes de cimetière, et le le peigne n’avait plus à livrer de sévères combats pour ordonner le tout. He wasn’t ugly. OK, he no longer had the thick and wavy hair of his adolescence. His temples were covered with a cemetery bloom of daisies and the comb no more needed to lead a fierce battle to tidy the whole.

He’s fond of his wife and children but he feels his life passing by and these thoughts were already there when he meets Patricia. She’s like a breath of fresh air, a moment of the youth he never had time to enjoy. Henri is in love again and even if he knows this relationship is doomed, he intends to enjoy it fully. He wants to make the sweetest memories and Patricia finds him relaxing, nice and handsome enough. It’s only August, but she’s his Indian summer.

Together, they wander in Paris and that’s another great aspect of the book. It was written in 1964. It describes the Paris of its time but when you read it now, it seems to similar and so different at the same time. The neighbourhood is still popular. Prostitutes, employees, tramps and small shop owners populate the area. Now it’s mostly touristy –that’s where the Musée Pompidou is–and like almost everywhere in Paris, very expensive. It’s Paris with its working class. People smoke Gauloises, go to the bistro, play tiercé and wear shirts in fabric made by Boussac. (That company went bankrupt in the 1970s). For the contemporary reader, everything says “before the crisis of 1973”. Henri complains about the flow of cars and the metro which swallows and regurgitates workers and employees everyday. The walks in Paris are pleasant to read.

Most of all, René Fallet has a wonderful style. He has a sense for wrapping images in short sentences.

Un petit jeune homme charmant vomissait son excellente éducation dans le caniveau. Il serait dans la politique ou dans le yaourt, comme papa.

A charming little young man was vomiting his excellent education in the gutter. He will be in politics or in the yoghurt industry, like his daddy.

Ce dimanche, le pigeon blanc roucoulait en anglais.

That Sunday, the white pigeon was cooing in English.

Nul ne savait qu’un amour venait d’emménager en cet immeuble.

Nobody knew a young love had just moved into this building.

His language reflects the popular setting and the social class of his characters. He switches from descriptions of the city to a sort of stream of consciousness when Plantin reveals his feelings for Patricia or his thoughts about his life.

This is a delightful book which is unfortunately not available in English. It was made into a film by Pierre Granier-Deferre. Charles Aznavour plays Fantin and Susan Hampshire is Patricia. I haven’t seen it but I don’t see why the excellent style of Fallet wouldn’t be transferred into the dialogues.

I wonder if Renaud was reading Fallet when he wrote his album A la Belle de Mai. Mon amoureux is on this album, just as another song entitled La médaille which describes how pigeons leave excrements on a statue of Pétain. In Paris au mois d’août, René Fallet writes:

Les pigeons de Paris n’avaient pas bonne presse. On les accusait de décorer les maréchaux d’Empire du Louvre d’ordres que n’avait pas créés Napoléon. The pigeons of Paris didn’t have a good reputation. People accused them of decorating the marshals of Empire of the Louvre with medals that Napoléon had not given.

Did this inspire Renaud? I’ll never know for sure but I suspect it.

Anyway, I’m happy I decided to read René Fallet and I intend to read another of his books. So, thanks for the nudge, Renaud. One day, I’ll read Eric Holder, after all, he’s mentioned in the song Fanny Ardant et moi by Vincent Delerm and I love that song.

PS: sorry for the clumsy translations. I did my best.

A visit to La Maison de Balzac in Paris

August 20, 2011 28 comments

Today I was on my own in Paris for one of those rare moments when I have no societal identity. I’m not a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… These stayed behind and let the woman be for once.

I decided to take a literary tour and start with La Maison de Balzac. It’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a wealthy and bourgeois district in the West of Paris. It’s a beautiful day, rather early in the morning, in a residential area in August: it’s deserted and quiet. When I exit the underground at the Métro Station La Muette, the view is typically Parisian with its Métro sign and its building in pale stones with black iron balconies. I walk a little from the Métro to the Maison de Balzac and on my way I come across a triangular building that is so typical from Paris I almost hear it shout “I’m Parisian” when I look at it.

 

 

 

 

Of course the area has much changed since Balzac’s times. The street names remind the wanderer that it was a village back then. For example, la Rue des Vignes indicates there was once a vineyard there. Perhaps the Rue Berton (picture) can help us imagine the old streets.  In Balzac’s street, you have now a stunning view on the Eiffel Tower. Balzac lived in this house from 1840 to 1847. (He died in 1850). It was the ex-Foly of a mansion located on the street. As it is build on a hill, the house where Balzac used to live is below. The mansion has been destroyed but the entrance remains.

 

The house is very modest and Balzac went underground there during seven years: he was bankrupt and he literally hid there from his creditors. The lease was in the name of his governess and the place had two exits to help him escape if needed. He lived there under the name of “M. de Breugnol” and Théophile Gautier was one of the rare persons to know his real address.  

This is where he reviewed La Comédie Humaine and wrote many masterpieces like La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misère des courtisanes or La Rabouilleuse. He wrote to Madame Hanska on February 2nd, 1845:“To work means to get up everynight at midnight, work until 8am, have a fifteen minutes breakfast, work again until 5pm, have diner, go to bed and start again on the morrow”. He worked 15 to 18 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay awake. His coffeepot is in the house.

The apartment is composed of five small rooms and today, they show to the public portraits and sculptures of Balzac, his friends and relatives. A room is dedicated to his long-term love with Madame Hanska. I suppose that many of the furniture and objects presented there were saved by Madame Hanska when Balzac died. They had been married for five months and she died in 1882. She was still living in their house and Balzac was already a master in literature.

 

One of the room is Balzac’s tiny office, I could only count six footsteps from one wall to the other. It’s really there that he used to work and his table and chair are under our eyes. It was really moving. It wasn’t just any table or any chair. He was attached to them and took them with him any time he moved in a new place. They’ve been with him all the time. The table is rather small and the edges bear the scars of his quill pen where he used to sharpen it impatiently or in the heat of the moment. He imagined most of La Comédie Humaine in that room. Would he have worked so intensely if he hadn’t been locked there? (1)

In another room are shown the ink pads of the characters from La Comédie Humaine.

The publishers inserted illustrations in their Balzac editions. Some dated back to the first edition by Furne but most of them dated back to the early 20th edition. This room also shows a genealogical tree of Balzacian characers. It’s so complex it’s almost impossible to understand. To think he had everything in his head is amazing.

After the visit, I spend some time in the garden. I sit on a bench in Balzac’s tiny garden to write this review on that pink notebook I carry with me all the time to write anywhere at any time. According to the letters he sent to Madame Hanska, Balzac loved flowers and he used to look at his garden through the window.

 

 

 

 

I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment. The visit was touching, I felt I was paying a tribute to this hard worker of literature. It’s not a cemetery but it was as solemn for me. His writing habits were unhealthy and perhaps led to his untimely death. We owe him that tribute. It was a lovely moment and I hoped I shared it with you.

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 (1) Same question for Proust and his illness that kept him in his room. Sachs says that at the end of his life Proust wasn’t even able to go to the cinema.

Literary walk in Paris for my book pals

August 18, 2011 23 comments

I’m currently in Paris and thanks to Caroline’s review, I have Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke. I really enjoy this charming literary guidebook and I noted down some places I wanted to visit.

So today, I’ve been walking in the 5th Arrondissement on the traces of many literary ghosts. I took pictures with my phone, so they’re far from excellent – plus I’m a lousy photographer – but I wanted to thank each of my regular commenter by a personal photo.

For Caroline who made me discover that guidebook and many other books  and who steadily reads everything I write, here is Hemingway’s building Place de la Contrescarpe.

For Guy who also manfully reads all my posts, this is the N°30 rue Tournefort where Mme Vauquer had her Pension.

and also a cinema I believe you’d love to visit:

Do you think this bookseller inspired Laurence Cossé for her Novel Bookstore?

Max, look at this Proustian bookstore where you might love to go when you retire and eventually have all the time you want to read:

Leroy,  this is where Joyce wrote Ulysses.

As you might not be happy with the plaque telling he was a “British writer from Irish origin”, does this street name make up for it?

Sarah, I’m sure you were interested in the place where Joyce wrote Ulysses but here is the Rue Mouffetard, the street in the children’s tales by Pierre Gripari, La Sorcière de la rue Mouffetard. Unfortunately, they haven’t been translated into English.

Amateur Reader, there is a plaque to indicate that Retif de la Bretonne died here:

Litlove and Caroline, I’ve been to 11 rue Tuiller, where Rilke wrote the letters he sent to Lou Andreas Salomé and that will turn into The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte lives there too.

Sorry Himadri, despite my thorough walk in the neighbourhood, I couldn’t find the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Cie.

Richard, Borges stayed rue des Beaux Arts but it’s in the 6th Arrondissement.

I’ve had a lot of fun doing this. If anyone has been forgotten, sorry, it wasn’t on purpose. Many thanks again to all for your messages as it is still difficult and sometimes terribly frustrating to write in English, so encouragements through thought-provoking comments are much appreciated.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:

 

September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

Like a rolling stone

May 25, 2011 25 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

March 11, 2011 36 comments

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  

Transportation.

Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.

America 

It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

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