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Next reading club year is 1956: It’s heaven sent, I’m rooting for this edition

April 27, 2020 20 comments

Kaggsy and Simon have announced the year they chose for the next reading club. The idea is to read books published in a specific year and write reviews about them.

It will be 1956 and it will take place from October 5 to October 11.

Can you imagine that The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary was published on October 5th, 1956?

Now, is there any other book to read for #1956Club? It’s serendipity! 😊

The Roots of Heaven won Gary his first Prix Goncourt. Set in Africa, we follow Morel, an early environmentalist who fights against the killing of elephants. Morel is assisted in his task by two misfits, Minna and Forsythe. In Morel’s mind, the destruction of nature leads to the destruction of humanity and while saving elephants from extinction sounds futile, it’s actually symbolic. If we lose that fight, what will become of humanity?

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

Can you imagine that Gary wrote this in 1956? What would he think about the environmental crisis we’re facing now? The Roots of Heaven also mentions the burgeoning fight for independence of African colonies and Gary proves to have a lot of insight when you know what will happen next.

If you want to know more about this outstanding novel, I recommend James Henderson’s review.

But there were other noteworthy books published in 1956. I’ve done a bit of research and came up with:

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. This one I want to read as I’m a Baldwin fan.*

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming. Espionage isn’t my cup of tea, I’ll skip this one.

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. I really recommend this one and my billet about it is here.

There’s Always a Price Tag by James Hadley Chase. I don’t know what this one’s worth.

French Leave by PG Wodehouse. I’d like to read this one, just because of the title, especially since in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, literally, to take the English leave. It’s all a question of perspective, right?

Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima. I guess everyone has heard of classic of Japanese literature.

The Fall by Albert Camus. I read this one a long time ago and a re-read could be welcome.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa. (Diadorim, in French translation) I’ve had this daunting masterpiece on the shelf for ages. Maybe it’s time to read it.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. I really recommend Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It’s wonderful and full of life.

The Fingerprint by Patricia Wentworth (La Trace dans l’ombre, in French) I’ve read it pre-blog. I used to read a lot of easy crime fiction like Wentworth when my children were little and when juggling with toddlers, a full-time job and other obligations didn’t leave a lot of brain power to read. I have fond memories of these books.

Nedjma by Yacine Kateb. I’ve never heard of this one but I’m tempted to read a novel by an Algerian writer published during the time of French colonization. I’d like to read more about it from the Algerian perspective.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Mcdonald (La côte barbare, in French) Gallmeister has started to publish new translations of Mcdonald’s books, it could be an opportunity to read one.

– In 1956, Ed McBain published three books of the 87th Precinct series, Cop Hater, The Mugger and The Pusher. Has anyone read them?

The Diamond Bikini by Charles Williams. Does anyone know if it’s good?

– For French readers, there’s L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst, a Hungarian book not translated into English.

I already know that I won’t be able to read all these books but I had a lot of fun researching them and you should have seen me internally squeal when I discovered that 1956 was the next chosen year. 1956, the year The Roots of Heaven was published!

Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 16 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik

July 22, 2018 4 comments

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik (2017) Original French title: Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre.

In 2017, two novelists published a novel about Romain Gary and his childhood in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The first one was Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik and the second one was A Certain Mr Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I have read both and already wrote a billet about the Désérable.

And now it’s time to discuss Romain Gary Goes to War, a biographical novel where Laurent Seksik imagines twenty-four hours in the life of young Romain Gary in his last year in Wilno. There is no accurate information about these events, nothing precise enough to lead a journalistic enquiry. The only things we know came from Gary and he was an unreliable narrator of his own past.

Seksik imagines these moments and we need to keep this in mind while we read his novel.

During the first part of the book, we’re on January 26th, 1925. Romain Gary was still named Roman Kacew. He’s almost eleven and living in the Jewish ghetto of Wilno. His father Arieh Kacew is a furrier by trade. He has just left his wife Mina and his son Roman to go and live with his pregnant mistress. Mina is thinking about emigrating to France. She’s barely scraping by and she wants more for her son.

January 26th is when Arieh plucks up the courage to tell his son that he’s going to be a father. This destroys any hope that young Roman could have had to see his parents reunited. It also means less money for Mina and him. Seksik makes up a believable Arieh, someone who wanted a serene domestic life and couldn’t live with Mina anymore. He wanted a gentle journey through life and she was a roller-coaster. Under Seksik’s pen, Mina comes to life, a character with a strong personality, someone difficult to live with, someone larger than life and consistent with the way Gary portrays her in Promise at Dawn.

Seksik gives life to the ghetto in Wilno, conjures up Roman’s extended family on his father’s side. They were religious, contrary to Mina. He shows us an intelligent young boy who wants to be close to his father, who lives with a formidable and trying mother whose moods are unpredictable. He pictures a young boy who’s clever, shy, in love with a classmate and tries to navigate in his current stormy waters.

On January 27th, 1925 Mina’s hat chop closes down. She’s bankrupt and she now has nothing to lose. She needs to start over. Her decision is made, emigration it will be and her son will be a great man.

The epilogue of the book is set in Wilno in 1943. The Jerusalem of the East that counted 60 000 Jews in 1941 has only a few thousands now. The Nazis have destroyed the ghetto and assassinated its inhabitants. Roman Kacew has lost his family.

Seksik recreates two days that will be decisive in young Roman’s future. He’s losing his father, his mother loses her business and he’s going to lose his quotidian.

From a literary point of view, I don’t think that Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre brings much. The style is fine but not brilliant and even if lots of details sound accurate, the inner thoughts of the characters are pure imagination. It is a good book to get a feeling of where Gary came from and also to deconstruct the myth he built around his father’s identity. All his life, he wanted the world to believe that he was a hidden son of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. His biographs demonstrated that it was not possible. He had repudiated Arieh Kacew, either because he wasn’t flamboyant enough or to avoid thinking and talking about his assassination by the Nazis.

Seksik takes time to describe Wilno, its ghetto and the Ashkenazi Jewish community’s everyday life. It’s like a reportage with virtual reality showing you a reconstruction of the pyramids or Pompei. And this part was interesting because it takes the reader into Gary’s world and it helps to understand his work. I thought about this book when I reread The Kites a few months later.

It’s remarkable to see that a few months after Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre went out, François-Henri Désérable published Un certain Monsieur Piekielny. Both books are about Gary’s childhood in Wilno. Both books are a way to remember what happened in Wilno, how a whole community was exterminated, how the Nazis changed this city forever. It was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

Out of the two books, the Désérable is the definitely the best. It’s more elegant, deeper with a delicate lightness. It’s more moving in the sense that the connection between the reader and the book is more emotional. The parts between his actual search for M. Piekielny and the ones where his imagination wanders are more clearly cut. Seksik’s books gives us to see Wilno and young Roman but it doesn’t say anything about his relationship with Gary’s literature. Désérable writes a mix between an enquiry, a personal quest and an ode to a man who is part of our literary Pantheon.

The Kites by Romain Gary – supplement with spoilers

May 1, 2018 3 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Kites, here are additional thoughts about the book. It’s preferable to read my other billet before this one because I’m not going to repeat the summary of the novel.

Some biographical elements about Romain Gary are necessary at this stage, before we dive into this billet together. Romain Gary was born in 1914. His name was Roman Kacew and he was a Jew from the ghetto in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) He emigrated to France with his mother Mina when he was 14. After studying law, he spent time in the aviation. When WWII started, he joined the Resistance early in 1940. He wrote his first novel, Education européenne in 1943. It was published in 1945. The Kites was published in 1980, the year he committed suicide.

The last words of The Kites are “car on ne saurait mieux dire” (“Because there isn’t anything better to say than that”) It’s like the end of his personal literary journey. He’s said it all and The Kites is a book that responds to Education européenne. His work has come to a full circle.

Indeed, Education européenne tells the love story of Janek and Zosia, two Polish resistants during WWII. They are in the Polish forest, in winter, trying to hide and fight. The Kites tells the love story between Ludo and Lila and resistance in Normandy. It is a bridge between Poland and France, through Lila and Ludo. It’s the parallel story to Education européenne and Gary refers to the resistance in Poland, in passing. First, Tad, Lila’s brother is presumably in the Polish forest, fighting against the Germans. And in Education européenne, one of the characters is named Tadek. Some passages refer to the Polish resistance, like here:

Il est normal que Lila ne soit pas là à m’attendre, car si nous ne savons pas grand-chose des maquis polonais et des groupes de partisans qui se terrent dans la forêt, je me doute bien que la réalité [Les Nazis] là-bas doit êre encore plus vigilante, plus odieuse et plus difficile à vaincre que chez nous. It’s normal for Lila not to be there waiting for me. We don’t know much about the Polish Resistance and the partisan grups hiding out in the forest, but I can only imagine than reality [the Nazis] must be even more vigilant there than it is here, more odious, more difficult to vanquish.

For me, The Kites is a way for Gary to look back at his first novel, the one that launched him as a writer.

I think there are also biographical elements imbedded in The Kites. Lila is a representation of France, Ludo is a bit like Gary himself and their long-lasting love story is a representation of Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country. See the coincidences:

  • Ludo first meets Lila when he’s ten. According to Laurent Seksik book, Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, young Roman Kacew was 10 when his mother Mina decided to emigrate to France.
  • Ludo doesn’t see Lila for four years before she reenters his life. He’s 14 when they really get to know each other. Roman Kacew and Mina arrive in France when he’s 14.
  • Lila is part of the Polish aristocracy. Lila’s family doesn’t see Ludo as a good party for her. He’s a small French guy, not aristocratic enough. When Gary joins the French aviation, he’s the only one in his class not to be promoted officer at the end of their training. Most probably because he was Jewish. Ludo isn’t good enough for Lila, the French army didn’t find young Kacew good enough for France.
  • However, Lila has accepted Ludo as her lover and she fell for him too.
  • During the war, Lila disappears for a while, like the real France went in hiding, according to Gary’s vision.
  • Lila prostitutes herself to survive, her debasement mirrors France’s debasement of the Vichy Regime. It doesn’t mean it was right, that it was inevitable but it is still an ugly stain in France’s history.
  • Then Lila comes back and resists.
  • When the war ends, she’s broken, stained but still alive and Ludo still loves her.
  • With Ludo’s behavior during the war, he’s now worthy of Lila. He became an aristocrat in post-war France thanks to his actions. The same happened to Roman Kacew. He was made Compagnon de la Libération, he was trustworthy for the new government and he became a diplomat.

That’s a lot of coincidences, no? It’s typical for Gary to write things upside down and make of France a Polish woman and of himself a young French man.

Other biographical elements are present in the Bronicki family. Here’s a quick description of them:

Il m’informa que Stanislas de Bronicki, le père de « Mademoiselle » était un financier de génie ; sa femme avait été une des plus grandes comédiennes de Varsovie, qui se consolait d’avoir quitté le théâtre en faisant continuellement des scènes. He informed me that Stanislas de Bronicki, “Mademoiselle’s” father, was a wizard financier, and that his wife had been one of Warsaw’s greatest comediennes. She had given up her career, but compensated for the sacrifice by constantly making scenes. (p27)

Countess Bronicka seems to share traits of character with Mina, Gary’s mother. She was a former comedienne and she was constantly making scenes. In chapter 17, Count Bronicki is working on a scheme to earn money by selling pelts. There’s a full page about it and isn’t it a coincidence that Arieh Kacew, Gary’s father was a furrier in Wilno?

I’m sure there are other clues that escaped my notice. Gary’s suicide wasn’t done on a whim or during a bout of despair. It was prepared. This was prepared too. And it’s hard not to imagine that he thought that Because there isn’t anything better to say than that it was time to bow out.

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

April 29, 2018 19 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

Fête du livre de Bron – Bron Book Fair : A certain M. Désérable

March 11, 2018 23 comments

The 31th Fête du Livre de Bron was from March 7th to March 11th. It’s dedicated to contemporary literature and this year I was interested in hearing François-Henri Désérable talk about his book A Certain M. Piekielny. (See my billet about it here)

His book – I don’t know if I can call it a novel or if it the term autofiction fits, I’m never good with literary boxes—relates his investigation about M. Piekielny, a character mentioned by Romain Gary in the 7th chapter of his fictionalized autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn. At the time he was a little boy still named Roman Kacew.

It was a very interesting interview, F-H Désérable is an entertaining guest, always quoting one author or the other and gracing us with a scintillating conversation with Christine Ferniot, the journalist in charge of this interview.

The discussion turned around fiction and reality, how literature could give life and immortality to people. He said he can only write books based upon real events, real characters. According to him, the frontier between fiction and reality is porous. Some characters from novels sound truer than life, it is said that on his death bed, Balzac called the doctor he had created in his books. Writers can embark us on a journey they never made themselves and it still feels real. Real persons can cross the line and wander on the side of fiction.

As I mentioned in my billet, while researching M. Piekielny, F-H Désérable brings back the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno in the 1920s, when Gary lived there. This world has disappeared and as he puts it, the Nazis destroyed the people, the Soviets destroyed their architectural heritage. Nothing visible remains of them in Vilnius.

But literature has this power. It only needs a pen and a sheet of paper, as far as Gary was concerned and a computer, as far as Désérable is concerned to give birth or leave a testimony of a whole world. Both writers saved from oblivion the Piekielnies of Wilno. Fleeting memories become solid when written down and printed. They are there, they stay with us, they won’t let us forget them. As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.

The journalist asked how he worked on his style, how he liberated himself from Gary’s presence to find his own voice. He explained that it was a difficult book to write, at the beginning. He wanted to digress. He thought about Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, a writer he admires a lot. For our great pleasure, he stopped the self-censorship and gave himself permission to digress. He also felt that his natural tone was too casual, too flippant for such a grave topic as the destruction of Wilno’s Jewish ghetto. He’s right to say that this tone was possible because it’s something Gary mastered at. Humor was an armor and a weapon to overcome the atrocities of life and to prove that humanity was above them because even in terrible circumstances, it kept its sense of humor.

Gary committed suicide in 1980. F-H Désérable thinks that he did it because he had lost faith in the power of literature and that since life and literature were so entwined in his life, one couldn’t go one without faith in the other. That’s a way to see it.

Un certain M. Piekielny was also a personal journey for its author. It was an opportunity for him to wonder why he was so drawn to Promise at Dawn when he was seventeen. His conclusion is that his mother is kacewian, that she belongs to the same category of mothers as Mina Kacew, Gary’s mother. I guess mine could fit in this category as well.

It was a fascinating hour with a very young writer (He was born in 1987) who said he became a writer to have a professional justification to all the time he spends reading. His broad culture is humbling, I wonder how he managed to know all this when he’s so young.

There was a signing after the conference and I was determined to talk to him, to tell him how much I loved his book. I raced down to the alcove where he was settling and was happy to be the one and only there when I arrived. I started gushing about his book and dared to tell him that if he wanted to read what I thought about it, he could read it on my blog. I slipped him my Book Around the Corner card and he glanced at it and exclaimed: “It’s you!” I was stunned to discover that he had read my billet and had transferred it to the person in charge of negotiating the rights for the English translation of his novel. His publisher, the prestigious Gallimard, has sold the rights for a translation in ten languages and they can’t find a publisher willing to translate it into English. *Sigh* You Anglophone people should really work on spreading the love of literature in translation.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to chat a little bit with him and I was happy to discover someone very approachable and friendly. I really, really hope that they find an English translator for his book.

Of course, there’s no book fest without adding to the TBR. I wandered in the festival library and benefited from a friend’s knowledge of Arabic literature to get new books and I got two Australian books as well.

If you’ve read any of these books, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and a link to your review.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 11 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

Saturday literary delights, squeals and other news

October 28, 2017 25 comments

For the last two months, I’ve been buried at work and busy with life. My literary life suffered from it, my TBW has five books, I have a stack of unread Télérama at home, my inbox overflows with unread blog entries from fellow book bloggers and I have just started to read books from Australia. Now that I have a blissful six-days break, I have a bit of time to share with you a few literary tidbits that made me squeal like a school girl, the few literary things I managed to salvage and how bookish things came to me as if the universe was offering some kind of compensation.

I had the pleasure to meet again with fellow book blogger Tom and  his wife. Tom writes at Wuthering Expectations, renamed Les Expectations de Hurlevent since he left the US to spend a whole year in Lyon, France. If you want to follow his adventures in Europe and in France in particular, check out his blog here. We had a lovely evening.

I also went to Paris on a business trip and by chance ended up in a hotel made for a literature/theatre lovers. See the lobby of the hotel…

My room was meant for me, theatre-themed bedroom and book-themed bathroom

*Squeal!* My colleagues couldn’t believe how giddy I was.

Literature also came to me unexpectedly thanks to the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière. A couple of weeks ago, I came home on a Friday night after a week at top speed at work. I was exhausted, eager to unwind and put my mind off work. LaBaconnière must have guessed it because I had the pleasure to find Lettres d’Anglererre by Karel Čapek in my mail box. What a good way to start my weekend. *Squeal!* It was sent to me in hope of a review but without openly requesting it. Polite and spot on since I was drawn to this book immediately. LaBaconnière promotes Central European literature through their Ibolya Virág Collection. Ibolya Virág is a translator from the Hungarian into French and LaBaconnière has also published the excellent Sindbad ou la nostalgie by Gyula Krúdy, a book I reviewed both in French and in English. Last week, I started to read Lettres d’Angleterre and browsed through the last pages of the book, where you always find the list of other titles belonging to the same collection. And what did I find under Sindbad ou la nostalgie? A quote from my billet! *Squeal!* Now I’ve never had any idea of becoming a writer of any kind but I have to confess that it did something to me to see my words printed on a book, be it two lines on the excerpt of a catalogue. Lettres d’Angleterre was a delight, billet to come.

Now that I’m off work, I started to read all the Téléramas I had left behind. The first one I picked included three articles about writers I love. *Squeal!* There was one about visiting Los Angeles and especially Bunker Hill, the neighborhood where John Fante stayed when he moved to Los Angeles. I love John Fante, his sense of humor, his description of Los Angeles and I’m glad Bukowski saved him from the well of oblivion. It made me want to hop on a plane for a literary escapade in LA. A few pages later, I stumbled upon an article about James Baldwin whose novels are republished in French. Giovanni’s Room comes out again with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou and there’s a new edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two books I want to read. And last but not least, Philip Roth is now published in the prestigious La Pléiade  edition. This collection was initially meant for French writers but has been extended to translated books as well. I don’t know if Roth is aware of this edition but for France, this is an honor as big as winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which Roth totally deserves, in my opinion.

Romain Gary isn’t published in La Pléiade (yet) but he’s still a huge writer in France, something totally unknown to most foreign readers. See this display table in a bookstore in Lyon.

His novel La Promesse de l’aube has been made into a film that will be on screens on December 20th. It is directed by Eric Barbier and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Nina, Gary’s mother and Pierre Niney is Romain Gary. I hope it’s a good adaptation of Gary’s biographical novel.

Romain Gary was a character that could have come out of a novelist’s mind. His way of reinventing himself and his past fascinates readers and writers. In 2017, at least two books are about Romain Gary’s childhood. In Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, Laurent Seksik explores Gary’s propension to create a father that he never knew. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my TBR.

The second book was brought in the flow of books arriving for the Rentrée Littéraire. I didn’t have time this year to pay attention to the books that were published for the Rentrée Littéraire. I just heard an interview of François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny, a book shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. And it’s an investigation linked to Gary’s childhood in Vilnius. *Squeal!* Stranded in Vilnius, Désérable walked around the city and went in the street where Gary used to live between 1917 and 1923. (He was born in 1914) In La promesse de l’aube, Gary wrote that his neighbor once told him:

Quand tu rencontreras de grands personnages, des hommes importants, promets-moi de leur dire: au n°16 de la rue Grande-Pohulanka, à Wilno, habitait M. Piekielny. When you meet with great people, with important people, promise me to tell them : at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka street in Wilno used to live Mr Piekielny.

Gary wrote that he kept his promise. Désérable decided to research M. Piekielny, spent more time in Vilnius. His book relates his experience and his research, bringing back to life the Jewish neighborhood of the city. 60000 Jews used to live in Vilnius, a city that counted 106 synagogues. A century later, decimated by the Nazis, there are only 1200 Jews and one synagogue in Vilnius. Of course, despite the height of my TBR, I had to get that book. I plan on reading it soon, I’m very intrigued by it.

Despite all the work and stuff, I managed to read the books selected for our Book Club. The October one is Monsieur Proust by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret. (That’s on the TBW) She talks about Proust, his publishers and the publishing of his books. When Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, Proust had five luxury copies made for his friends. The copy dedicated to Alexandra de Rotschild was stolen during WWII and is either lost or well hidden. The fifth copy dedicated to Louis Brun will be auctioned on October 30th. When the first copy dedicated to Lucien Daudet was auctioned in 2013, it went for 600 000 euros. Who knows for how much this one will be sold? Not *Squeal!* but *Swoon*, because, well, it’s Proust and squeals don’t go well with Proust.

Although Gary’s books are mostly not available in English, I was very happy to discover that French is the second most translated language after English. Yay to the Francophonie! According to the article, French language books benefit from two cultural landmarks: the Centre National du Livre and the network of the Instituts français. Both institutions help financing translations and promoting books abroad. I have often seen the mention that the book I was reading had been translated with the help of the Centre National du Livre.

I mentioned earlier that the hotel I stayed in was made for me because of the literary and theatre setting. I still have my subscription at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon and I’ve seen two very good plays. I wanted to write a billet about them but lacked the time to do so.

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The first one is Rabbit Hole by Bostonian author David Lindsay-Abaire. The French version was directed by Claudia Stavisky. The main roles of Becky and Howard were played by Julie Gayet and Patrick Catalifo. It is a sad but beautiful play about grieving the death of a child. Danny died in a stupid car accident and his parents try to survive the loss. With a missing member, the family is thrown off balance and like an amputated body, it suffers from phantom pain. With delicate words and spot-on scenes, David Lindsay-Abaire shows us a family who tries to cope with a devastating loss that shattered their lived. If you have the chance to watch this play, go for it. *Delight* On the gossip column side of things, the rumor says that François Hollande was in the theatre when I went to see the play. (Julie Gayet was his girlfriend when he was in office)

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The second play is a lot lighter but equally good. It is Ça va? by Jean-Claude Grumberg. In French, Ça va? is the everyday greeting and unless you genuinely care about the person, it’s told off-handedly and the expected answer is Yes. Apparently, this expression comes from the Renaissance and started to be used with the generalization of medicine based upon the inspection of bowel movements. (See The Imaginary Invalid by Molière) So “Comment allez-vous à la selle” (“How have your bowel movements been?”) got shortened into Ça va? Very down-to-earth. But my dear English-speaking natives, don’t laugh out loud too quickly, I hear that How do you do might have the same origin…Back to the play.

In this play directed by Daniel Benoin, Grumberg imagines a succession of playlets that start with two people meeting up and striking a conversation with the usual Ça va? Of course, a lot of them end up with dialogues of the deaf, absurd scenes, fights and other hilarious moments. Sometimes it’s basic comedy, sometimes we laugh hollowly but in all cases, the style is a perfect play with the French language. A trio of fantastic actors, François Marthouret, Pierre Cassignard and Éric Prat interpreted this gallery of characters. *Delight* If this play comes around, rush for it.

To conclude this collage of my literary-theatre moments of the last two months, I’ll mention an interview of the historian Emmanuelle Loyer about a research project Europa, notre histoire directed by Etienne François and Thomas Serrier. They researched what Europe is made of. Apparently, cafés are a major component of European culture. Places to sit down and meet friends, cultural places where books were written and ideas exchanged. In a lot of European cities, there are indeed literary cafés where writers had settled and wrote articles and books. New York Café in Budapest. Café de Flore in Paris. Café Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon. Café Central in Vienna. Café Slavia in Prague. Café Giubbe Rosse in Florence. (My cheeky mind whispers to me that the pub culture is different and might have something to do with Brexit…) It’s a lovely thought that cafés are a European trademark, that we share a love for places that mean conviviality. That’s where I started to write this billet, which is much longer than planned. I’ll leave you with two pictures from chain cafés at the Lyon mall. One proposes to drop and/or take books and the other has a bookish décor.

Literature and cafés still go together and long life to the literary café culture!

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

Romain Gary Literature Month: wrap-up

June 3, 2014 18 comments

I wanted to publish this a little bit earlier but work got in the way. May is over now and so is Romain Gary Literature Month. It’s time to wrap things up and give you the list of the Romain Gary billets I’m aware of. If there are some more, please let me know.

Gary_CentenaireCaroline published a billet about a collection of short stories and unfortunately, she wasn’t thrilled by them. Gary is better with novels; it seems to me his prose blooms better in longer works. Passage à l’Est re-read Education Européenne and the novel was up to her memories. It’s a good one to read. Gary wrote it while he was roasting in Africa and it’s set in the cold and snowy winter of a Poland at war. Guy wasn’t enthralled by Your Ticket is No Longer Valid. It is not one I’d recommend for a Gary beginner unless you’re also a Philip Roth fan. I hope Guy will still want to try another one. Vishy loved Promise at Dawn and he’s willing to read The Roots of Heaven and White Dog. Déborah read Le Vin des morts. This is an early novel that had never been published. It’s been released for Gary’s centenary and now I need to read it too. I’m curious about it and Gary fans seem to like it. James Henderson re-read The Roots of Heaven and wrote an excellent review of Gary’s first Goncourt. And I read White Dog, the English version of Chien Blanc. My billet is here; it’s really excellent and I highly recommend it. (the book, not the billet)

Thanks to all of you for participating, reading or re-reading my favourite author. I will add links to you blogposts on my new page Reading Romain Gary. For late bloomers or late participants, let me know if you write something about him and I’ll add it to the page.

Meanwhile in France, his centenary was well celebrated. The great news besides Le Vin des morts is that Romain Gary’s work will be published in the edition La Pléiade. For non-French readers, La Pléiade is a luxurious edition of literature. It’s an honour for a writer to have his books in this collection. It is named after the famous group of French Renaissance poets. Gary would be proud to be edited in this collection, I think. For book publishing, it’s like royalty. Gary’s publisher Gallimard edited special bookmarks for the occasion and I’m glad my favourite independent bookstore gave me a set. Finally, bookstores celebrated the event, like here in Divonne-les-Bains:

 librairie_Gary

If you want to know more about Gary’s celebration in France, have a look at Delphine’s blog Romain Gary & moi.

I hope other readers will discover him, just like one of my friends recently did. She’s on her way to read them all.

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Romain Gary Literature Month: let’s get started!

May 1, 2014 23 comments

Gary_CentenaireHere we are! 1st of May! I declare that the Romain Gary Literature Month is open. Back in January, I mentioned that 2014 is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth. It is an event in France. Le Vin des morts, his first novel written under his real name Romain Kacew has been published. Lectures are organised and Folio publishes La Promesse de l’aube with a cover mentioning the anniversary. I’ve decided it will be the banner for this event. Let’s celebrate Romain Gary! I’ve been showering you with billets and quotes by him since January. I hope you were tempted to try one of his novels; I tried to pick passages from different books.

I will be reading White Dog in English and write a billet here. If you decide to participate, please, leave a comment with the link to your review. I’ll read them all.  If you don’t have a blog and want to publish a guest review on Book Around The Corner, please contact me via email or by leaving a comment. In any case, comments are welcome, I’m looking forward to discovering your thoughts, positive or negative, about my favourite author.

Now, let’s look at covers:

Gary_EnchanteursGary_ChienGary_clair_femmeGary_LadyLGary_RacinesGary_VieGary_adiuGary_calin

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

Romain Gary captures my fascination for America in one sentence

April 20, 2014 6 comments

I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up

That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.

I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.

Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:

Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.

The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.

PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

April 16, 2014 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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