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The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 16 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

Sicily2

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 15 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)

 

Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.

 

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)

 

A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

 

In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

Sindbad ou la nostalgie, de Gyula Krúdy. L’aventurier de l’amour

January 10, 2016 5 comments

Sindbad ou la nostalgie de Gyula Krúdy (Nouelles: 1911-1935)

For readers who can’t read in French, I will publish another post in English about Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

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Krudy_SindbadSindbad ou la nostalgie est un recueil de nouvelles de l’écrivain hongrois Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). Les textes sont tous centrés autour du personnage de Sindbad, un personnage récurrent de Krúdy, son double littéraire, son aventurier imaginaire. Sindbad est un aventurier de l’amour qui effectue des voyages-pèlerinages sur les lieux d’anciennes amours, soit pour se remémorer des temps meilleurs, soit pour se faire pardonner sa conduite passée.

Les nouvelles ont été publiées entre 1911 et 1935, une période de plus de 20 ans qui a vu la mort de la Hongrie de la jeunesse de Krúdy. Sindbad vieillit lui aussi, au fil des nouvelles et les textes deviennent plus noirs au fil du temps, témoins de l’écrivain qui vieillit et de la situation du pays. Il se dessine en filigrane un Sindbad voyageur et bohème, éternel amoureux, non pas d’une femme mais des femmes et de l’éternel féminin.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

Voyage vers la mort (1911)

C’est un galant d’un tableau de Fragonard. Il prend plaisir avec les femmes et se sent éperdument amoureux à chaque fois. Pas de cynisme don-juanesque chez Sindbad. Non. Il se comporte avec les femmes comme un enfant dans une confiserie. En gourmand. Tout lui fait envie. Il a envie de toutes les goûter, la femme de l’aubergiste, l’actrice, la marchande, la photographe, la pianiste, la jeune fille d’à côté. Aimer est le grand point, qu’importe la maîtresse ? Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Ces vers de Musset conviennent parfaitement à Sindbad qui est toujours légèrement intoxiqué d’amour.

Au fil des nouvelles pourtant s’égrènent les ravages faits par ce cœur d’artichaut, d’autant plus dangereux qu’il est sincère. A l’instant t. Après, c’est autre chose. Il est charmant, charmeur, elles sont charmées, envoutées et changées. Et dévastées. Il n’hésite pas à les enlever, à les compromettre. Il est impulsif. Il laisse derrière lui des femmes désespérées, certaines se suicident ; il a des enfants qu’il ne connait pas. Il s’en trouve dans des situations périlleuses :

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

Il s’en tourmente, mais pas longtemps. Sindbad est insaisissable, volage, il butine de fleur en fleur, papillonne.

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesMalgré ma vision d’un Sindbad sorti d’un tableau de Fragonard, on est loin des salons libertins du 18ème siècle. L’ambiance est plutôt celle des provinces hongroises, des voitures tirées par des chevaux, de la neige, du froid et de l’ambiance un peu romantique, mystérieuse et presque mythique de ces hivers rigoureux. On est parfois un peu dans l’univers onirique d’un tableau de Chagall

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.

Une étrange mort (1925)

Krúdy est un poète en prose. Il m’a fallu du temps pour lire ce cours recueil de nouvelles par que l’écriture de Krúdy ne se boit pas à grandes lampées, elle se déguste à petites gorgées pour mieux saisir et apprécier la beauté des images, la légèreté des descriptions, le caractère irréel des lieux.

Une chauve-souris passait comme un soupir tremblant surgi du passé malheureux d’un inconnu.

Sindbad part en pèlerinage. (1925)

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Sindbad est nostalgique et Krúdy n’a pas son pareil pour écrire des souvenirs, nous faire palper des impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la vitire d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

La nostalgie pousse Sindbad à revenir sur les lieux de ses amours de jeunesse, histoires d’un soir ou de quelques mois. Ses anciennes amantes sont restées dans le village où il les avait cueillies. Certaines sont mortes après avoir refait leur vie ou sans s’être remises de leur histoire flamboyante avec un Sindbad inconstant. On est entre rêve et réalité, entre réminiscence et apparitions de fantômes des temps anciens venus hanter un Sindbad vieillissant.

On est ambivalent à l’égard de Sindbad et c’est la prose de Krúdy qui crée cette ambivalence. Sindbad est égoïste et cruel. La poésie des textes atténue la noirceur de ses actes. Il ne vaut pas mieux que le Rodolphe qui séduit Madame Bovary mais le filtre nostalgique mis par le style de Krúdy entre le lecteur et les faits tamise la gravité des actions de Sindbad et tempère l’horreur des conséquences de ses pulsions amoureuses.

Au bout du bout, les véritables pensées de Sindbad lui sont propres et le resteront.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propose des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Sindbad ou la nostalgie est publié aux éditions La Baconnière. Les nouvelles sont traduites par Juliette Clancier et Ibolya Virág, qui dirige la collection de littérature d’Europe Centrale pour La Baconnière. Je remercie l’éditeur et Ibolya Virág de m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de ce recueil de nouvelles.

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach

November 26, 2015 14 comments

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach (2009) French title : Crimes. Translated from the German by Pierre Malherbet.

German_Lit_MonthThis read belongs to two events, it is my Book Club read for November and it’s my participation to German Literature month. Ferdinand von Schirach is a defense attorney at the Berlin court. His collection of short stories is made of fictionalized real crime cases he encountered during his career. The collection includes eleven stories of about 25 pages each. Here is the list of the stories in English:

  • Fähner
  • Tanata’s Tea Bowl
  • The Cello
  • The Hedgehog
  • Bliss
  • Summertime
  • Self-defense
  • Green
  • The Thorn
  • Love
  • The Ethiopian.

SchirachEach story relates a particular case. We enter briefly into the personal story of the person accused of a crime. We are told the facts of the case and how it was judged. The prose is sober, without pathos. He never hides the horror of the crimes but still shows you how it happened and tries to understand why. He also gives us information about the German justice system which I found very interesting.

I won’t get into each story, it would be too long and would spoil the fun for prospective readers. I’ll just say they are varied, about blood crimes, bank robberies, break-ins or assaults. Their common denominator? Things aren’t as simple as they seem and the criminal’s life is unusual.

The titles of the stories are the same in French than in English, except for the first one (Les pommes, or Apples) and Green, which became Synesthésie in French (Synaesthesia). While I recognize in the choice of Synesthésie the French tendency to use complicated words when it’s not required, the change of the first title is important. Fähner is the name of the murderer of this particular story. I downloaded the Kindle sample of the German edition of Crime and the title of the first story is actually Fähner. So the change comes from the French translator. Les pommes relates to a part of the story originally named Fähner. It is not a whimsical change. Indeed, Crimes opens with a quote by Werner K. Heisenberg, The reality we can put into words is never reality itself and it closes with another quote Ceci n’est pas une pomme. (This is not an apple), left in French in the original edition of the book.

Magritte_PommeIt is actually the title of a painting by René Magritte and it echoes with the opening quote and the French title of the story opening the collection. With his series La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), Magritte represents an apple and writes it is not an apple. It is the representation of an apple, the image of an apple but not an apple in itself. There’s something beyond the image and what he paints is not the real thing. You can’t eat it or touch it. It gives you the illusion of knowing what an apple is. With this last quote, it seems to me that von Schirach reminds us that there’s more beyond the words. His stories are based on true cases but they don’t tell the truth or show you the real person. It remains a story, a representation of the facts and characters interpreted by the writer. What we’ve just read is not reality but a representation of reality.

Highly recommended.

 

Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 14 comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.

 

Vienna Tales

September 26, 2015 18 comments

Vienna Tales. A collection of short stories edited by Helen Constantine and translated by Deborah Holmes. Not available in French.

The good old days and good old Vienna belong together like husband and wife. When you think of one, the other comes to mind. There is something touching about the fearful assiduousness with which the Viennese seek to uphold the belief that the good old days are still here in Vienna and that the city remains unchanged. (Heinrich Laube)

I’d already planned to spend a few days in Vienna in August when I read Marina’s review of Vienna Tales, a collection of short stories by various authors. As the title gives it away, Vienna is the common point between the stories. Some are snapshots of life in Vienna at different times:

  • Day-Out by Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
  • Merry-go-round by Joseph Roth
  • Vienna 1924 to …by Friedericke Mayröcker (1924)
  • The Prater by Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868)
  • Ottakringerstrasse by Christine Nöstlinger (1936)

Vienna_TalesIn these stories, you wander in Vienna along with the writers, discovering neighbourhoods and places. For example, Day-Out is an impressionist description of an outing in the outskirt of Vienna and the story is so short it’s more like a vignette than an actual story. The Prater is the big park in Vienna a mix of Central Park and Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen). Stifter’s description of people promenading in the park reminded me of Zola in Money or Proust when they show us bourgeois parading in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne.

Some stories focus on a moment in Vienna’s history.

Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-1884) portrays Metternich, a major Austrian political figures of the 19thC century, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat.

Lenin and Demel by Anton Kuh (1890 – 1941) is set between the two world wars and starts with an image of Bela Kun standing at Vienna’s gates. Demel is a famous café in Vienna. It reminded me of the beginning of Anna Edes by Desnő Kostolányi: the first scene is Bela Kun fleeing from Budapest in an airplane, taking with him pastries from Gerbeaud, the Budapest counterpart of Demel.

In The Twilight of the Gods in Vienna, German author and film director Alexander Kluge. (1932) retells the episode of WWII when the Vienna orchestra recorded The Twilight of the Gods during the bombing of Vienna by the Allies.

Other stories are common short stories set in Vienna, like

  • The Four-poster Bed by Arthur Schnitzler. (1862-1931)
  • Oh Happy Eyes. In memoriam Georg Groddeck by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)
  • Spas Sleeps by Dimitré Dinev (1968)
  • The Criminal by Veza Canetti (1897-1963)
  • Envy by Eva Menasse (1970)
  • Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (1961)

The two stories by Schnitzler are very short too, infused with melancholy and philosophical thoughts. Where Roth is mainly descriptive, journalistic, Schnitzler looks more into the souls of his characters.

Spas Sleeps is one of my favourite stories of the collection. It resonates with today’s news about refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Dimitré Dinev is of Bulgarian origin, just like his character Spas Christov. The story opens to Spas, sleeping outside like a bum. He arrived in Vienna to find work, build a new life. He remembers his years as an immigrant and how work becomes the only thing that matters. It’s the Open Sesame! to a future because it means the end of fear, identity papers, money and dignity.

Work was the most important thing. Everyone was looking for it, not everyone found it. And anyone who didn’t find it had to go back. Work was a magic word. All the other words were inferior to it. It alone determined everything. Work was more than a word, it was salvation.

It takes a special dimension with the migrants pushing through the doors of Eastern Europe these days. The story is really moving. Dinev is not trying to sell misery. He just puts Spas’s hardship at human height. Through this single case, he triggers empathy. You see Spas’s experience with eyes that could be yours and you hear him, you root with him and hope he’ll get a work permit.

Oh Happy Eyes! is a lovely tale of Miranda who’s blind as a bat but refuses to wear her glasses because she finds that the world isn’t that nice when she sees it with clarity.

And last but not least, two stories are about the Viennese literary world.

The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879) is another of my favourites in this collection. With a great sense of humour, Kürnberger pictures the different kind of feuilletonists working in Vienna. You have the house feuilletonist, the street feuilletonist, who strolls through the Hyde Park of modern industry like the serpent in paradise, seducing at every step the modern daughters of Eve who would much rather have the latest style in Parisian fig leaves than the most dewy-eyed innocence in all eternity, the salon feuilletonist, whose  natural habitat is actually Paris or London, the tavern feuilletonist, whose species is naturalized in the coffeehouse, the social feuilletonist and the forest feuilletonist who always walks alone. Seen from a distance, he resembles a candidate for suicide. I loved the description of the house feuilletonist:

‘There is, for example, the common house feuilletonist, Feuilletonistus domesticus. Only look at this exemplar and you will see right away that there is actually no need for city or public life to provide inexhaustible subject matter for a feuilleton. The material of the house feuilletonist is just that, his house. He describes to us his staircase, his parlour, his furniture, the view from his window. We are acquainted with the moods of his cat and the philosophical worldview of his poodle. We know the precise spot behind the oven where his coffee machine stands, and when he takes up the cross of civilization every morning with the first cup of the day, we know how many beans he grinds, how many drops of spiritus he uses, how much water is in his milk and chalk in his sugar. Like Humboldt discussing the folds of the earth’s crust, he talks about the tendency of his dressing gown to tear, missing buttons are sewn on before our eyes, in fact, he lives just like a prince whose every private action is performed in public. He seldom airs his own feelings (another aristocratic characteristic!), but shares with us in great historical detail the love affair between his poker and his shoe-horn, or else the stories he sees unfolding amongst the ornamental figures on his mantelpiece in the twilight hour.

I guess the contemporary house feuilletonist is a blogger, a frantic social media user. It seems that the temptation to expose one’s life to others is not new…

Out for a Walk by Arthur Schnitzler is best described by Helen Contantine is her informative foreword to the book:

‘Out for a Walk’ enriches my anthology not only with references to Viennese topography, but also to its literary history. The four friends would have been immediately recognizable to readers of the time as portraits of the central clique of ‘Young Vienna’: Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, and Richard Beer-Hofmann.

I totally missed the reference but I can understand that it was obvious to Schnitzler’s contemporaries.

I enjoyed Vienna Tales but I have suggestions about the lay-out of the book. Since we leap from one writer to the other, from one time to another, it would be great to have the year the story was published along with its title. Moreover, I have the Kindle edition and the lay-out of the pictures doesn’t work very well, I found it hard to navigate in the book and it’s something you want to do more with a collection of short stories from various authors than with a novel you’ll read from cover to cover. I also found it a bit difficult to switch from one story to the other, from one style to another and it took me longer than usual to finish the book. It’s still worth reading after a trip to Vienna.

I’ll end this billet with a last quote that really describes my experience with Austrian cuisine:

Overnight, Spas became a cook. He fried Schnitzel, chicken, mushrooms, cheese, and chips. He boiled egg dumplings, soup with strips of pancake or liver dumplings, frankfurter sausages and smoked sausages. He roasted meat and made salads. That’s how easy Austrian cuisine was!

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin – A must-read

July 26, 2015 29 comments

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) French title: Face à l’homme blanc.

book_club_2For July, our Book Club had picked a collection of eight short stories by James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man. Written between 1948 and 1965, these short stories were first published in magazines and totally blew me away. This is going to be one of my best reads for 2015. For those who wouldn’t know, James Baldwin is an African-American writer, born in Harlem in 1924. He was gay and struggled with the two prejudices of being black and gay in America. He left New York in 1948, settled in Paris and spent most of his later life in France. It’s important to know these biographical elements to understand his short stories. Here’s the list of the stories.

  • The Rockpile
  • The Outing
  • The Man child
  • Previous Condition
  • Sonny’s Blues
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon
  • Come Out the Wilderness
  • Going to Meet the Man

The Rockpile and The Outing feature the same characters, young black men in Harlem at the end of the 1940s. They show the life of the black community in Harlem, the codes, the importance of religion. If you’ve ever attended a service in Harlem or read a book by Chester Himes, this will ring a bell. Baldwin gives such a vivid picture of his neighborhood and of the complexity of being homosexual in this context.

After a moment, Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.

All the stories give us an insight of what it was to be black in America in that time. Some are set in the South, some in New York and one in Paris. This Morning, This Evening, So Soon is the most powerful story of the collection as it encapsulates all the others and dissects the condition of Afro-Americans. In this story, the narrator is black, American, from Harlem, living in Paris and on the verge of going home. He’s a successful singer, he’s married to a Swedish woman, Harriet and they have a son together, Paul. Baldwin uses the French word to describe Paul, he’s a métis, which means mixed-race.

It’s their last moments in Paris and the narrator is worried and wary. He remembers how life was for him back home and he’s afraid to go back. He’s been living in Paris for twelve years and he fears that he’s forgotten to behave like a black man in front of Whites in America. He explains that twelve years in Paris have liberated him from the ingrained attitude he used to take in front of a White. When his sister comes to Paris and gets acquainted with Harriet, it’s the first time she can speak to a white woman as her equal. He describes the proper attitude to have to stay out of trouble: a white person expects a Black to be stupid and respond with obsequiousness. Any attitude out of this line might be perceived as rebellious and the consequences of rebellion are too hard to tempt fate and not comply. Our narrator isn’t sure he can pull off the right attitude anymore.

In several stories, Baldwin also describes love relationships between Blacks and Whites and the prejudices attached to them. White men have preconceived ideas of black women: they don’t respect them and there’s this presumption of them being slutty. Black women may be tempted to date a white guy to climb the social ladder faster but it has a cost. The other way round, white women who would marry a black man have a tough life because it’s seen as degrading. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the narrator is worried for his white wife Harriet. He wonders if she’ll be exposed to harsh racism for marrying him. They’ve lived peacefully in Paris, she doesn’t know what life will be in the USA.

The stories go from 1948 to 1965. The first stories are full of resignation. They show the discrimination against Blacks in housing, at work and the difficulty to step out of the comfort of Harlem. The black outsiders, the ones who try to make their life among the Whites are in survival mode and never really fit in. The last story, Going to Meet the Man was published in 1965. The fight for civil rights is ongoing and the Blacks stop submitting to fate. With this short story, we spend an uncomfortable time in the mind of a white policeman in a state of the Deep South. The Blacks are fighting for their rights; he starts having insomnia. He has more and more difficulty witnessing atrocities and taking part to the repression. Through him, we saw how racism is embedded in his mind since childhood.

Baldwin_Going_ManJames Baldwin describes people who live on edge. They live in fear. They are afraid of white people, of having the wrong attitude, of being seen as antagonistic in spite of them. In their mind eye, they constantly look over their shoulder, it’s like an instinct for survival. They have the impression that they live at the Whites’ mercy, that the law isn’t on their side. It’s like living in a dictatorship where the arbitrary is king. And yet, he’s not angry or rebellious. He’s analyzing with incredible lucidity and precision the damages done by racism on a psyche. The characters aren’t free. They are not free of being themselves when they go out of their neighborhood; they have to control themselves to fit in; they live with a strong and rooted fear. I’m white. I’ve never read any writer who could make you understand and feel so well what it is to be victim of racism and how deeply it affects the soul of the persons who are ostracized for the color of their skin.

Baldwin has a knack for psychological insight. He x-rays the black psyche and he manages to bring it to the reader, to make them see through other people’s eyes. I understood why James Brown’s singing Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud was a strong message. That is an accomplishment in itself. It is associated with a sensible analysis of the American and French societies and with a strong sense of place. Paris comes to life like in a book by René Fallet and New York is stunning as in Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.

Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven. The people, so surrounded by heights that they had lost any sense of what heights were, rather resembled, nevertheless, these gray rigidities and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

The factual and moving description of the indelible marks that racism carves on someone’s soul will certainly stay with me. It is set in the USA and it is about African-Americans. But France doesn’t have a spotless record. The narrator of This Morning, This Evening, So Soon who lives in Paris says that the North-Africans immigrants are his kindred spirits. And he was right at the time (1960, in the middle of the war in Algeria) and unfortunately, he would be right today. Because, let’s face it, Islamic terrorism feeds the temptation to condemn someone on their “Arabic” looks. Because the police control you more often when your face says your family has roots in North Africa. Because the frequency of these controls leave permanent damages on someone’s identity. Because snide comments of ordinary racism you hear in the office, in your friend or family circle sometimes or on the streets are like a rampant disease, ready to spread further. And let’s not forget how hard it is for Christiane Taubira to be a black and female minister of justice.

I think Going to Meet the Man is a must-read for white American readers. It is also a must-read for white Europeans. We all need to face our history and our everyday life attitude.

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth breaking a #TBR20 oath, here’s a last quote, a taste of Baldwin’s marvelous style. It’s about jazz music.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order in it as it hits the air. What is evoked on him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

March 17, 2015 31 comments

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 13 comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.



No French toast from me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s

May 24, 2014 29 comments

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.

Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • House of Flowers
  • A Diamond Guitar
  • A Christmas Memory.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisBreakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.

I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.

I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.

That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.

Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 28 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie

August 13, 2013 11 comments

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie 2003. French title: Dix petits indiens.

Alexie_Dix_Petits_IndiensThis book came in the same birthday gift as Notting Hell and it just confirms one thing: J’ai Lu can’t be trusted while 10:18 are a sure bet. I’m referring to the respective publishers of the two books. While I never take a chance buying an unknown J’ai Lu book, I often give in trying an unknown writer published by 10:18. As I’m settling to write this billet, I’m very frustrated that I have a copy of Ten Little Indians in French, which means I won’t be able to insert quotes in my post. And Sherman Alexie’s prose deserves quotes. Ten Little Indians is a collection of nine short stories published in 2003 and Sherman Alexie sounds like a merger between Joseph O’Connor and Woody Allen.

Alexie is an Indian Spokane who lives in Seattle. His stories feature Spokanes who live in Seattle. I loved his quiet tribute to his people that resonates through his stories; this is his Joseph O’Connor side. The characters are single moms, losers, successful businessmen, homeless or students. This collection was published in 2003 and the consequences of 9/11 are present in the book. For example, Indians have a brown skin and are mistaken for potential terrorists by white racists. Alexie describes life in Seattle and detaches himself from Indian clichés.  Just as Joseph O’Connor pictures contemporary Ireland without falling for Irish clichés, Alexie avoids the pitfall of showing Indian traditions or portraying poor and drunk Indians. His Spokanes are like everyone else, poor or well-off, uneducated or university teachers, faithful spouses or cheaters,…His stories are original, full of funny characters and ooze tenderness for the Spokanes. Alexie wonders: what does it mean to be a Native American in the 21st century?

Alexie_Ten_Little_IndiansThe characters have a wicked sense of humour and deep feelings for their family. I loved Alexie’s sense of humour. That’s his Woody Allen side. When I was reading, I was thinking his characters had a Jewish sense of humour. Then later, one of them says that the funniest tribes are the Indians and the Jews and that it must have something to do with a sense of humour inherent to genocide. In another story, William is afraid to fly. Every time he needs to hop on a plane, he listens to his special playlist of songs written by artists who died in a plane crash. The story The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above made me laugh out loud. It’s told by Estelle’s son and he sounds like Alexander Portnoy minus the sex obsession or like Gary in Promise at Dawn. Jewish lit, I tell you. He relates his adolescence in 1976 with his feminist Spokane mother. Hilarious.

Writing about short stories is always challenging, I hope I was good enough for you to check out Sherman Alexie if you haven’t read him yet. He’s worth discovering. He’s certainly a writer I want to explore.

Now that I think of it, most of the regular readers of this blog can read French. You know what, I’m leaving you with quotes from my favourite stories of the book and coming from the French translation. It’s better than nothing, right?

Corliss se demanda ce qui arrivait à un livre qui demeurait trente ans sur une étagère de bibliothèque sans être lu. Est-ce qu’un livre qu’on ne lisait pas pouvait encore mériter le nom de livre ? Si un arbre s’abat dans une forêt et qu’il est réduit en pâte à papier dans le but de fabriquer un livre qu’on ne lira jamais, là où il n’y a personne pour le lire, est-ce que cela s’entend ?

In The Search Engine

 Another one:

Elle m’a emmené à sept matchs de baseball et quatorze lectures de poésie, et j’ai trouvé ces deux passe-temps étonnamment semblables :

1)      Est-ce que je dois applaudir maintenant ?

2)      C’était beau ?

3)      Pourquoi il se gratte les couilles ?

In The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above.

And the last one:

Jusqu’à ce jour, il ne m’est pas souvent arrivé de me regarder dans la glace et de me dire : je suis un Indien. Je ne sais pas nécessairement ce qu’un Indien est censé être. Après tout, je ne parle pas la langue de ma tribu et je suis allergique à la terre. Quand la verdure pousse, j’éternue. En salish, « Spokane » signifie « Enfants du soleil », et je suis un peu allergique au soleil aussi. Quand je passe trop de temps dehors, je récolte de vilaines éruptions. Je doute que Crazy Horse ait eu besoin de talc pour traverser une chaude journée estivale. Vous imaginez Sacajawea en train de franchir la ligne de partage des eaux la goutte au nez ? Je ne suis pas particulièrement représentatif de la fierté indigène. Je ne pense à mon héritage tribal que quand un Blanc me le rappelle :

Q : « Hé !, me, t’es Indien, hein ? »

R : « Euh, ouais »

In The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above.

Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

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