L’argent by Emile Zola. 1891. (Money).
Disclaimer: I have probably made mistakes on the business terms I use in this post. I had to check them in the dictionary and it can be perilous. Moreover, there are spoilers in this billet but I’m not sure it would really ruin the suspense of the book for someone who hasn’t read it.
As I mentioned in my previous entry about Money by Zola, I was engrossed by the business details described in the book and I wanted to research a little bit the laws for banking in the Second Empire. I’ve had trouble finding sources but I eventually found information on Wikipedia and stumbled across a very useful essay.
The underlying question was: is Zola accurate in his descriptions of the financial circles at the time or when he depicts of the speculation? The answer is yes. I’m not saying that he got all the details right, I don’t have time to check that thoroughly. From what I’ve read, I think he picked details in different episodes that occurred from 1850 until the time he wrote the novel and painted an accurate overall picture.
Why a volume about banking?
I’ve read that the 1850-1860s were the years of big changes in the banking world. Most of today’s French banks were founded at the time. With the development of railroad, steel industries and other industries requiring large funds to be launched, it appeared that the circulation of money wasn’t satisfactory. Before the Second Empire, banks were run by families upon their own fortune and they were responsible of the debts of the bank on their own money. In Great-Britain, the banking system had already gone through important changes (first “modern” bank in 1834) and the business circles in Paris wanted to do the same in France. In 1863, just a year before the story of Saccard starts, the regulation for founding a Société Anonyme (a Plc) became more flexible. As long as the capital wasn’t over 25 million Francs, you didn’t need a State authorization to found the bank. With a Société Anonyme, the shareholders of the company are no longer obliged to reimburse the losses on their own fortune. It’s not a surprise that the Banque Universelle starts with 25 million francs; Saccard doesn’t need a clearance from the government, and thus from his brother, the powerful Rougon, to start his bank.
Was the Société Anonyme of the 1860s very different from today’s?
I was very interested in the information Zola gives on the articles of incorporation of the Banque Universelle. Some regulations already existed but no controls were done and the rules were breached. For example, just as today, all shares must be subscribed to complete an increase in capital; a company isn’t allowed to own their own stock, the shares must be paid at least up to 25% at the moment of the subscription. (And, I guessed, the rest of the cash needed to be paid within 4 years.) This hasn’t changed. I thought the Board of Directors had too many members for proper governance. How do you run a company with a Board of 20 people? There was already a control of the accounts, done by two auditors.
|Et il n’y avait plus qu’à élire les deux commissaires censeurs, chargés de présenter à l’assemblée un rapport sur le bilan et de contrôler ainsi les comptes fournis par les administrateurs : fonction délicate autant qu’inutile, pour laquelle Saccard avait désigné un sieur Rousseau et un sieur Lavignière, le premier complètement inféodé au second, celui-ci grand, blond, très poli, approuvant toujours, dévoré de l’envie d’entrer plus tard dans le conseil, lorsqu’on serait content de ses services.||It then only remained for them to elect the two auditors, whose duty it would be to examine and report on the balance sheets and in this way check the accounts supplied by the management—functions, at once delicate and useless, for which Saccard had designated a certain Sieur Kousseau and a Sieur Lavignière, the first completely under the influence of the second, who was a tall, fair-haired fellow with very polite manners and a disposition to approve of everything, being consumed with a desire to become a member of the board when the latter, later on, should express satisfaction with his services.|
Although the English word is auditor, it is clear in French (commissaires censeurs) that these two persons don’t have the same independence and the same right to investigate as today’s commissaires aux comptes. (also auditors). When I was reading, the structure of the 1864 Société Anonyme sounded familiar; there are more controls today and more regulations but the general framework is the same. The controls are more efficient, even if they aren’t perfect.
Saccard and the white collar crimes committed in Money.
A few weeks before reading Money, I attended a fascinating conference by a commissaire detached from the police force to the service of the AMF, the French SEC. He was presenting all the criminal offences a CFO could commit and well, Saccard made them all: bankruptcy, paper dividends, fraudulent financial statements, insider trading. He also explained how the AMF monitors stock exchanges to detect abnormal changes in stock market prices, sometimes leading to an investigation. Any time a big event is announced for a company (a merger for example), the AMF checks out the stock market price on the few days or weeks before the announcement. There is no such control in Money. The financial circles perfectly know that the stock market prices are manipulated. Big investors use the Bourse to fight personal battles and ruin companies. Investors also play for their own profit. The battle between bulls and bears at the Bourse really occurred in these years, causing havoc in the economy.
Money, the scandals at the Bourse and the collapse of the Union Générale in 1882
According to Wikipedia, the climate around banks was really the one described in Money. A Jules Mirès used the press to manipulate the opinion and attract investments on certain stock. The press was linked to the business circles in unethical ways. In Money, Saccard buys a newspaper and advertises a lot about the profits and the activity of the Banque Universelle. An Achille Fould who wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother, used his position as a minister to fight against the liberalization asked by the business circles. Saccard isn’t on speaking terms with Rougon, who is still in the government. Rougon takes the opportunity to kill Saccard when he has the chance.
The Union Générale was a Catholic bank founded in 1878 by Eugène Bontoux. It went bankrupt in 1882, it lasted four years, like the Banque Universelle in Money. The pope’s secretary was involved in the capital, it invested in North Africa and in Egypt. In Money, the Banque Universelle, a similar name to Union Générale, is close to Catholic investors. Saccard and Hamelin want the Banque Universelle to help settle the pope back in Jerusalem and meanwhile it invests in Turkey and Lebanon.
The value of the Union Générale grows until January 1882 when it collapsed. It came from an overcapitalization of the company, bad governance as the company owned their own shares and from a deadly fight between bulls and bears. Many small investors were involved through brokers and lost their fortunes. It generated a violent recession with social consequences. It’s exactly what happens in Money. Bontoux fled to Spain; Saccard immigrates to Holland. At the time, the opinion reacted strongly to this scandal because of the speculation that happened, the involvement of clergymen in the capital of the bank. It inspired Zola who had the genius to link the speculation on properties in the wake of the transformation of Paris by Haussmann to the speculation on stock markets. Saccard is the link as he is a participant in both frenzies. It shows an atmosphere of thirst for money that was, from what I read, a reality in those years.
Money and the anti-Semitism
Money was published before the Dreyfus Affair started and we all know what role Zola played in it. Zola already describes the rampant anti-Semitism of the business circles, especially in the bank industry. I was ill-at-ease when I read Saccard’s outbursts against Jewish bankers. Sadly, it appears it was accurate; Catholic bankers made a point to fight against Jewish ones. The roots for the Dreyfus Affair are there and it confirms what Proust depicts in In Search of Lost Time. It grows slowly but strongly; it shows that Vichy could happen because there were strong roots for anti-Semitism before the war.
The little research I’ve done proves that Zola is accurate in the description of the events, of the climate of that time. I found Money fascinating because it’s really the creation of modern capitalism. I have to say I’m not satisfied with this billet because I would have liked to dig a little bit more. I don’t have time for this, unfortunately. So it goes.
I picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.
A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.
I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.
The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:
The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.
I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.
However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.
[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”
The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:
“It’s raining hard.”
“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”
“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.
“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”
“I like it.”
“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”
“I’ll love you always.”
“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”
“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”
Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.
For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.
To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)
So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.
A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.
L’Argent by Emile Zola. 1891 The English translation I used for the quotes is by Vizetelly.
L’Argent was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late) and we all loved it.
|Et la Bourse, grise et morne, se détachait, dans la mélancolie de la catastrophe, qui, depuis un mois, la laissait déserte, ouverte aux quatre vents du ciel, pareille à une halle qu’une disette a vidée. C’était l’épidémie fatale, périodique, dont les ravages balayent le marché tous les dix à quinze ans, les vendredis noirs, ainsi qu’on les nomme, semant le sol de décombres. Il faut des années pour que la confiance renaisse, pour que les grandes maisons de banque se reconstruisent, jusqu’au jour où, la passion du jeu ravivée peu à peu, flambant et recommençant l’aventure, amène une nouvelle crise, effondre tout, dans un nouveau désastre.||And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster.|
I promise Zola wrote this and not a contemporary journalist. It’s a quote from Money, one of the last books of the Rougon-Macquart series. It was published in 1891, just before La Débâcle.
In this volume, we are in 1864 and we find Aristide Saccard again, one of the main characters of La Curée (The Kill). My post about The Kill was entitled Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power. Well, Aristide Saccard hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the novel, he is defeated, living rather poorly in an apartment in the hotel of the Princess D’Orviedo. She inherited a colossal fortune from her dead husband who didn’t earn it honestly. She’s expiating his faults by using his money for charities. Saccard works for one of her charity, the Institute of Work and runs it rather well. In the same hotel live a brother and a sister, M. Hamelin and Madame Caroline. They are also impoverished and try to make ends meet. Hamelin is an engineer and when he describes to Saccard all the great projects he could be starting in Asia Minor, Saccard sees an opportunity to start a new business, a bank. The three friends discuss the projects and Saccard relies on Hamelin’s ideas to promote his new company and new way of earning money.
Basically, the book relates the rise and fall of the Banque Universelle, created by Saccard with financial partners. It shows the madness of the stock exchange, the way people are corrupted by money easily earned on betting on the right stock and selling them at the right time.
The strength of the novel is the large net of secondary characters who serve one purpose: to show all kinds of unhealthy relationships with money and prove how it can turn honest people into despicable beings. All the characters in Money are involved with money at a level or another.
The main one is Saccard who appears like a megalomaniac, enjoys money for itself, for the power it gives him. He’s addicted to money. He’s full of energy, is afraid of nothing, is busy inventing scheme after scheme to reach his goal. At some point, he seems crazy. At the same time, you can’t despise him totally because he is hard working, full of enthusiasm but his ideas of grandeur are totally disproportionate. He has an appetite for life, for power and for all kinds of pleasures. Zola compared him to Napoleon: a man with lethal ideas or projects beyond imagination, someone who is a real leader, adored by people and at the same time leading his troops to death and desolation. Saccard is shown as a Napoleonic businessman. Zola describes his fall with lots of military comparisons and they enforce the image of Saccard as a Napoleon of finance.
|Les cours, de chute en chute, tombèrent à 1 500, à 1 200, à 900. Il n’y avait plus d’acheteurs, la plaine restait rase, jonchée de cadavres.||The quotations, from fall to fall, dropped to one thousand five hundred, one thousand two hundred, nine hundred francs. There were no more buyers ; none were left standing ; the ground was strewn with corpses.|
When I read the French original, I cannot help thinking about Hugo’s poem L’Expiation about the battle of Waterloo. (Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !)
Along with Saccard’s business, Zola portrays the business circles in Paris and especially the ones gravitating around the stock exchange, la Bourse. He describes the development of a new type of capitalism around banks and Sociétés Anonymes (Plc or AG). He depicts the workings of the Bourse, the behavior of investors, the optimists, the pessimists, the ones for who silence is gold. Zola shows the reader how enriched bourgeois, using impoverished nobility for their name are the new masters of the Bourse. He details rotten business practices, the manipulation of stock value and how people make money out of speculation. He always compares it to gambling.
The side characters are vivid too and Zola uses them to show how the madness of speculation, of easy money that corrupts people. It’s Dejoie, who buys stocks of the Banque Universelle to earn the 6000 francs he needs to pay for his daughter’s dowry. When the stock exchange price rises, he could sell and get his 6000 francs but he wants more. It’s the Maugendres who disowned their daughter because she married a poor writer and who’d rather play on the stock market than help her financially. It’s women who use prostitution to earn more.
Aside from the Bourse, Zola portrays the dirty market of bad debts and of devaluated stocks. Busch is our man and here is his business:
|Mais, outre l’usure et tout un commerce caché sur les bijoux et les pierres précieuses, il s’occupait particulièrement de l’achat des créances. C’était là ce qui emplissait son cabinet à en faire craquer les murs, ce qui le lançait dans Paris, aux quatre coins, flairant, guettant, avec des intelligences dans tous les mondes. Dès qu’il apprenait une faillite, il accourait, rôdait autour du syndic, finissait par acheter tout ce dont on ne pouvait rien tirer de bon immédiatement. Il surveillait les études de notaire, attendait les ouvertures de successions difficiles, assistait aux adjudications des créances désespérées. Lui-même publiait des annonces, attirait les créanciers impatients qui aimaient mieux toucher quelques sous tout de suite que de courir le risque de poursuivre leurs débiteurs. Et, de ces sources multiples, du papier arrivait, de véritables hottées, le tas sans cesse accru d’un chiffonnier de la dette : billets impayés, traités inexécutés, reconnaissances restées vaines, engagements non tenus. Puis, là-dedans, commençait le triage, le coup de fourchette dans cet arlequin gâté, ce qui demandait un flair spécial, très délicat. Dans cette mer de créanciers disparus ou insolvables, il fallait faire un choix, pour ne pas trop éparpiller son effort. En principe, il professait que toute créance, même la plus compromise, peut redevenir bonne, et il avait une série de dossiers admirablement classés, auxquels correspondait un répertoire des noms, qu’il relisait de temps à autre, pour s’entretenir la mémoire.||In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of ‘bad debts.’ This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of Paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries’ offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the ; sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments !of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again ; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory.|
A charming profession, isn’t it? This man is merciless when he tracks down old debts and the additional expenses reach incredible amounts. I haven’t checked, but I bet these professionals really existed. This questions the access to credit: these debts were a way to have credit somewhere, when we basically rely on banks for this now.
Zola tries to balance his judgment. On the one hand, even evil characters have a good side. Busch is also a very kind brother attending to his ill relative like a mother hen. Saccard was perfectly honest when he ran the Institute of Work. On the other hand, the generous characters aren’t as good as it seems. The Princess d’Orviedo gives her fortune away but the useless luxury she puts in her charities is to be criticized too. She gives her money away more for herself, because this money is dirty, than to really improve the beneficiaries’ life. She could do more if the investments were more efficient.
Madame Caroline is the only character who seems to keep her moral compass but she is also momentarily blinded by Saccard. He’s hard to resist. She’s seduced but can keep to her promises when she has decided something. She’s the only one who’s interested in life for itself and who has a healthy relationship with money. She enjoys it when she has some but wouldn’t give up her principles for more. If her income decreases, she adjusts her way of living.
Lots of elements in this novel were depressing because things haven’t changed that much since Zola. The behaviours he describes still exist. Crashes like Enron look a lot like the crash of the Banque Universelle and their outcome is alike with major consequences for shareholders and the whole market. Small people lose their fortune, but aren’t they responsible for stupidly believing that making so much money without doing anything was sustainable? If Money rings true, it’s because the foundation of all this is greed. The alternative is represented in the book by Busch’s brother Sigismond. He’s a thinker and an idealist who dreams of a Marxist society. Zola depicts him as a idealist. The society he dreams of cannot be implemented because it is based on the absence of greed and greed is part of the human nature. It’s doomed to failure.
Money also prepares the reader to La Débâcle. The political events mentioned here and there remind the reader that a war is in the air. The crash at the Bourse (a real one occurred in 1867, probably resulting in the new Corporate Law of July 24th, 1867) is described as a battle field and prefigures the agony of the regime.
Money is an excellent novel. I was really interested in the business and legal elements it includes and will come back to them in another entry. Highly recommended.
Discover Guy’s excellent take on this novel here.
Sleeping patterns by J.R. Crook. 2012. Published by Legend Press. Not translated into French. (It would suit Les Editions de Minuit, though)
I rarely receive solicitations from writers or publishers to read their books and I don’t complain about it. Indeed, I’m not comfortable with the idea or the feeling of someone expecting a billet from me, and of course, a glowing one. Otherwise, why bother sending free copies of books? I don’t want to feel guilty about writing a negative billet. Of course, I’m not conceited enough to think that a negative billet on Book Around The Corner will ruin the book’s chance of success; I just think about the writers who put something about themselves for us to read and well, I suppose negative billets aren’t agreeable to read. So, when I received an email from J.R. Crook asking whether I’d like to read his book, I wanted to refuse right away. I decided to go and have a look at Litlove’s review of his novel, Sleeping Patterns. The review is entitled In praise of “Difficult books”. I thought “Ooh, not good.” I browsed through it and spotted a reference to experimental fiction and Roland Barthes and it made me cringe. “Definitely not good” was the next thought. I emailed the writer, warning him that I probably wasn’t the right reader for his book, having a hectic history of hit-and-miss with experimental fiction. But he was brave enough to send it anyway.
So Sleeping Patterns? I’m supposed to write a summary of the book and I won’t. It would ruin everything for someone who would want to read it. Let’s say it opens with an introduction by Annelie Strandli, a.k.a Grethe. She’s a character of the book and she explains that the author, J.R. Crook, is dead. She received Sleeping Patterns by the post, chapter after chapter. The table of contents lists chapters in the order Grethe received and read them, ie not in the chronological order of the events. I was intrigued.
I started to read, not knowing what to expect. The chapters are in a strange order, the characters pop in and out; most of the events happen in a residence for students in London. Their lives are intertwined and one of the characters is Jamie, the author of the novel. It reminded me of Short Cuts by Robert Altman and of Money by Martin Amis, because he’s also in the story as a writer. I was about to take a sheet of paper to write the names of the characters and map out the links between them but I stopped. I spend ten hours a day in an office, thinking rationally; there is no room for the irrational in my job, believe me. I was about to slip into my usual and well-experienced thinking pattern when I decided against it. I thought it would be healthy for me to give up the rational for a moment, to let myself be drifted by the book, catching what the writer wanted me to catch when I was reading a specific chapter, hoping that the confusion would dispel as I progressed in my reading. I was right.
I read Sleeping Patterns in one sitting, not able to put it down. I was in the perfect mood for it, the rain outside my windows mirroring the rain in the book. At a point, the novel questions our ability to daydream, an activity I enjoy but can rarely indulge in because I don’t have time for this, except when I’m on holiday. That’s why I love the beach. It’s a place where adults are authorized to lay down and daydream.
It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. You don’t go out of the atmosphere and have to re-enter it after picking the book again. You have all the details in mind and it’s easier to reconcile the pieces of the jigsaw and see the interactions. There are multiple layers in the book but it’s not confusing as the story between Grethe and the aspiring writer Berry Walker remains the life-line of the narrative. You wander a bit, don’t go from point A to point B in a straight line but you remain on the main path.
I didn’t find Sleeping Patterns difficult to read or difficult to understand. I think that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein by Marguerite Duras is a lot more difficult to read than this. (Same thing for a more conventional narrative as The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst.) After making a conscious decision to forget about the usual construction of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The chapters felt like memories or flashbacks from dreams. After Proust, everyone knows that memories don’t come in chronological order or sorted in a logical or rational way. They come unexpectedly and dreams aren’t always consistent, are they?
I’m happy I decided to go past my initial wariness and that I gave this novella a chance. Changing of thinking pattern brought a bit of fresh air, I should do it more often. If I have a cheeky message for the author, it would be this one: Lots of people who read know nothing about literary criticism and theories. They just enjoy reading and appreciate a good style. Scaring them off with references to highbrow literature thinkers doesn’t do any justice to your book. Don’t burden your writing with these heavy shadows, it deserves better.
|Les mots sont faits pour scintiller de tout leur éclat. Il n’y a pas de limite concevable à leur agencement parce qu’il n’y a pas de limite à la couleur, à la lumière. Il n’y a pas de mesure à la mesure des mots. Il ne viendrait à l’idée de personne de mettre un frein à la clarté nue de midi en été. Les mots. Silex et diamant. Votre rôle est de fouiller là-dedans à pleine main au petit bonheur. Pourvu que ça rende le son qui est en vous quand vous écrivez.Louis Calaferte.||Words are made to scintillate of all their brightness. There is no conceivable limit to their order because there is no limit to colour, to light. There is no measure that measures up with words. Nobody would dream of refraining the raw brightness of light at noon in the summer. Words. Flintstone and diamond. Your role is to dig in there heartily and haphazardly. As long as it gives back the sound that is in you when you write.|
I find this quote beautiful as it intertwines all sensations with the pleasure of reading and writing. One more chapter is what I say to myself at night when I know I ought to turn off the light but am reluctant to put my book down. When a book is gripping, how can you resist?
One more chapter: Book Around the Corner is three-years-old. I decided to celebrate that milestone with a little book entitled Au Bonheur de lire or To Happiness in Reading. The English translation doesn’t give back the literary reference of the French title. Au Bonheur de lire refers to Au Bonheur des Dames by Zola. (Ladies’ Paradise for you, dear Anglophone readers) It’s a collection of texts about reading and it is split in three parts.
The first one covers childhood memories of hours spent with a book. They are either fake (excerpt from Madame Bovary) or real (Les Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The second part describes the pleasure of immersing in someone else’s words and thoughts, and sometimes feel like they’re your own. I was touched by the passage of Septentrion by Louis Calaferte; I’d like to read this book. The third part concentrates on books as an object and the strange relationship we have with our books. This relationship is changing now that we can read on ebooks. (Well, not in France since only 1% of books sold are ebooks, according to a recent article in Télérama)
It was a lovely book, an ode to my favourite hobby, to the blissful hours spent with the words of others. As a coincidence, I read it shortly after watching a fantastic theatre version of Farenheit 451. It was directed by David Géry who has also directed a theatre version of Bartleby. The play was faithful to the book (spectacular fires on scene) and once again it struck me how Bradbury managed to imagine things that are now part of our daily life: music in the ear, huge flat screens, pills. The people who fight against the loss of books were present on scene at the end of the play. They weren’t actors, only avid readers sharing a quote from their favourite book. Very moving and an incredible celebration of literature.
My blog aims at celebrating literature too, at sharing my enthusiasms or my disappointments. I hope it makes you want to try a new writer sometimes. Talking about favourites.
Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes recently posted his personal Pantheon of writers, based on a simple criterion “after reading one of the books by the author, I had the strong desire to read everything that author had ever written”. I like this criterion because I feel free to leave aside geniuses who don’t speak to me or are interesting but no fun reading, even though I acknowledge their literary worth. So, here is my Pantheon:
- Romain Gary. Do I need to say something?
- Jane Austen. Under polite and civilized phrases lays a sharp analysis of the society of her time.
- Philippe Djian. American in style and French in the characters.
- Molière. Laugh was his weapon. Massive destruction of egos in his wake.
- Philip Roth. From a character’s daily trivialities to the analysis of our world.
- Raymond Chandler. Crime fiction breaking into literary fiction.
- Thomas Hardy. Irony and poetry in rural England.
- William Somerset Maugham. Leaning on a character’s story to explore the core of mankind.
- Emile Zola. Isn’t he almost historical fiction?
- Dezső Kosztolányi. Humanity, poetry and description of society all wrapped in one.
- Philippe Besson. For his incredible ability to share passion and its forceful wave.
- Jim Harrison. For the American dream and his flawed characters.
- David Lodge. For his British sense of humour.
- Rainer Maria Rilke. Beautiful, soothing and painfully human.
- Anne Perry. Excellent series of historical crime fiction in London. She manages to renew herself.
- Edith Wharton. Acute perception of the human heart, feminism and both in France and America.
- Max Barry. When I read Company, I laughed so hard I decided I wanted to read all of his books.
- Antal Szerb Impossible to describe in a few words.
- Elizabeth George. Inspector Linley and Barbara Havers are sort of relatives by now.
- Steven Saylor. No one resuscitates Rome during the Roman Republic like he does.
Please welcome this billet as a heartfelt thank you for reading, following, commenting, putting up with my typos and misuse of the English language and take it as an opportunity to share your Pantheon in the comments. I’d love to discover the writers who thrill you.
L’école des femmes by Molière. 1662. The School for Wives.
I’ve seen a brilliant production of The School for Wives by Molière, directed by Jean Liermier and I can’t wait to share this with you. It’s a play I’d never read and the French title misled me. When I heard L’école des femmes, I thought The School for Women as in French we only have one word for woman and wife. I assumed it was something about educated women like in The Learned Ladies. Not at all.
The main character of this play is Arnolphe. He’s a middle aged bourgeois, a rich merchant. He recently changed his name into de la Souche, to give it a noble resonance. Arnolphe is a bachelor and his greatest fear in life is to be married to an unfaithful wife. He abundantly made fun of husbands among his acquaintances when they were unfortunate cuckolds.
Arnolphe is now ready to settle down and his friend Chrysalde warns him against the risk of ridicule if his wife eventually deceive him. Arnolphe then exposes his plan: he took the young Agnes away from her peasant family, had her raised in a convent and now keeps her in a separate house until he marries her. He made sure that she’s as stupid as possible as he doesn’t care for an intelligent wife. Quite the contrary. His assumption is that a silly wife will be less tempted to flirt and betray him. So Agnes is naïve, so ignorant that she recently asked whether babies are born in a woman’s ear. Arnolphe is more than delighted by her stupidity.
When Arnolphe comes home to see her, he stumbles upon Horace, one of his friends’ son. The young Horace doesn’t’ know that Arnolphe is now M. de la Souche and he tells Arnolphe that he’s madly in love with Agnes and that she returns his affections. Arnolphe is devastated and confronts Agnes. She has met Horace quite innocently and relates the origin of their acquaintance. He flirted with her, sent a messenger to win her heart with sweet paroles:
Agnès. “Have I wounded any one? ” I answered, quite astonished. “Yes,” she said, “wounded; you have indeed wounded a gentleman. It is him you saw yesterday from the balcony. ” “Alas!” said I, “what could have been the cause? Did I, without thinking, let anything fall on him? ” “No,” replied she; “it was your eyes which gave the fatal blow; from their glances came all his injury.” “Alas! good Heaven, ” said I, “I am more than ever surprised. Do my eyes contain something bad, that they can give it to other people? ” “Yes,” cried she, “your eyes, my girl, have a poison to hurt withal, of which you know nothing. In a word, the poor fellow pines away; and if ” continued the charitable old woman, “your cruelty refuses him assistance, it is likely he shall be carried to his grave in a couple of days. ” “Bless me!” said I, “I would be very sorry for that; but what assistance does he require of me?” “My child,” said she, “he requests only the happiness of seeing and conversing with you. Your eyes alone can prevent his ruin, and cure the disease they have caused.” “Oh! gladly,” said I; “and, since it is so, he may come to see me here as often as he likes.’’
Arnolphe(aside). O cursed witch! poisoner of souls! may hell reward your charitable tricks!
Agnès. That is how he came to see me, and got cured. Now tell me, frankly, if I was not right? And could I, after all, have the conscience to let him die for lack of aid?—I, who feel so much pity for suffering people, and cannot see a chicken die without weeping!
Agnes is so ignorant of all worldly manners that she doesn’t catch the figurative meaning of words and takes everything literally. How can she not rescue a poor man who’s dying because her looks almost killed him? Poor Arnolphe is now the victim of his own scheme. He raised her to be stupid; she behaves accordingly and with such a perfect honesty that he can’t complain. Agnes falls in love with Horace. Like any adolescent, she discovers love and desire. She rebels against Arnolphe and is unhappy to be so uneducated. She resents Arnolphe for keeping her away from the world. He wanted to play God, to be Prometheus and it didn’t work.
Molière is a brilliant playwright, very accessible. He mocks everyone. Arnolphe is ridiculous is his attempt to create his perfect wife. However he loves Agnes and I felt compassion for him and his unrequited love. There are memorable passages about Arnolphe’s vision of women and marriage.
“The Maxims of Marriage; or the Duties of a Wife; together with her Daily Exercise.
First Maxim. “She who is honourably wed should remember, notwithstanding the fashion now-a-days, that the man who marries does not take a wife for anyone but himself.’’
Second Maxim. “She ought not to bedeck herself more than her husband likes. The care of her beauty concerns him alone; and if others think her plain, that must go for nothing.
Third Maxim. “Far from her be the study of ogling, washes, paints, pomatums, and the thousand preparations for a good complexion. These are ever fatal poisons to honour; and the pains bestowed to look beautiful are seldom taken for a husband.”
Fourth Maxim. “When she goes out, she should conceal the glances of her eyes beneath her hood, as honour requires; for in order to please her husband rightly, she should please none else.”
Fifth Maxim. “It is fit that she receive none but those who visit her husband. The gallants that have no business but with the wife, are not agreeable to the husband.”
Sixth Maxim. “She must firmly refuse presents from men, for in these days nothing is given for nothing.”
Seventh Maxim. “Amongst her furniture, however she dislikes it, there must be neither writing-desk, ink, paper, nor pens. According to all good rules everything written in the house should be written by the husband.”
Eighth Maxim. “Those disorderly meetings, called social gatherings, ever corrupt the minds of women. It is good policy to forbid them; for there they conspire against the poor husbands.”
Ninth Maxim. “Every woman who wishes to preserve her honour should abstain from gambling as a plague; for play is very seductive, and often drives a woman to put down her last stake.”
Tenth Maxim. “She must not venture on public promenades nor picnics; for wise men are of opinion that it is always the husband who pays for such treats.”
The audience – full of teenagers as this play is studied in school –guffawed at the words. Heartily. This sounded so ridiculous. I’m glad French men find it funny and improbable. However, I thought about the film Wadjda directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour from Saudi-Arabia and I recalled that Wadjda wouldn’t find this so funny but rather close to her everyday life.
I love Molière because he’s always an advocate of moderation. He makes fun of Arnolphe in this play and of learned ladies in another one. He shows his contemporaries that ignorance isn’t a solution; only balance can be a viable path. In the end, Arnolphe hurts someone to save himself from a potential ridicule, for honour’s sake. Chrysalde tells a great speech about how to react when your wife cheats on you. To make a long story short: shrug it off. I’m not saying I approve of it but this might explain when the French are rather relaxed about extra-marital affairs. It’s a personal matter and the betrayed partner is the only person entitled to assess the importance of the affair on their relationship. From outside, nobody will judge the cheating partner the same way as they would judge them for being a thief.
In this play, Molière speaks directly to the cuckolds in the audience, which is unusual for him and it initiated laughter across the room. The production was excellent, timeless. The clothes were nice, each character wearing a coherent ensemble and yet they were hard to attach to a century or another. It was a patchwork of fashions across the centuries without looking like a weird costume.
Jean Liermier gave a comical and lively pace to this play. I forgot the alexandrins and the text is rather neutral regarding contemporary references like living in a kingdom or driving carriages. It highlighted the universal themes of the text. To picture Agnes’s isolated house, the director chose to build a house in a tree. I thought it was an excellent idea. Agnes was above the ground, kept prisoner in her wooden cabin. It gave the play the eternity of a fairytale, it reminded me of Rapunzel, kept in her tower. I also thought about Oedipus who stayed away to avoid fate, all in vain. Myths and fairy tales tell us it’s useless to try to protect someone from life.
An excellent time in the theatre.
Ceci est bien une pipe. San-Antonio by Frédéric Dard. 1999. Not available in English. (Again, I know, I know…)
For a French, San-Antonio is probably as famous Philip Marlowe. He a commissaire created by Frédéric Dard, a French crime fiction writer. There are 175 San-Antonio books and the first one was published in 1949. It’s a cult crime fiction series, my paperback edition even includes a guidebook by category. For example, you can know which novels are about a kidnapping. With such a reputation and such a fan base, I had to try one and my random pick brought me to Ceci est bien une pipe. Well not exactly random since the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe and I love Magritte.
Frédéric Dard is not translated into English and there’s certainly a reason to it: the style. It’s literary lad lit. – Try to say this aloud. That’s probably why this genre doesn’t exist in book stores, you can’t even pronounce it. So Frédéric Dard writes lad lit. That’s an undeniable fact: sex, dead bodies, fights, sex, dead bodies, fights,… the pattern is easy to recognize – not that I’m that familiar with the genre. The plot in Ceci est bien une pipe is as engaging as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Wait, actually, I still have to decide whether Scooby-Doo isn’t even more suspenseful than this. In addition, the characters aren’t well-drawn and they all seem rather strange. San-Antonio and his colleagues still live with their mothers in their old childhood rooms despite behaving like stinking machos. I’m not sure I want to know the Freudian interpretation of it.
Why didn’t I abandon the book? Because of the Queneau-like style. Frédéric Dard was well-read and his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres. It starts with the title as pipe is both a pipe and a blow-job. Now my challenge is to translate a few sentences to try to show you what I mean.
|English syntax Contremauvaisefortuneboncoeurfaisant||Makingthebestofabadjobly|
|Literary reference : Apollinaire’s poem Sous le Pont Mirabeau. Quand tu deviens gênant pour ton entourage, retire-toi dans un mouroir ou enjambe le parapet du pont Mirabeau sous lequel coulent la Seine et nos amours, tout le monde t’en saura gré.||When you become a burden to your relatives, retire in an old people’s home or cross the parapet of the Mirabeau bridge under which the Seine and our loves flow, everybody will be grateful.|
|Old FrenchChangeons de page, je vas te narrer la chose !||Let us change of page, I will narrate thou every thing!|
|Subtle lad litMon Dieu, pouquoi avez-Vous fait les “autruis” si chiants? Je ne demande que leur cul aux unes et un peu d’amicalité aux autres. Pour le reste, je parviens à m’arranger.||Dear God, why did Thou create the “others” so annoying? I only ask their ass to the ones and a bit of friendshipness to the others. The rest I can manage.|
|Play-on-words after discovering a mutilated bodyAujourd’hui, le fond de l’horreur est frais.Based on the French phrase « le fond de l’air est frais », meaning it’s chilly.||Today, the horror is chilly.|
It’s pearl after pearl of funny, inventive language and major use of argot – some words I didn’t even know. Lots of good play-on-words. Excellent ideas to twist the French syntax, include literal use of English expressions. To be honest, I had a lot of fun during the first 100 pages. Then it becomes old and tiring and since the plot wasn’t worth it…I finished it but used a lot of times the second unalienable right of the reader: I skipped pages, scanned through many ones and reached the end. You might love chocolate, when you eat too much of it in a row, you get sick.
By the way, Frédéric Dard comes from in Saint-Chef, a quaint village in the Dauphiné. It’s between Lyon and Grenoble and he makes several allusions to his region in the book. He includes local ways of speaking (mimi for kiss on the cheek), allusions to the Basilique de Fourvière (Lyon) and a touching reference to the cemetery in Saint-Chef, where he is now buried.
|[Je] songeais qu’après une longue immersion dans la médiocrité, je prendrai un pied éléphantesque dans le nouveau cimetière de Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné où j’irai attaquer mon éternité à l’ombre de la « Tour du Poulet » (XIIè)||[I] was thinking that after a long immersion in mediocrity, I’ll get an elephantly kick out of starting my eternity in the new cemetery in Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné, in the shadow of the Chicken Tower. (12thC)|
There really is a Tour du Poulet in Saint-Chef and it really dates back to the 12th century.
Touching as this is, no more San-Antonio for me, but I’m glad I read it. Frédéric Dard also wrote La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer, which was made into a film with Jeanne Moreau. I want to read this one as it doesn’t feature San-Antonio.