Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.
OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.
When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.
“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”
Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.
William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.
Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.
Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?
Summed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.
The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.
Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.
Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.
Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.
Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.
Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:
Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.
Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.
Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.
Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.
Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)
Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up
That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.
I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.
Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:
Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.
The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.
PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.
In 2014, Quais du polar celebrates its 10th anniversary. It’s a festival set in Lyon and dedicated to crime fiction in books and films. (See the meaning of the name here) The whole city is about crime fiction during three days. There are conferences, exhibits, films, a great book fair and a walk turned into an investigation in the Vieux Lyon. James Ellroy was there for a conference and he was the star of the festival. I didn’t have time to participate in anything but go to the book fair. Compared to other salons, publishers don’t have stalls there, only independent book stores do. It is reserved to independent book stores from Lyon. If you look up book stores in Lyon in the yellow page, there are 95 results. They some are specialised in SF or comics, children lit, scientific books… Only a few of them participate to Quais du polar. Each stand corresponds to one book shop and the writers present at the festival are dispatched among them. I guess the book shops made good money during the weekend, there was a lot of people there. The atmosphere was like a swarm of crime fiction readers buzzing around stands, waiting to meet writers and chatting with book sellers. It’s always nice to be among book enthusiasts.
Time to introduce you to a new French word: libraire. A libraire is a bookseller, a person who works in a book shop. But when I see bookseller I see vendeur de livres and not libraire because I’m under the impression that the selling part of the word is more important than the book part. When I hear libraire, I think of someone who loves books, reading books, being around books, talking about books and recommending books to others. The cash part of the story is only the ending, not the purpose. Books are not cans of green peas. A libraire is not a book seller. Libraire is a noble word that implies that the person in front of you is knowledgeable about books and will be all lit up if you share your reading with them. One of those owns the book store Au Bonheur des Ogres. I was happy to chat with him again as last year he had recommended The Blonde and Nager sans se mouiller. I told him how the copy of Nager sans se mouiller I purchased from him in 2013 is now sitting on a shelf in Beirut thanks to the magic of book blogging and that I had LOVED The Blonde. He’s a true crime fiction aficionado, he oozes crime fiction enthusiasm, it’s incredible. You could spend hours talking to him about books. This year, he recommended The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, La place du mort by Pascal Garnier and Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. (Turns out I already had the last one). We’ll see how it goes this year.
Lauren Beukes was also there, she’s very friendly. I now have a signed copy of her Zoo City. It was on my wish list after reading Max’s review. I managed to snatch a signed copy of The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson for my in-law. I haven’t read him –yet— but in France, he’s published by Gallmeister. So I suppose he’s good. Even without his cowboy hat and plaid shirt, you’d know he’s American. He’s very friendly too.
I said earlier that publishers don’t have stalls at the book fair. They are involved in the festival, though. I really liked the ads for the publisher Points. Tu ne tueras Points… mais tu liras des polars. Literally Thou shall not kill but thou shall read crime fiction. There’s a pun on Points / point which is an old version of the negative form pas.
I had a lot of fun that afternoon and I hope I’ll have more time to go to conferences and exhibits next year.
Les Enchanteurs 1973. (The Enchanters).
I’m not sure this one has been translated into English and to be honest, this is not my favourite Gary. A lot of readers love it but I’m not drawn to magical realism. The narrator of Les Enchanteurs, Fosco Zaga is an old man. He’s more than two hundreds year old and he cannot die until someone else loves a man or a woman as deeply as he loves Teresina. He talks about her because if he stops, she’ll really die. The book is set in Russia when Catherine the Great was ruling the country. Fosco Zaga grew up in a family of enchanters and of travelling entertainers of Italian origins and he resurrects Russia in the 18th century with his memories. Fosco is a dreamer, an illusionist that bathes in dreams:
|Je vais vous avouer qu’il m’arrive souvent de donner une préférence au rêve, ne laissant jamais à sa rivale la Réalité plus de cinquante pour cent des bénéfices, ce qui explique peut-être ma longévité, dont tant de gens s’étonnent, car ne vivant vraiment qu’à moitié, il est normal que ma ration de vie s’en trouve doublée.||I must admit that I’m often in favour of dreams, only giving away to their rival Reality barely fifty per cent of the profits, which might explain my longevity. It surprises a lot of people but as I only half-live, it is quite normal that my life ration be doubled. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.|
That’s Gary’s logic.
We only have three Wednesdays left before May which will be Romain Gary Literature Month. Several of you were interested in participating back in January, I hope you’ll still be there and willing to celebrate this wonderful writer with me.
Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. (The Journal of a Body)
I wrote that billet in French back in October 2013 and said that if anyone needed a translation, they should just ask for it in the comment section. Well, Sophie left a message asking for one, so here it is. A billet in French was a first, self-translating it is another first. For the original French, click here. So enjoy!
I was reading this book and I was thinking I won’t be able to write about this book in English, I don’t have the words. Then I thought that since most of the regular readers of this blog can read in French, I’d write in French for a change. I’m a bit intimidated, I must say. I’ve never written any billet in my native language. And the human brain is a strange thing, it compartmentalizes our experiences, learns, makes inventories and settles patterns. My brain is used to writing billets in English. This activity has been in English from the start and for my brain, switching from one language to the other is a bit against nature. But it’s not to ramble about my brain or my body that I cross that path today, it’s for Daniel Pennac.
Life is a grand theatre and we make out little performance every day, walking out on stage in the morning, as soon as someone lays eyes on us. The look of others makes our inner actor stepping in because as soon as we’re no longer alone, the other expects something from our presence, a certain behaviour, a feedback or simply reassurance. Writers like to show us what’s behind the curtain of that theatre and unveil the thoughts and feelings of the characters. With his Journal of a Body, Daniel Pennac chose to shed some light backstage. Our body. An unusual project, I have to admit.
When he turns twelve, a boy decides to control his body that betrayed him, giving away his fear. A paralyzing fear took his body and his sphincters abdicated, a real disaster in his pants. This child is the son of a Great War soldier, weakened and eventually led to death by the consequences of the toxic gas inhaled on the front. The father fades away, betrayed by his body. A little while after his death and this intestinal debacle, the son takes himself in hand. We are in 1936 and until his death, he will write the journal of his body, his life companion. The book is constructed as a diary and no significant event is written in it unless it has a bodily impact or unless it can be described through an alteration of his body. We guess what is happening in his life because some furtive words here and there unravel his great moments. After all, these events affect his body. The death of his nanny, Violette. His first lover. The first time he sees Mona, his future wife, love at first sight. And now, he’s a father:
To become a father is to become one-armed. I’ve only had one arm since a month; the other holds Bruno. One-armed from one day to the other, you get used to it.
The Journal of a Body is a funny book that talks about what cannot be said, what cannot be written. There is no deep analysis of feelings here, just the sensations of a body. Some are familiar to me like yawning, feeling fear squeezing your guts, dizziness, water on your skin in the shower, the dazzling attack of a tooth ache. Some are foreign to me since I’m a woman; I know nothing about the pleasure of a good shave in the morning. Some of the sensations reveal his feelings, show what’s happening on stage, where our man interacts with his public, his colleagues, his employees, his family.
I love Pennac; his ten inalienable rights of the reader are in a visible pad on my blog and the Malaussène series is a wonderful memory of reading. I love his humour, his warmth, his joie de vivre. His style is gourmand and gourmet, blunt but never vulgar. (“Love punctuation by Mona: give me that comma to turn it into an exclamation mark”) He intertwines poetry and mundaneness with a happiness that smells like childhood, cheeks reddened by games and the absence of ulterior motives. (“Our voice is the music that the wind makes when it goes through our body –well, when it doesn’t go out through our backside”) He never takes himself seriously. (You can scratch yourself to ecstasy but tickle yourself as long as you want, you’ll never make yourself laugh) His strength is that he doesn’t only describe his body as the recipient of stolen pleasures; he goes through everything, the good and the bad. This visible lightness, this sensorial badinage doesn’t prevent Pennac from serious thinking about the place of our body in society.
We spend our time comparing our bodies. But after childhood, only in a furtive, shameful manner. At fifteen, on the beach, I compared the biceps and abs of the boys of my age. At eighteen, I compared the bulge in their bathing suit. At thirty, forty, men compare their hair. (Poor bald ones!) At fifty, they look at pot bellies (Don’t have one), at sixty, they check teeth (don’t lose them). And now, in the assemblies of old crocodiles that are our supervisory bodies, they check backs, steps, the way you wipe your mouth, you get up or you put your coat on. Old age, actually, just old age. John looks older than me, don’t you think?
It’s so true, we do it without thinking. This story is both universal and unique. I’ve described the universal moments. But this man has also a relationship with his body that tells about his generation. We feel him a bit stiff, this father whose children never see him in pyjamas. At some point, he says he’d like to read the journal of a woman’s body to have a glimpse at this intimacy and understand, among other things, what it is to have breasts. Intriguing for a man, I assume. He describes his little miseries, his illnesses and his curiosity for a body that we only pay attention to when it violently or repeatedly reminds us of its presence. He makes experiments with his body like yawning in a meeting to see if it generates a yawning wave among the audience. This novel is brilliant, tender and sad at the same time. We discover a traditional, deadpan and generous man. A successful man, a faithful husband, a somewhat distant father, an affectionate grand-father. A man who sees his body as a roommate, in for life.
I really like this text and unfortunately, it’s not been translated into English for the moment. It was published in 2012, it may be available in English later. It’s probably a good book to buy for someone who’d like to work on his/her French. It’s a journal, composed of tiny moments; it allows a disjointed reading
Well, the billet comes to an end and to be honest, writing in French isn’t easy. The English language kept on coming to my mind; it’s become my language to write about literature. My brain switches to English when I want to express my thoughts about a book. I had to delete Anglicism (you don’t say “compartimentaliser” in French, but “compartimenter”) or false friends (you don’t say “caractère” for “character” but “personnage”) and I had to translate a few adjectives that came in English first. Bizarre, je sais.
Straight Man by Richard Russo 1997 French title: Un rôle qui me convient.
We’re in Railton, Pennsylvia, in the late 1990s. William Henry Devereaux Jr –Hank— is fifty, has been married to Lily for years and has two grown-ups daughters. He teaches English and manages a creative writing workshop at the local university. Lily teaches in a high school and devotes her career to difficult students. They live in Allegheny Hills, on the best side of town, surrounded by other members of the faculty. Railton is a small town; Hank points out that it’s not possible to go to a restaurant without stumbling upon a colleague from university. They live a quiet and comfortable life.
The whole novel covers a pivoting week in Hank’s life. He rethinks his choices in life, his job is threatened by cost cutting and his colleagues want another chairman, his womanising father is back in his life after a long absence, his daughter’s marriage is sinking and his wife is away to apply to a new job. It seems a lot for one man but Russo makes it entirely plausible. A week born under the sign of Murphy’s law, that’s all. However, the main plot concentrates on the current drama on campus.
At the present, Hank is the reluctant interim chairman of the English department which is as peaceful as the Middle East. Each faction camps on their position, thoroughly hating each other and having no other choice than to bear each other’s presence. Their carry their shared history like a burden instead of building something on it. The book starts with Hank having his nose injured by an angry colleague during a meeting organised to pick up the future chairman. Everything goes downhill from there as the rumour says there is no budget to hire a chairman and that instead, the dean has required a list of lay-offs.
April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics, not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed. September is always too late to remedy the reduced merit raises, the slashed travel fund, the doubled price of the parking sticker that allows us to park in the Modern Languages lot. Rumors about severe budget cuts that will affect faculty have been rampant every April for the past five years, although this year’s have been particularly persistent and virulent. Still, the fact is that every year the legislature has threatened deep cuts in higher education. And every year a high-powered education task force is sent to the capitol to lobby the legislature for increased spending.
Now, they all want to know if Hank drew a list or not and who’s on the would-be list. Hank spends his time dodging questions from all sides, trying to figure out what is really happening. And at the same time, he’s indifferent to his fate as he’s not interested in power and the glamour of a chairman position doesn’t tempt him.
He doesn’t fit in the academic mould, so he’s ill-equipped to face the duties of a chairman. He’s saved by his wicked sense of humour and his propensity to look at events with the lenses of humour. It’s a defence mechanism and Hank is more affected by his surroundings and people’s life circumstances than he let show.
Straight Man was one of my Humbook gifts from Guy. It’s my third Russo; I’ve read and loved Empire Falls and Mohawk. I was happy to meet with Russo again and enjoyed his talented walk on the dangerous line of tragi-comedy. Hank’s adventures are funny and Russo is not lacking in the imagination department. (Hank isn’t either). But there’s also serious thinking about ageing and assessing your choices in life. Hank is fifty, he’s suffering from the male version of PMS – Prostate Malfunction Syndrom— which never lets him forget he’s ageing. As his quiet life is attacked on all sides, he’s forced to think. If these issues had happened one after the other, he would have been able to shrug them off, one at a time. But now, he can’t avoid them all and he’s obliged to face them just as his failing prostate obliges him to acknowledge his age.
As in the other two Russos I’ve read, Railton is a declining city with an industrial background and it falls apart. The city’s economy is in bad shape; Hank’s son-in-law is currently unemployed despite his degree. The university is underfunded; there aren’t many cultural events. Railton is like a cul-de-sac. A metaphor for Hank’s life?
In Straight Man, Richard Russo describes an academic world as toxic and ridiculous as the one pictured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim. Hank’s nickname is Lucky Hank and I think it’s not a coincidence. I’ve read Lucky Jim recently and the story and characters are still fresh in my mind. Sure, the academic world in England in the 1950s is more formal than the one in America in the 1990s. But the two microcosms look alike. The English teachers in Railton have all something wrong with them, from minor ego problems to pathological drinking. I haven’t been to university and I’ve never had contact with university teachers, but seriously, when you read novels, you wonder if it’s really a good idea to leave young and impressionable minds in their hands. Would I like my children to be tutored by the teachers described by Richard Russo or Kingsley Amis? Like in the other “university” books I’ve read, the atmosphere strikes me as full of intrigues and the path leading to promotion is covered with banana skins. But it’s a caricature, isn’t it?
Lucky Hank could be an older Lucky Jim. They have the same fantasy, the same unwillingness to take themselves seriously and the same tendency to sabotage themselves. They also suffer from a bad self-image. However, both are lucky in love as Hank is in a good relationship with Lily. They try to navigate through the system and both refuse to stoop to anything for advancement. They don’t think that their work is important. They’re both anarchists in disguise and can have hilarious behaviours in stressful moments. In Lucky Jim, the protagonist makes cigarette burns in his bed sheets when he stays at his boss’s house. Follows a hilarious attempt at hiding the mischief. In Straight Man, Hank pees in his pants, hides in the ceiling to conceal his wet clothes and to eavesdrop on a key meeting. You need serious mind juggling capacities to get out of situations like this undetected. They find ways, not always straight, not always efficient but they make it.
I chose to read Straight Man in French, which means I don’t have a lot of quotes to share unless they are in translation. You’ll have to trust me and the little quote above when I say that Russo’s prose is witty, compassionate and utterly human. I didn’t detail the excellent side characters you’ll encounter in Railton or Hank’s manifesto with a goose in front of the media. You’ll have to read it yourself to hear about that. If you decide to read it, I hope you’ll have a great time in company of this novel. Even if Hank’s behaviour is puzzling at times, he’s really a straight man.
Thanks Guy for picking this Russoas my Humbook gift. I loved it. Now I’m reading Stu’s Humbook gift, Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano.