How to Be Good by Nick Hornby 2001. French title: La bonté: mode d’emploi.
If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her) and split up. I wouldn’t argue with the synopsis. We’re nothing special.
Katie Carr is about forty, married to David. They have two children Tom and Molly. She’s a GP, he’s a columnist, stay-at-home father, would-be writer. According to Katie, David is chronically angry and spiteful. She’s come to the breaking point and has a fling at a work conference. She’s ready to have a divorce and tells David but he refuses to hear her. At the moment, David’s got a back ache and to mock his GP wife, he consults with a healer, GoodNews. GoodNews heals his back, David feels better. He brings Molly there, to heal her eczema, it works. That alone goes against Katie’s every belief. When Katie tells him about her affair with Stephen, he leaves the house and spends a few days at GoodNews’s place. He comes home cured from his angriness and ready to be good. So David goes from perpetually angry to beatifically good and helpful. GoodNews and he are almost joined to the hip and Katie can only stare in confusion:
David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.
David has lost his edge, his sense of humour. Everything turns crazy from then on. It’s not totally crazy, it’s just a liberal deciding to put what he preaches into practice. Katie feels emotions she’d rather not. In her mind, she’s a doctor, her job is to help people. She’s a good person already. David is high on a brand new kind of logic, one that makes her mundane thoughts sound selfish. One day, they’re having Katie’s parents for lunch. She cooks a meal, she’s about to serve it when David demonstrates that they should give it to the homeless shelter and have frozen lasagne instead:
‘I have to give this away,’ says David. ‘I went to the freezer to get the stock out and I saw all that stuff in there and … I just realized that I can’t sustain my position any more. The homeless …’ ‘FUCK YOUR POSITION! FUCK THE HOMELESS!’ Fuck the homeless? Is this what has become of me? Has a Guardian-reading Labour voter ever shouted those words and meant them in the whole history of the liberal metropolitan universe?
She hates herself for these words afterward. Katie represents the good-thinking liberals, the ones that have money but pretend they despise the conservatives but live like them anyway. In French, we have an expression for this, it’s called the gauche-caviar. (The caviar liberals) Hornby mocks Katie and David and corners them, dares them to act upon their beliefs. It could be patronising but it’s not, thanks to Hornby’s ferocious sense of humour. We’re in Katie’s head. She sounds real, the woman next door. See her analysis of her affair with Stephen and its lack of drama:
OK, I’m just about attractive enough for Stephen to want to sleep with me, but when it comes to jealous rages and dementedly possessive behaviour and lovelorn misery, I simply haven’t got what it takes. I’m Katie Carr, not Helen of Troy, or Patti Boyd, or Elizabeth Taylor. Men don’t fight over me. They saunter over on a Sunday evening and make weak puns.
She’s a rather good person, selfish as we all are. She loves humans in general but rebels when she has to act and actually do something concrete to help. A lot of us are like Katie. She’s “normal”; she wants to protect her family, her comfort and if she thinks of the poor homeless, it’s with pity but no intention to go further. She’s funny and natural. She watches as her children pick a side, Molly turning into a good-thinking little girl and Tom rebelling against it, feeling his father is rather phony.
That’s one side of the story. Their marriage is still sinking, just not for the same reason as before. How to Be Good is also the exploration of a common marriage and a lot of the details mentioned in there are terribly realistic. When you’ve been married for a few years, some arguments or feelings or attitudes, good or bad, ring a bell. It’s sad but so funny. Katie has a way with words and despite the lightness of her expression, she delves into serious questions. What’s your identity when you’ve been married for long? How do you salvage a relationship? What about the children? Is it even realistic to dream of a fresh start?
How to Be Good is deceptive. Yes, you laugh a lot when you read. But behind the curtain of the humour, there’s a serious questioning about relationships and politics. An excellent combination.
Thanks Guy for recommending it!
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.