Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 11 comments

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

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

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Marta gone

August 26, 2014 26 comments

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías 1994 (French title: Demain dans la bataille pense à moi. French translator: Alain Keruzoré.)

This month our Book Club had picked Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. It’s my second Marías after Todas las almas (Le Roman d’Oxford in French). I wasn’t enthralled by Todas Las Almas but I was intrigued by the blurb of Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me and I had heard so much good about Marías in the bloggosphere. So I was quite happy to start this novel.

Marias_DemainVíctor is a ghost writer and screenplay author. Tonight he has a date with Marta Téllez. They had met previously and flirted a bit, enough to meet again. Marta’s husband is away on business and as she doesn’t have a babysitter for her two-year old son Eugenio, she invites Víctor at her house. Eugenio doesn’t want to go to bed, the diner lasts longer than expected and it’s already late when Víctor and Marta start to have sex. They are hald-dressed, half-undressed when Marta feels unwell. She wants to rest, asks Víctor to stay with her but refuses than he calls a doctor. Her malaise doesn’t fade away and she dies quietly in Víctor’s arms. What to do? Víctor is not supposed to be in this apartment; calling for help would mean revealing Marta’s infidelity. What about the child? What about the husband?

Víctor chooses to leave the apartment without saying anything to anyone. He tries to erase the traces of his presence but leaves food and drink within Eugenio’s reach. The rest of the novel will disclose Víctor’s feelings after the event and the consequences of his leaving Marta and Eugenio on their own.

I’ve had ups and downs with this novel. The first chapter blew me away because of its style and its way to describe Marta’s death and Víctor’s reaction to it. Then I got bored in the chapter where Víctor meets the Only One, a prominent politician for whom he’s supposed to write a speech. I nearly abandoned the book after the chapter where Víctor recalls his night across Madrid in the company of a prostitute who looks like his ex-wife. I was interested again to see how things went with the Marta affair and I was totally blown away by the last chapter. Clearly, it’s a book for militants of the never-abandon-a-book committee.

Overall, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me is a brilliant novel. The idea of Marta’s death in the arms of her fling is excellent. Marías muses about death, memories and what remains of us after we die. His style is proustish, if I may say so. He’s into long introspective sentences, lacy phrases and all kinds of digressions. Marías explores the same topics as Proust. Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me reminded me of a condensed and modern In Search of Lost Time.

Several moments, themes and characters brought me back to Proust. The narrators have things in common. It’s a first person narrative and Víctor is a second zone writer. His screenplays find a drawer more often than they reach a camera, his speeches are told by others. Like Proust’s narrator, he’s not a famous author but writing is his calling.

Then you have Eugenio who doesn’t want to leave his mother and go to bed while she socializes; that’s in Swann’s Way. Víctor digresses about the meaning of names; that’s in The Guermantes Way. The Only One, the politician reminded me of the ridiculous M. de Norpois; that’s in In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Ruibérriz, Víctor’s friend reminded me of Bloch, mentioned in several volumes. The awful chapter where Víctor chases the image of his ex-wife Celia in a prostitute because Ruibérriz told him that acquaintances have reported that Celia became a prostitute sounds like The Captive and the narrator’s obsession about Albertine’s doings. Is Albertine cheating on the Narrator? Is she a lesbian? I think this volume of In Search of Lost Time is long, claustrophobic and rather unpleasant. The Narrator is not in his best behaviour and the same thing can be said about Víctor. The last chapter is a masterpiece, worth suffering the boring ones, just like Time Regained is worth suffering though The Captive (La Prisonnière) and The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue), the volume where the Narrator grieves after Albertine’s unexpected death. I wonder if Marías wrote this novel with Proust in mind.

I love Proust but I’m not sure I love Marías. He’s excellent, thought-provoking and literary but I’m not in a rush to read another book by him. He lacks the irony that makes Proust funny and his style does not allow the plot to shine as it should. The plot and its conclusion are absolutely brilliant. I just wish it had been written by Philippe Djian, Pascal Garnier or Jean-Patrick Manchette, in other words by someone with a darker side and a wicked sense of humor. In my opinion, their style is a better fit for that kind of plot and it has enough depth to explore the feelings and turmoil generated by Marta’s death.

Now I’m curious to see what the other book club members thought about it and to read other reviews. So please leave links to yours in the comment section if you’ve reviewed it.

Efficient, entertaining but not literary enough

August 8, 2014 13 comments

Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky 2005 French title: Chicago, banlieue sud.

Paretsky_ChicagoFire Sale is the 13th volume of the V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky. The heroin, Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is a private detective who grew up in the poor neighbourhood of the South of Chicago. She has left her past behind but this volume leads her there. It starts with a call from her former basketball coach Mary Ann Farlane. Coach Farlane is fighting cancer and she needs someone to coach the girls basketball team at the highschool Bertha Palmer. Victoria accepts reluctantly, out of respect for the coach who won her a scholarship to college and a ticket out of Chicago South. She’s not keen on walking that memory lane and she doesn’t have a lot of free time for voluntary work between her PI agency, her clients and her boyfriend Morrell who’s slowly recovering from an injury. He took a bullet when he was in Afghanistan as a journalist.

Victoria starts training the girls and slowly gets to know them, especially Celine, Josie and April. She knows the neighborhood and the unwritten social rules to respect. She knows the area, the gangs, all the street culture she needs to lead these girls. One day Josie comes to her after the session and asks her to meet with her mother Rose. She has troubles at work and would need a PI’s advice. Victoria doesn’t have time for a pro bono case on top of the coaching hours but doesn’t want to let Josie down. She meets with Rose who works at Fly the Flag, a company specialized in sewing flags. Rose explains that the workshop has been sabotaged and she worries about the company; they pay well (13$ per hour) and she needs her job to support her family.

Victoria doesn’t have the heart to refuse the case coming from a woman who struggles to raise her four children and grand-daughter. This case will make Victoria renew with her past.

Her personal life mingles with her professional one as Marcena Love, one of Morrell’s oldest journalist friends stays with him to write an article for the Guardian about the hidden face of America. Victoria feels obliged to take Marcena to Chicago South where she can find relevant material for her article. Marcena is gorgeous, confident and an excellent journalist. Victoria feels insecure when she’s with her since Marcena seems to suck all the attention in a room. She also gets involved with some inhabitants of the neighborhood and has a fling with one of Victoria’s former acquaintances who is also April’s married father.

Victoria will investigate the incidents at Fly the Flag and it becomes a serious case when the workshop burns out after an arson, killing its owner Frank Zamar. Meanwhile, Victoria also decides to visit the major companies settled in Chicago South to find sponsors for the basketball team. Her objective is to get enough money to pay a part-time coach for the team and stop her work there. This is how she meets with the Bysen family, owner of the By-Smart empire, a competitor of Wal Mart. It is involved in Chicago South as the main employer but also through the youngest son of the family, Billy, who is in an exchange program between his church and the one led by the charismatic Father Andres in Chicago South. That’s the church where Josie and Rose go.

Efficient is the best adjective to describe Fire Sale. It’s a page turner with enough action to make you keep on reading and it’s not necessary to read the previous volumes to read this one. It’s like a TV series. Sara Paretsky describes the social misery of Chicago South where steel industries used to provide the population with good jobs. Now the biggest employer is By-Smart and its jobs paid $7 per hour. She pictures the difficulties of the poor families and their struggle to support a family with such a low salary. She points out the difficulties of the high school Bertha Palmer, the lack of public money. The basketball team doesn’t have enough balls for training and the gym and locker rooms are not maintained. We find what we expect in poor neighborhoods: high unemployment, violence, parents who struggle to make ends meet, drugs and criminality. What’s different from Europe and therefore for me typically American is health insurance problems, teen pregnancies and Christian activists.

That’s what Sara Paretsky does well and it made me eager to know the ending. The problem is that it’s been done before, and better done. Her style is…efficient but I came to expect more of crime fiction. I’ve read it in French and it sounded flat. It lacks literary luster, a unique view on the events and the neighborhood, inventive sentences. Victoria’s turmoil about her past, her feelings for Morrell and Marcena deserved a deeper exploration. It lacks depth and I missed that additional psychology and style that changes good old crime fiction into literary crime fiction.

Good for beach and public transport but not much more.

The sorting of scumbags and other assholes by Sébastien Gendron

August 5, 2014 3 comments

Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. 2014. Not available in English

Chaque jour a son lendemain et à force de vivre, on devient tous le connard de quelqu’un. Each day has its tomorrow and simply by being alive, we all become someone else’s jerk.

 Let’s start with a little bit of French. In French, le tri selectif des ordures refers to the sorting of waste in order to recycle it. But an ordure is also a scumbag. And a con is an asshole. So basically, le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons means the sorting of scumbags and other assholes. Now that you’ve been enlightened about the title, the book.

Imagine you’re a democratic hitman and you want to bring your useful services to the masses. After all, rich people are not the only ones to have someone in their life that they’d love to get rid of. That’s the idea. So Dick Lapelouse, hitman extraordinaire, decides to start a business in Bordeaux. See the content of his flyer:

GENS DU PEUPLE, RELEVEZ-VOUS, CAR VOICI POUR VOUS SERVIR LA TREPANATION A 56€ TTC, L’ACCIDENT DE VOITURE A 79,99€ (VEHICULE NON FOURNI), L’ENTERREMENT EN MILIEU FORESTIER A 100€ TOUT ROND (HORS FRAIS DE DEPLACEMENT ET DE TEINTURERIE) ET LE FORFAIT MENACE + GRANDE PEUR + ASSASSINAT DANS RUE DEGAGEE, POUR 250€ SEULEMENT. WAKE UP GOOD PEOPLE BECAUSE HERE IS TO SERVE YOU TREPANS FOR 56€ ALL TAXES INCLUDES, CARS ACCIDENT FOR 79,99€ (CAR NOT INCLUDED), BURIAL IN A FOREST FOR 100€ (TRAVEL AND DRY CLEANING EXPENSES NOT INCLUDED) AND THE PACKAGE THREAT + BIG FEAR + MURDER IN A CLEAR STREET FOR 250€ ONLY

GendronHe goes to a banker to get a loan, settles down in an office near a psychiatrist, builds the IKEA catalogue of the various ways to kill someone, including options, advertises his services in the local newspapers and waits for clients to come. Things roll well for a while until he gets a job that cannot be performed according to plan. He is threatened by his client, his office is trashed. Who is after him?

Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons plays with the code of Noir and is a highly humorous book. No one should take this seriously; it’s a parody. That kind of novel is a risky business, it canhttps://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=5423&action=edit&message=10 be very good or terrible. Here, I think Gendron won his bet. He’s obviously knowledgeable in the Noir department, his imagination runs wild and he manages to create a crazy and yet plausible story. I laughed a lot, reading this story about the Easy Jet of contract killers and the impact of his business on the market of murders is irresistible.

Gendron’s style is better than you’d expect and it reads easily with dialogues that remind me of Michel Audiard.

- Les vrais salopards ont des gueules d’ange et c’est ça leur principal talent.- Vous trouvez que j’ai une gueule d’ange ?- Non, je vous ai dit, vous avez une gueule de tueur à gages. - Genuine bastards have an angel face and that’s their main talent.- You think I have an angel face?- No, I told you so, you have the face of a hitman.

It’s a light read, you need to be in the right mood to enjoy his off-the-wall sense of humour but it’s worth the ride. Provided you can read in French.

Masters and servants

July 31, 2014 17 comments

Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi 1926 French title: Anna la douce

Kosztolanyi_Anna_DouceFor July our book club read Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi and Passage à L’Est decided to re-read it along with us. You can find her billet here. (spoilers) This is my third novel Dezső Kosztolányi, after Skylark and Le cerf-volant d’or.

We’re in Budapest in 1919. The novel opens with the flight by plane of the communist leader Béla Kun. He governed Hungary from March to July 1919 and he leaves the country with a lot of jewels in his pockets. The end of this short communist period in Budapest is the start of another part of Kornél Vizy’s life as a civil servant. The city is coming out of a miserable time and Vizy’s house, as a bourgeois house, has been occupied by the new power. The caretaker of his house, Ficsor, supported the Bolsheviks and is now in a delicate position towards the inhabitants of the house and needs to make himself useful to the soon-to-be powerful Vizy.

Mrs Vizy is a housewife, still grieving the untimely death of her only daughter. She has nothing better to do than take care of the house and pick at her servant. The current one, Katitza crystallises all the faults a servant could have in Mrs Vizy’s eyes: she eats too much, she’s insolent, she likes to go out with men and she doesn’t respect curfew. Mrs Vizy complains, and complains and complains.

Ficsor must redeem himself for being a communist and decides to provide Mrs Vizy with a new servant, his young acquaintance Anna Édes, or the sweet Anna, since Édes means sweet in Hungarian. She’s currently rather happy with her employment at a widower’s house because she watches two small children. She’s reluctant to leave but Ficsor brings her back to Mrs Vizy. And Anna is the perfect servant. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t steal, doesn’t eat much and works, works, works. A curious relationship grows between Anna and Mrs Vizy but no warm feelings are exchanged. Anna is tamed but doesn’t say much. Nobody really knows what she thinks and according to appearances, she’s the best servant ever. What will become of that?

In Anna Édes, Kosztolányi pursues two aims. He pictures the condition of servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie at the time. And what he pictures is exactly what Sándor Márai describes in Confession d’un bourgeois. Servants slept in the kitchen, they had dirty bedclothes, they were poorly paid and were supposed to be happy to get bed and board. They were treated like animals or machines and there was no affection. The mistresses always suspected them to steal and complains about servants were common topic of discussion among bourgeois housewives. Márai says they were not better treated in aristocratic houses but at least aristocrats wouldn’t let go an elderly servant and considered them as part of the family.

What Kosztolányi describes is close to slavery for the living conditions but what amplifies everything is the pettiness of the mistresses. Mrs Vizy and her neighbours have nothing else to discuss but their servants. Talk about narrow-mindedness. While the men had a life outside the house, they live shut out indoors and as they don’t have the education a Lady could have, they have nothing to do. They are in a bad place: they’re too high class to work themselves and be occupied by household duties and they’re not high class enough to have had a solid education. They don’t read, don’t follow politics, don’t go to the theatre, barely play an instrument and don’t write letters to relatives. It’s terrible. They have nothing better to do than watch what their servants do. What a waste of life.

Anna Édes concentrates on the story of Anna in the Vizy household but Kosztolányi also relates the professional raise of Mr Vizy. He’s described as a fair and honest civil servant. He works seriously, doesn’t encourage corruption and is willing to improve the services brought to the population. Mr and Mrs Vizy don’t have a happy marriage, he’s utterly bored with his wife and her one and only topic of conversation. Anna’s qualities are a relief to him not so much because the work is better done than because he escapes the endless whining of an irritated wife.

The political context of the years 1919-1920 is also an important part of the book. I didn’t know about that short episode of Bolshevik power in Budapest in 1919. Actually, I didn’t know that communists came to power anywhere else than Russia before WWII. What happened in 1945 seems like a simple repetition of what had already happened in 1919. Same methods. They used intimidation, purged the opposition and anything bourgeois was suspect. It’s the classic consequences of a change of power, similar to the French revolution, the Empire, the Restauration. Don’t tell me they didn’t know what would happen when they shared the world at the Yalta conference.

During our book club meeting, we debated about the best comparison to Kosztolányi. Is Anna Édes more a Zola or a Balzac? Although Kosztolányi’s luminous and precise style is far from Zola’s luxuriant prose, it is true that both show the living condition of poor people and their lack of opportunities in life. However, I think Kosztolányi is closer to Balzac because more than picturing the poverty of these servants, he pictures the nastiness of the bourgeois, their selfishness and lack of humanity. They are grotesque and Kosztolányi shows them as heartless as the daughters in Le Père Goriot. Zola has a political and social agenda. Balzac and Kosztolányi dissect human nature and expose its cruelty. The changing political context also brings back to Balzac whose novels are often set during the Restauration and after the fall of Napoleon. He pictures the shifts in the society and how everyone tries to reposition in the new game. The same atmosphere applies to Anna Édes and I can’t help thinking it’s also a political novel for Kosztolányi, especially when you see how he winks at us in the last chapter.

I’ve read Anna Édes in French, in a translation by Eva Vingiano de Piňa Martins. It was retranslated in 1992 and improved as the first 1944 translation had some passages changed and was bowdlerised (everything related to sex was cut off) Kosztolányi’s style is glorious, at least in this French translation but I don’t see why it doesn’t reflect the original. I’m happy it’s been retranslated and I highly recommend this book. Skylark was deeper in the psychological exploration of the characters, Le cerf-volant d’or depicted well the microcosm of small town life and Anna Édes is the most political of the three. I still prefer Skylark out of the three but all are a pure pleasure to read.

Other reviews: Guy’s here and Max’s here

PS: Don’t ask me why there’s cheese on the cover of that book.

Not a cinch, a Pynch

July 30, 2014 26 comments

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. (1966) French title: Vente à la criée du lot 49.

Pynchon_Lot_49I have all the symptoms of the book-to-be-abandoned illness. What are they? You glance at the book and you think about watching TV. You see the book on the table and you think about the next one you’ll read. You open the book and you don’t remember what you’ve read before. Normal, because you left days between now and the last time you opened it. You can’t remember the characters’ names or who is who. You look at the number of pages to read before you reach the next chapter and until the end. You sigh a lot. All this happened to me with The Crying of Lot 49.

In other words, Pynchon and I weren’t on reading terms. I never managed to enter into the plot, I was constantly distracted by details such as the names of the characters (Oedipa Maas, Mike Fallopian…), losing sight of the plot’s thread (I needed an Ariadne, not an Oedipa). I really tried to be interested in the mystery of the book but I couldn’t. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and run.

Sorry to disappoint Pynchon’s fans, but I couldn’t make it. This writer was on the daunting list and on the daunting list it stays. Please leave comments and tell me what you thought about The Crying of Lot 49 if you have read it. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about Kosztolányi.

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

July 22, 2014 14 comments

blogger-awardCaroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat was kind enough to nominate me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I’m honoured she nominated me and I’m in excellent company on her list. I’m supposed to tell you seven things you don’t know about me and nominate fifteen bloggers for this award. Well, let’s start with these seven things:

1) If I wear a pink shirt, it’s because pink suits my complexion, not because I’m a woman,

2) I love roller-skating, especially on the banks of the Rhône river,

3) I enjoy email correspondence with the speed of the Victorian post-office, meaning I don’t answer right away but I can write long emails,

4) I’m learning how to play my first waltz by Chopin,

5) I have a black thumb, every time I try to take care of a plant, it dies.

6) At the end of my adolescence, I discovered that my trinity of cute guys weren’t what they seemed, i.e. George Michael is gay, Tom Cruise is in a cult and Michael Hutchence was suicidal.

7) I don’t like wine, yeah, I know, I’m French, it’s supposed to be in my DNA. What can I say, I’m hopeless.

Enough about me. Now, let’s talk about the most important part of this blogging award, the other blogs I’d like you to discover if you don’t know them already. Caroline has already nominated most of the 15 ones I’d put on my list, so I’m only listing the ones she didn’t mention:

Passage à L’Est. It’s a blog in French about Hungarian literature. Passage à l’Est is French and lives in Hungary. I’ve enjoyed all the Hungarian books I’ve read and it’s a literature I want to explore. Her blog is a good way to hear about new writers or at least writers that are new to me.

Edith’s Miscellany. Edith is Austrian and blogs in English. She has eclectic tastes and her reviews are always thoughtful. She has a poetry meme every Monday.

Seraillon. Scott has impecable taste in his choice of books and if you’ve never been at Seraillon’s, then hurry up.

I really hope you’ll time a bit of your time to browse these blogs. Thanks again Caroline for adding me to your list and I regret that I don’t have more time to read other blogs because there really are fantastic ones on the blogosphere. So, a big hurray to all of us.

%d bloggers like this: