This week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.
There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:
|Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là.||I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)|
In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.
I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.
PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. 1935 French title: On achève bien les chevaux.
Now I know you can be nice and be a murderer too. Nobody was ever nicer to a girl than I was to Gloria, but there came the time when I shot and killed her. So you see being nice doesn’t mean a thing. …
The man speaking that way is Robert Syverten. He’s in court waiting for the verdict in his trial for murder and he relates what led him there.
We’re in 1935, in California. Robert accidentally meets with Gloria. She’s an aspiring actress and not surprisingly, she’s broke. He’s an aspiring film director, and not surprisingly, he’s broke. They have cinema and poverty in common. They need food and being noticed by someone influent in the film industry. Gloria suggests that they take part in a dance marathon as the organizers provide the participants with free food and there are cinema people in the audience. The rules of the dance marathon are quite simple: you dance non-stop, or at least, you have to keep moving.
One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.
As if dancing wasn’t providing the spectators with enough entertainment, derbies are organized to spice it up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby – but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit – the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are – if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’
Doesn’t it sound awful? Robert describes the marathon, the atmosphere. He explains the little tricks Gloria and he gathered to survive and keep going.
Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the John, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first. I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.
The style is very cinematographic something you could expect from a book that was first written as a scenario. I saw the place and the people in my mind. We follow Robert and Gloria along the way, see their interactions with other contestants and some spectators. We have a glimpse at their lives. Most of them are poor fellows who are after the prize. I was surprised to read about “professional” marathon participants. I wondered how desperate someone could be to enrol more than once in that kind of circus. The first time is an error of judgement, the others border to stupidity or desperation.
I found incredible that such shows existed. He talks about the other contestants, the anchor men and the spectators. People paid to see this and it was advertised in newspapers. Companies sponsored couples, giving them clothes and shoes with their logos. In the afterword, it is said that Horace McCoy had worked as a bouncer for such a contest. He knows what he was writing about. I could say I can’t believe such degrading events existed but living in the era of reality shows on TV, I’m perfectly aware that some fellow humans would do anything for fame and money. I still don’t know who I pity most: the participants who are desperate enough to accept this or the spectators who pay to see this show. There’s no end to human voyeurism.
In addition to the vivid picture of the contest, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is also a psychological novel and the relationship between Robert and Gloria is central in the story. The dancers stay inside of the building and after a while, Robert would do anything for a bit of sun. They are well-fed but lack of sleep. As exhaustion gets at the dancers, the atmosphere heathens. As days pass, the relationship between Gloria and Robert deteriorates. She’s moody, impolite and more importantly, she’s gloomy. She wants to die but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. She’s spiteful and keeps moaning about being alive. She’s obnoxious. Her temper weighs on Robert’s patience. She’s the kind of person you don’t want chained to your ankle because you know she’d make you sink and drown. She adds mental fatigue to Robert’s physical exhaustion from the dancing. She wears him down until he relieves her from her life. Out of mercy. They shoot horses, don’t they?
The novel isn’t suspenseful, you know from the beginning what Robert did. It’s worth reading for the description of the dance marathon, the side characters and the ups and downs of the contest. Robert is a good guy who found himself in a wearying situation. Gloria is a curse and despite the warning bells ringing in his head, he sticks to her. I wondered why he didn’t drop out of it and let her fend for herself. I guess he was still hoping for a positive outcome, money or a push for his career. It’s a good example of how we are led to acting out of character or are swept along a path that we didn’t really choose. It’s Great Depression in all its glory, economical and mental.
Romain Gary wrote Education européenne in 1943. He was in England at the time, an aviator in the Lorraine squad that had just been included under the commandement of the RAF. He wrote this novel between battles, in a climate of fear and brotherhood. Education européenne was published in early 1945 and won the Prix des critiques. It was Gary’s first success and the book was translated in more than twenty languages. It’s a coming of age novel about a young Polish, Janek, who joins the resistance in the forest at the time of the battle of Stalingrad.
It’s written during the war and about the war. World War II changed Romain Gary forever. His mother passed away during these years, a lot of his family died in camps and he joined the French resistance early in the war, first in North Africa and then in England. His novels reflect his time and he tackles with the hot topics of these years: How does humanity recover from the atrocities of the extermination camps? What does it mean about human nature? Why are men tempted by Communism and ready to sacrifice for a cause? Are high ideals worth the sacrifice?
Freshly appointed as a diplomat in Sofia, Gary witnessed first-hand the way Communists took power in Bulgaria. Contrary to a lot of French intellectuals or artists, he was never a member of the Communist party. He wasn’t blind and I like him for that. He was against extremism in every form, believing that reality is always grey and messy. Extremism only knows two colours, black or white. There’s no room for empathy, grey zones and multi-coloured areas. He was wary of passionate heroism and grand speeches, just like here:
|Lorsqu’ils affirment que rien d’important ne meurt jamais, tout ce que cela veut dire, c’est qu’un homme est mort ou qu’on est sur le point d’être tué.||When they say that nothing important ever dies, it only means that a man just died or you’re about to get killed.|
He was always keen on unravelling heroic messages and pointing out how empty they could be or how they just hid an ugly truth. Beautiful ideas about freedom become a prison for the mind. But we’ll discuss this later when I write my billet about Lady L.
See you next week!
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011 French title: Une fille, qui danse.
This month our Book Club picked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had read reviews about it and knew one of the themes was memory. That’s all I remembered, how ironic.
Our narrator is Tony, he’s in his sixties, retired and in the first part of the book, he relates his years in high school and university. He pictures his friendship with Alex and Colin and how Adrian came into the group. They went to college separately and tried to keep in touch. Tony studied in Bristol and stayed a year with his girlfriend Veronica and he even introduces her to his friends. They eventually break up and he later receives a letter from Adrian, saying he’s dating Veronica. After graduation, Tony leaves the UK to travel in America and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. He planned it at perfection and made of it a way of living and leaving according to his theories. Tony thinks highly of him to have put into practice all his reasoning about life and to have gone all the way through to be faithful to his principles.
In the second part, we fast forward to the present. Tony had a career, married Margaret, got a divorce, had a daughter Susie, who’s now in her thirties. He’s a grand-father and lives the orderly life of a common citizen. No ups and downs. He’s friend with his ex-wife. Small life, safe life, no big emotion. This comfort is disrupted when he receives a letter from an attorney saying that Veronica’s mother died and left him £500 and Adrian’s diary in her will. This leads Tony to meet with Veronica again and she shows him the spiteful letter he had sent to Adrian after he learnt he was with her. Tony is confronted with his younger self and the way his memory amended the events to picture him honourably. He feels ashamed and starts a crusade to atone his meanness.
This forced march down to memory lane won’t do him good.
Honestly, I’m not thrilled about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes portrays beautifully the impact of ageing, explores with great intelligence the tricks our brain does to us. I have tons of quotes. The structure of the book is masterfully crafted. He drops clues here and there and everything makes sense in the end. Perfect construction. Perfect language. Perfect little thoughts about life. Too perfect to be lively. Too perfect to be true to life because life is messy. To me, it remained a sort of cold work of art, a designer suit perfectly cut but with visible seams.
It also felt like déjà vu. The ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming, is a bit stretched and clichéd. The guilt trip Tony is taking seems over the top. The poor man just takes himself too seriously. What a bore!
Sure, Julian Barnes made me think. I don’t imagine this book written by a younger author. Life experience seeps through every page and I wonder how much of himself Julian Barnes put into this.
After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
That’s what the Sixties were for my parents and that’s why they missed The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to listen to Frank Alamo or Sylvie Vartan.
All the thinking about memory was interesting but not really new.
We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
Yes, our mind transforms memories until what we recall faintly resembles the truth. And what is truth, really? Julian Barnes makes it sound a bad thing. However, without that coping mechanism, we wouldn’t survive to pain or shameful moments. We’d be hurting all the time, we wouldn’t move on. We’d all be a walking bundle of raw wounds.
Julian Barnes also seems to share with Romain Gary the idea that “truth dies young”, meaning that you see yourself and the world clearly when you’re young and everything goes downhill from there. Years bury your young self under layers of habits and resignation as you settle in life. In both cases, there’s nostalgia for adolescence and especially for these years of illusions and undefined future. Personally, I don’t miss that part of my life. Do I want to go back there and spend my days half-drowning in an ocean of shyness? No thanks, I’m better off now.
I do agree with Julian Barnes on a lot of things he writes and especially with that quote:
Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval … and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.
For me, it’s no use regretting missed opportunities or thinking you didn’t live your life to your best potential. Because, who really sabotage themselves consciously? We all make what we think is the best decision at the moment we make it, we all let go of possibilities because we don’t have it in us to take a risk, face our families, risk pain or act out of character. If we hadn’t been ourselves…
There are lots of excellent things in that novel. If The Sense of an Ending were a human, it’d be a top model. Beautiful but aloof, perfect but a bit fake, so polished that it’s not real anymore. You know what? Top models don’t make me swoon.
Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. 2012. Not translated into English.
I’m supposed to be on a book buying ban but I had a too rare moment in town for myself and I couldn’t resist visiting my favourite book store. I bought Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger because it was short and had won the Prix du Livre Inter. This literary prize is awarded by readers who are selected by France Inter (the French public radio) after they apply to be in the jury. The applicants have to write a letter saying why they love literature and the journalists of the station pick up the jury members among them. So common readers like us get to read a selection of books, debate about them and decide which one they preferred. It’s a good prize, away from the Parisian literary coterie and pressure from publishers. Obviously, I don’t have the same reading tastes as the 2012 jury.
I started to read this in the theatre, before Chapters of the Fall began. The man sitting next to me was reading an essay about eroticism in Western countries. I’m sure his book was more interesting than mine. This slim novel(?) is a first person narrative and the narrator is Nathalie Léger herself. She has to write a short note about Barbara Loden for a cinema anthology. She watches Wanda, Loden’s only film as a director. She relates her research about Barbara Loden. It’s interlaced with moments of her personal life. She sort of tries to find Barbara Loden, the woman, behind the character Wanda. She sort of tries to understand why she’s taking such a sudden interest in Barbara Loden. She sort of tries to link Barbara, Wanda and her mother or herself through I don’t know what. I was bored out of my mind and abandoned it at page 74. The remaining 40 ones were too much to bear.
It’s written in pseudo-intellectual rambling and it didn’t make any sense to me. It’s a succession of vignettes about what Wanda does in the film, what Barbara did in her life and what Nathalie and her mother do in theirs. Fascinating stuff. It may be autofiction, I’m not sure about the tag. Anyway, the best thing about it was its cover and it confirms the saying: you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Le mercredi, c’est Gary! (It’s better in French, it rhymes)
|Rien ne vous isole plus que de tendre la main fraternelle de l’humour à ceux qui, à cet égard, sont plus manchots que des pingouins.||Nothing is more isolating than to hold out the brotherly hand of humour to people who are, in this respect, as awkward as auks. Translation by Erik McDonald.|
This quote is difficult to translate and I owe it to Erik to have found a good translation. In French, a manchot is a one-armed man, a penguin and a clumsy person. A pingouin is an auk. In this quote, Gary means that someone who lacks a good sense of humour is like a one-armed man. They’ve got a disability that prevents them to shake hand with someone reaching out offering humour and fun. They are missing out on a vital part of life and they are clumsy because they can’t navigate through life as easily without that help. I love the imagery in this quote. I picture someone who’s clumsy, wobbling through life and lacking dexterity in their dealings with life. If anyone finds a pun to replace the plus manchots que des pingouins, leave a suggestion in the comment section. It’s been nagging at me for a while but my English isn’t good enough to find a good one.
Humour is a theme often mentioned in Gary’s books. A good sense of humour is precious. It’s a weapon against others who take themselves too seriously. It’s an asset for someone who’s in a predicament as it helps you distancing yourself from the situation you’re in. It’s a medicine to heal when reality is falling hard on you. Self-deprecation is a jack to put you out of your misery. Gary has a sense of humour à la Woody Allen. You find Woddy Allen comical? You think Philip Roth is funny? You’ll like Romain Gary too and you’ll see what I mean about Gary and humour if you join us to our Let’s read Romain Gary event in May.
Chapters of the Fall. Saga of the Lehman Brothers by Stefano Massini.
Stefano Massino is a young Italian playwright and his Chapters of the Fall details in three chapters the saga of the Lehman brothers. The first chapter Three Brothers, covers the years from 1844 to 1867. The second one, Father and Son relates the span of 1880-1929 and the last one The Immortal, goes from 1929 to 2008. The first chapter describes the arrival of Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded a store selling fabric and clothes. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon emigrate to America too and they join their forces to develop their business. Soon they start selling raw cotton to Northern businessmen and settle in New York. The second chapter describes how Philip Lehman, Emanuel’s son develops Lehman Brothers, which is now a bank. The third chapter is about Robert Lehman, the last member of the family to operate the bank and the subsequent change in management eventually leading the bank to its fall.
Apart from the saga of this specific family, the play recounts the history of capitalism in America. Sure, there aren’t many details. But still, the big moves and changes are visible. The Lehman Brothers start by selling cloth and goods needed in plantations. It’s tangible. Then, they accept raw cotton as payment for goods and start selling raw material. They shift their profit towards a trading activity, working as middlemen between the North and the South. The Civil War destroys this business but they manage to float and come out of it unscathed. They relocate in New York because the trading is done there. They participate to the creation of Wall Street, know Mr Dow and Mr Jones who will create the Dow Jones. They accompany the changes in the economy. They turn from revenues from agriculture to revenues from industries and then from financial markets. They turn their back to the South and invest in the West through railroads. Philip Lehman will be the one to invest in railroads and to forever change the company into an investment bank. Supporting weapon industries helped the bank surviving several crisis and the Lehman involved the bank in financing innovative parts of the economy. (Cinema, television, electronics)
The first chapter is very clear. The second shows well the modernization of society and how the economy bolted and crashed in a wall in 1929. It pictures how greed and easy money turned people into madmen wanting more. The New Deal was voted and the State started to regulate the economy, to Robert Lehman’s dismay. The third chapter is more blurred. After Robert Lehman’s death, the bank is more and more driven by stock markets and traders take control of the company. Robert Lehman died in 1969. To me, the 1970s were the decade that paved the road to power to politicians who deregulated everything, at least in the USA. The 1929 crisis was a bit forgotten and greed was again a way of living. Until the fatal crisis of 2008.
When the theatre warned us that Chapters of the Fall would last 3:50 hours, I thought “Oh, dear, I hope it’s gripping.” And yes, it is. If you ever have the opportunity to watch this play, go for it. It’s entertaining and educational. It gives a good overview of the construction of capitalism. It’s not judgemental. It states facts and pictures how a family turned a growing business into an empire by adapting quickly to the changes in their environment. The play is really well written. The story is told by the brothers in a light tone. They are storytellers, using repetitions in the text like magic phrases in a fairy tale. It was directed by Arnaud Meunier and he managed to create the right atmosphere and he picked wonderful actors. It lasted 3:50 and my attention never failed. The stage set was sober and the images on a screen behind the stage brought the spectators to New York, to Wall Street and to a trade room. Societal changes seep through the text when the men evoke their marriages and wives. Emanuel and Mayer simply fall in love. Philip chooses a wife like he’s doing a merger or picking a good horse. Robert marries three times since divorce is accepted. The progressive loss of rituals when a Lehman dies pictures the loss of values. When Henry dies, the business is closed for a week and all the Jewish rituals are respected. When Emanuel dies, Philip doesn’t imagine closing the bank for more than a day. Life doesn’t stop on stock exchanges, even for the death of a founding partner.
I’ve read L’Argent by Zola and he describes exactly the same mechanism. Money calls for more money. People are focused on stock exchanges and stock rates. They put more money than they should in stocks and follow anxiously the outcome. They lose sight with the brick and mortar economy and live on the illusion that the market can rise forever, and of course it can’t. Robert Lehman had seen the 1929 crisis coming but Philip Lehman was in too deep to act and prevent the catastrophe. It seems we are unable to learn from our past mistakes and keep on believing in illusions. There were severe downturns in the stock markets in the 19thC too. The 1929 crisis brought havoc to the world and still, we forgot. I always wonder how we can be so forgetful. History recalls what it wants and the human mind accommodates their memories until they are liveable. But wait, that’s for the billet about The Sense of an Ending…