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.
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.
Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou. 1962 English title: Birds in Peru.
Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou is a collection of short stories and a film directed by Gary himself, starring Jean Seberg. The film is notoriously bad, so don’t bother. I picked this quote from the first short story of the collection:
Il faut espérer que l’âme n’existe pas : la seule façon pour elle de ne pas se laisser prendre. Les savants en calculeront bientôt la masse exacte, la consistance, la vitesse ascensionnelle… Quand on pense à tous les milliards d’âmes envolées depuis le début de l’Histoire, il y a de quoi pleurer. Une prodigieuse énergie gaspillée : en bâtissant des barrages au moment de leur ascension, on aurait eu de quoi éclairer la terre entière. L’homme sera bientôt entièrement utilisable. On lui a déjà pris ses plus beaux rêves pour en faire des guerres et des prisons.
Let’s hope that the soul doesn’t exist, it’s the only way for it not to get caught. Scientists will soon compute its exact mass, its consistency, its rate of climb… When you think about the billions of souls that have ascended since the beginning of times, you have good reason to weep. Such a tremendous amount of energy wasted: if we had built dams at the moment of their ascent, we would have had enough energy to light up the entire planet. Humanity will soon be entirely usable. Their best dreams have already been taken away from them to start wars and build prisons.
Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.
For me, this quote shows two of Gary’s obsessions. The first one is that everyone should keep their part of mystery. It’s not necessary to know everything, to explain everything with science or rationally. We live better if there’s room for dreams and imagination in our lives. Love isn’t that magical if you think of it in terms of hormones.
The second idea is that humans can’t be disposable goods. He rejects the trend considering that anything is marketable. Not everything is marketable. Humans are not. Wilderness should be protected and also everything related to art. Not every human activity should be evaluated according to its return on investment or its usefulness. I wonder what he’d think of surrogate mothers, fights to exclude films and books from international trade agreements and in general of how money has become the unique compass to assess someone or something’s worth.
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.
This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.
Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.
Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.
Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.
She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.
As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.
Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?
In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.
They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?
With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.
Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.
The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.
Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?
This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?
So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.
Lady L. by Romain Gary. 1963
Back in February, when I prepared the fourth Wednesday with Romain Gary post, I felt the urge to reread Lady L and I wasn’t disappointed. You’ll find additional information about the book in that post so now, let’s dive into the review.
When the book opens, Lady L. is celebrating her 80th birthday. She lives in England, is the matriarch of an affluent aristocratic family and is of French origin. A great party with her children, grand-children and friends is taking place at her house. Right from the start, we gather that Lady L. is rather, um, unconventional. She looks at the spectacle around her, inwardly cringes about all the attention she gets due to her rank and her age. She sees them all as stiff shirts, solidified in their good manners and respectable ways of thinking. She’s making a tour of the place, in company of Sir Percy official poet. Percy is her knight in shining armour and although she likes him, he irritates her. She’d like him to be less honourable and less good-hearted:
Il y avait longtemps que ses espoirs s’étaient évanouis devant l’évidence d’une intégrité morale à vous soulever le cœur, qui émanait de Percy comme une sorte de funeste radiation. C’était vraiment un homme honorable et comment la poésie était allée se fourrer là-dedans, Dieu seul le savait. C’était d’ailleurs le seul homme qu’elle eût connu qui ait un regard de bon chien tout en ayant les yeux bleus.
Her hopes had vanished a long time ago, confronted to the moral integrity solid enough to make you sick that oozed out of Percy like a dreadful radiation. He really was an honourable man and how poetry had ended up there, only God knew. By the way, he was the only man she’d ever known who had the look of a good dog while being blue-eyed.
See what I mean about unconventional? During the party, she learns that her pavilion where she hides all her favourite things will be destroyed because the land is needed to build a motorway. This prompts her to bring Percy over there and tell him the truth about her origin and her life. Poor Percy is in for a hell of a journey.
Lady L was born Annette Boudin, a poor girl living in the slums of Paris. Her father was an activist and an anarchist. She was raised with bottles of revolutionary theories while her mother struggled to make ends meet.
Sa mère peinait dans la cour, son père parlait de justice, de la dignité naturelle de l’homme, de la réforme du monde : peut-être eût-elle gardé un souvenir moins pénible de ses leçons s’il était descendu dans la cour pour donner un coup de main à sa femme.
Her mother was working hard in the courtyard and her father was speaking of justice, of the natural dignity of humanity, of the reform of the world. She might have remembered these lessons more fondly if he had went down to the courtyard and given a hand to his wife.
This behabiour rooted in her a solid weariness towards grand theories to improve the welfare of humanity. Humanity is demanding, appeals to high ideals and makes a man forget about the needs of everyday life. Annette grows into beautiful and starts working as a prostitute. This is how she meets Alphonse Lecoeur, prince of the Parisian crime scene and financer of Armand Denis’s fight against the establishment. Armand Denis is a charismatic anarchist. He believes in his cause; he wants to save humanity and is ready to do anything for that. At the present, anything means training Annette to behave like an aristocrat, introduce her in high society and use her as an informer. The objective: bombings, killing of key people and burglaries to finance The Cause. Despite her previous knowledge of the inner workings of an activist’s mind, she falls head-over-heels in love with Armand. They become lovers but where Annette would be happy with a normal life, Armand cannot give up The Cause:
Mais il y a une chose que je ne comprends pas. Tu dis que tu m’aimes. Comment peux-tu aimer quelqu’un sans l’aimer tel qu’il est ? Comment peux-tu m’aimer et me demander en même temps de changer complètement, de devenir quelqu’un d’autre ? Si je renonçais à ma vocation de révolutionnaire, il ne resterait plus rien de moi : tu ne peux pas me demander à la fois de renoncer à ce que je suis et de demeurer celui que tu aimes. Ce n’est pas facile, tu sais, d’être dans ma peau. Ce n’est pas facile d’être Armand Denis. C’est très précaire. On se réveille parfois le matin tout surpris de se trouver encore là. Tu devrais être ma force, ne pas essayer de miner ma volonté, mes convictions.
But there’s something I don’t understand. You say you love me. How can you love someone and not love him the way he is? How can you love me and at the same time ask me to change completely, to become someone else? If I abandoned my calling as a revolutionary, there wouldn’t be anything left of me. You can’t ask me to renounce to who I am and still be the man you love. It’s not easy to be in my skin. It’s not easy, you know, to be Armand Denis. It’s very instable. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, all surprised to be there, still. You ought to be my strength, not to try to undermine my willpower, my beliefs.
Humanity is like a mistress in their couple. In French, « humanité » is a feminine word, which explains the metaphor Gary uses. Annette fights with limited weapons against a powerful opponent. Armand won’t give up his cause. He’s ready to die for humanity. And as he points out, would she still love him if he changed that much? Who will win the fight? The flesh and blood lover or the demanding and idealistic mistress?
Along with Annette’s story –how did she go from slumming to Lady?—Gary explores the theme of passionate devotion to a cause. He shows that activists become slaves of their idea and end up being as narrow-minded as the people they’re fighting against. He sees humanity as a bloodthirsty mistress that takes men into her nets and makes them her slaves. Their passionate love for her might change them into monsters, without their realising it until it’s too late.
La soif d’absolu, un phénomène très intéressant, d’ailleurs, et assez dangereux : cela donne presque toujours de beaux massacres. C’est un de ces grands passionnés de l’humanité qui finiront bien par faire disparaître un jour leur bien-aimée dans un crime passionnel, par dépit amoureux.
The thirst for the Absolute, a very interesting phenomenon, by the way, and rather dangerous. Most of the times, it ends up in big massacres. One of these great devotees to humanity will eventually kill their beloved in a crime of passion, out of unrequited love.
Armand Denis fights for more freedom and yet, he’s a prisoner of his ideas. He turns into a fanatic; he loses perspective. Gary advocates that it is difficult to have enough inner fire to keep on fighting and believing and at the same time keep things in perspective. On the one hand, you need passion to go on and on the other hand, you need to cool that passion to prevent yourself from committing injustices in the name of your fight for justice. That’s a catch 22 situation.
Needless to say I highly recommend Lady L. Gary’s style is excellent, witty, lively and full of wonderful images. The ending is quite surprising and the passages about activism are thought-provoking. A potent combination of great style, gripping plot and deeper thoughts.
PS : I translated the quotes myself, so please, be indulgent. Something else, I used to copy-paste tables from Word with the biligual quotes, but something has changed in the WP features and I can’t do it anymore. That leaves me with the blog quotes. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’ll be glad to hear it.
The Man Who Walked to the Moon by Howard McCord 1997. French title: L’homme qui marchait sur la lune. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.
I am William Gasper. And if it seems strange that I repeat my introduction so soon, remember that I am as plain a my cooking, have no friends to speak of, and blend, by practice, into any background. I am something like sea-level: a constant always in turmoil, never quite evident from observation. I move even when I sleep, though my name gives me demarcation. I came to Sterns five years ago and persuaded Mary-Gail Henry, who runs the café there, to rent me the packing case which rests about one hundred yards behind the café. I have no knowledge of its original contents, mining equipment probably, but it now contains those personal effects of mine which I do not carry on my back, some score of magazines which I will eventually bequeath to the fire, and other odds and ends which even a scrupulous person may acquire unaware. I do not sleep in the packing case, having eschewed picturesque romanticism some time past, but I sleep beside it. In the worst weather I pitch my tent, but generally, that’s a bother. I wash from a pot, and scurry a quarter-mile or so into the desert each morning to take my bowel movement. I piss after a short walk. All this, of course, occurs only when I am in residence. But as I told you, my vocation is walking, and Stern sees me no more than a dozen days a year.
Long quote, but you have the atmosphere of the book. Or so you think. During the first chapters, you assume you’ll be walking in the wilderness with William Gasper. More accurately, you’ll be exploring, the Moon, Nevada:
The Moon is the mountain of nowhere, ignored by those who live within sight of it, as well as by those, who, in different times, might be fascinated by its isolation and difficulties. It is not a climber’s mountain, nor a hunter’s. There are some fine walls in two canyons, and half a dozen crags nearly worth the effort; there’s some game. But its charms, like certain women’s, are not obvious and reveal themselves only into an occasional misfit.
So you’re with him, walking to the Moon and he sounds like a wilderness enthusiast, a sort of walking Thoreau. He leads a frugal life, limits his interactions with the world to a minimum and enjoys his solitude. Slowly, as you spend time in Gasper’s head, you start realising that something is rotten in Gasper’s state of mind. First, he uses his container in Stern to keep guns and rifles; the man is fond of rifles. Then you discover he’s had a traumatic experience during the war in Korea and he never really recovered from it. Later you understand he had a career as a hit man and a sniper for the US army. Reading his ramblings, you get that a lonely boy became a loner and perhaps a loony. He doesn’t have any regrets about his choice of career. He doesn’t have much respect for human life. He likes guns, the hunt and a job well done; he’s a cold-blooded assassin. He’s not motivated by money and he has built his own system of belief, with Cerridwen as a goddess following him and appearing at key moments of his life. He thinks she’s after him, toying with his life. I’m not familiar with Welsh traditions and the Arthurian myth, so it is highly possible that I didn’t grasp everything Gasper said about Cerridwen and Cath Palug. Someone seems to be following Gasper to the Moon and the bucolic hike becomes a man hunt.
I have read The Man Who Walked to the Moon in French and even in translation McCord’s prose is incredibly poetic. It’s a strange mix of poetical descriptions of landscapes and of Gasper’s inner thoughts and violence. It’s as if a folk song ended in punk-rock or if you were watching a scene with a gruesome murder and the soundtrack were The Sound of Music. From what I read, McCord is a hiker too and he’s the same age as his character. He’s also a veteran of the war in Korea. I assume his experience with hiking in different countries nourished his novel. The Man Who Walked to the Moon is hard to sum up, difficult to review without giving away too much and impossible to classify. It’s at the cross-roads of literary fiction, poetry and crime fiction and that’s quite an achievement.
I have to thank Gallmeister for publishing McCord in France. They are a small French publisher specialised in American literature. They pick books set in the Western states of the country. For example, they have also published Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, The Last Picture Show that I’ll review soon and Indian Country by Dorothy M. Johnson, which I have on the shelf. I like their choice of sober covers and the writers they bring to our attention.
For newcomers, we’ll be celebrating Romain Gary’s centenary in May and there will be a Romain Gary reading month at Book Around the Corner. Every Wednesday, I share with you one or two quotes from a book by Romain Gary. This week, it’ll be from Clair de femme (1977), a poignant novel.
Michel whose wife just died bumps into another broken soul, Yannick. They will spend the night together, talking, healing. Clair de femme is a hymn to love and to the strength we have in us to recover from hardship. Sounds corny but it’s Gary, and it’s not. There could be an easy love relationship between Michel and Yannick (a woman) but Gary doesn’t go for the obvious. Hollywood stories aren’t his line of work. It’s sad but not bleak, because there’s always this touch of hope, Gary’s trademark.
|Il ne faut pas se fier aux cheveux blancs, à la maturité, à l’expérience, à tout ce qu’on a appris, à tous les coups qu’on a pris sur la gueule, à ce que murmurent les feuilles d’automne, à ce que la vie fait de nous quand elle essaie vraiment. Ça reste intact, c’est toujours là et ça continue à vivre.||You can’t rely on white hair, maturity, experience, on all you’ve learnt, on all the times you’ve been punched in the face, on what the autumn leaves murmur or on what life does to us when it really gets at it. It stays intact, it’s still there and you keep on living. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald|
In this quote, we find one of Gary’s line of thoughts. Hope and youth stay intact in us when we get older. Despite what we’ve been through, “it” stays intact. “It” is your spunk, your hope for a better future, your appetite for life, your capacity to fall in love and in a way, the illusions about life that you had when you were younger. It refers to the spark of youth that never dies in us, even when our body betrays us and gives away our age.
Here is another quote from Clair de femme:
|Les vérités ne sont pas toutes habitables. Souvent il n’y a pas de chauffage et on y crève de froid. Le néant ne m’intéresse pas, précisément parce qu’il existe.||Truths are not always liveable. Often there’s no central heating and it’s freezing cold. I’m not interested in nothingness, precisely because it exists. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald|
I think it’s true. Looking at things objectively can be really cold and a lot less comfortable than entertaining dreams or half-truths. Self-delusion is more comfortable than blunt lucidity. Gary is affected by acute lucidity and he deals with it by tempering the North wind it brings on his life by the South wind of humour.
I’ll leave you with news about the celebration of Gary’s centenary in France gathered by Delphine, from Romain Gary et moi. For once, I wished I lived in Paris.
PS: Clair de femme has been made into a film, directed by Costa-Gavras.