Vengeances by Philippe Djian 2011. Not translated into English (yet)
|Qu’avais-je à perdre? Me restait-il quoi que ce soit que je ne puisse remettre en jeu, qui vaille vraiment le coup, qui fasse réfléchir? Que préserver ? Que sauver, que garder ? La réponse était simple.||What did I have to lose? Had I anything left that I could throw in the game, that was worth fighting for or that made me think twice? What to salvage, to keep? The answer was simple.|
This billet has a twin brother at Books I love and others I get stuck with. Indeed, I had this Djian on the shelf, waiting for my attention and it was available at Beirut’s book fair. So Nino and I have been reading Vengeances along. And luck was on our side since we had the opportunity to meet and discuss it face to face. That’s the magical confederacy of book lovers. But back to the book.
Marc is forty five, a sculptor of contemporary works. He’s supposed to live with Elizabeth but she’s currently MIO. He doesn’t know where she is and if she’ll come home. Marc’s son Alexandre committed suicide about a year ago. Then Marc’s life went astray and it drove Elizabeth away. Marc has two close friends, Anne and Michel. They’ve known each other since their youth and their lives have been intertwined since. They belonged to the same tiny ultra-left group, Marc used to be Anne’s boyfriend and Michel is Marc’s artistic agent. They are tied by emotional and financial bonds.
One day, Marc is in the metro, going home, when he rescues a young woman who vomits violently in front of him. She’s totally wasted. He takes pity on her and brings her home. She’s Gloria and she says she’s Alexandre’s girlfriend. On impulse, Marc asks her to move in with him. Gloria’s arrival will shatter what little stability remained in his life.
Gloria knew who Marc was and makes her nest among the triangle of friends and brings poison in this small circle. They had reached a balance and she spoils it. The interactions between the characters are quite interesting. Gloria flirts with Michel and awakens in him what we call in French le démon de midi (Literally, the noon devil, in other word and according to the dictionary, lust affecting a man in mid-life. Yes, we have an expression to say that in French). Anne is frustrated because Michel doesn’t pay attention to her anymore and she wouldn’t mind rekindling her former passion with Marc. Marc considers Gloria as his daughter-in-law; she’s definitely off-limit for him. His art is affected by his mourning and he doesn’t create anything good, which means Michel will soon lack of sculptures to sell. Anne and Michel don’t like Gloria; they feel the danger she represents and let’s be honest, Gloria doesn’t make a lot of effort to be agreeable. She’s impolite and venomous. She clearly takes advantage of Marc’s pain. He feels guilty about his son. They were estranged and he can’t forgive himself for not knowing him better, not noticing that things were that bad for him. So he’s always happy to gobble any piece of information she’ll throw at him. He’s that needy. Does she tell the truth? Who is she really? Marc doesn’t care to know; he’s desperate.
The narrative shifts from Marc’s first person point of view to an omniscient narrator. The changes come quite often and are marked by a milestone “hand” like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. I have read more than a dozen of Djian’s novels and it’s not the first time his character is named Marc. There’s a Marc in Incidences, in the Doggy Bag series, in Assassins and certainly in others. It’s a pattern, the signature of the artist and a way to say to the readers that names don’t mean anything. Marc could be anyone, even a Philippe.
I find the writer is popping in his own page rather amusing, not that it’s never been done before. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s habit to appear in his films. As always, I enjoyed Djian’s sense of humour, especially when he mocks himself:
Like Incidences and Impardonnables, Vengeances is a dark story. The characters aren’t likeable and a feeling of dread and doom weighs upon the book. I expected that kind of ending but I thought it fell abruptly on me. This book could have been polished a little bit. In my opinion, the characters’ ages don’t match with their life experiences. Marc and Michel are too young to have taken part in these political clandestine fights. They should have been around twenty in 1975, which means being born in 1955 or 1960 at the latest. In this case, you can’t be 45 in 2010. And the novel is set in our time. In my opinion, the ending was botched up, I felt the novel had reached the expected number of pages or that the deadline to send it to the publisher had come. Too bad.
There are recurring things in life. Every year brings a new film by Woody Allen and a new novel by Djian. I love both artists but some of their works are better than others. For me, Vengeances is not Djian at his best. Incidences and Impardonnables are better books. Even if Djian has forever turned his back to the sunny novels of his beginnings, I still recommend Echine and Maudit manège to anyone who would like to read him.
The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski 2006 French title: The Blonde
Just thinking about The Blonde brings a smile on my face. Funny, gripping, crazy, daring, witty are the adjectives that come to mind. It’s full of references to classic noir films and fiction and I’m sure I missed most of the references. The title of the post is the opening quote of the book, putting your reading journey under the protection of the master of literary Noir crime fiction.
Jack Eisley is sitting at a bar in the Philadelphia Airport. Tomorrow, he has a meeting with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her lawyer and soon-to-be-next-husband. Jack dreads the meeting and he’s happy to chat innocently with a pretty blonde at the bar. Everything seems alright until she tells him that she put something in his drink and that he’ll die in a few hours. Meanwhile, Mike Kowalski, profession: secret agent for a weird agency, is doing a side job for himself. He’s currently slowly and methodically eliminating all the people responsible for the death of his beloved Katie. He’s about to pull the trigger and score one more enemy when his special phone rings and his contact asks him to go and get the head of a Pr Manchette (*nudge, nudge*) who died in the morning. Kowalski’s employers want to analyse Pr Manchette’s head. In addition, he needs to get a woman called Kelly White who was last seen at the Philadelphia Airport. Back to Jack, who’s now at his hotel room, sick as a dog at the exact time the blonde had predicted he would be as a result of the poisining. He starts believing she did spice his drink with a lethal weapon. He rushes back to the airport to find her and put his hand on the antidote.
As it is, both Kowalski and Jack are after the same woman, Kelly White. They embark in a fast paced trip across Philadelphia at night and the reader takes a seat aboard an UFO of a book. Jack soon finds out that Kelly White has a virus which doesn’t bear privacy, loneliness or solitude. If she’s farther than three meters from another human, she dies within 3 minutes. Isn’t that idea fantastic? It provides countless possibilities of comical scenes in a novel. Imagine living a daily life with this when the others around you don’t know it. You’re constantly invading other people’s space, you can’t pee on your own and you act suspiciously promiscuous. The horror.
The intrigue is made of this incredible scenario of futurist science whipped with international terrorism. This icing on the cake is the personal Vengeance carried on by Kowalski. All this works extremely well. Duane Swierczynski manages to write a coherent and yet totally wacked story. Mike could have a penguin as a teammate and the reader would accept is a fact. He’s that good! The ending is surrealist and yet totally logical. The style is full of catchy dialogues, urgent descriptions and striking imagery. Here are Jack and the blonde during their first encounter:
You’re looking for something unwinding and well-written? A book to take you away during a journey on a train? The Blonde is for you. What about me? I loved this book and I already have Fun and Games waiting for me. As often, I owe the discovery of this writer to Guy’s impeccable tastes in literature. Thanks again, Guy.
PS: For readers who can read Spanish or French, I recommend Carlos Salem. He’s Swierczynski’s European evil brother.
Bah! Humbook, they say
Hello dear copinautes!
December has arrived and Guy and I would like to invite you to another edition of the Humbook Christmas Gift event. The idea is to virtually give another blogger two books as a Christmas present. It’s a way to exchange gifts in our virtual and international literary salon. So, let’s review the rules together.
- Choose the copinaute you will give books to,
- Leave a comment saying you’re in and giving the name of your copinaute,
- On December 25th, publish a post in which you reveal to your copinaute the two books you have selected for them.
- In 2014, each copinaute reads the books and reviews them.
In addition, Guy and I will choose one book for each participant and reveal our virtual books on Christmas Day as well.
For practical reasons, each participant shall purchase the books they receive and not the books they give. This is to avoid sending books abroad, experiencing delays in delivery or whatever other problem. This means that you need to pay attention to a few things when you pick a humbook for a copinaute: check out that it’s available in their language at a reasonable price.
FAQ, in French, Foire Aux Questions
What’s a copinaute ?
Copinaute is made of the word copain/copine (friend) and internaute (Internet surfer) Copinautes are friends who know each other through the Internet. Don’t look for it in the dictionary; it’s not in there…yet. I find this word lovely and very appropriate to our friendly little book blogging community.
What if the copinaute has already read the book before?
That’s a risk and part of the game. It happens when you offer books to bookworms! Good news: the book hasn’t been purchased yet. So, you just pick another one.
What if I don’t feel like reading the book I was given?
It can happen. But we don’t always like the books we pick for ourselves, so give your copinaute the benefit of the doubt. It may be a good surprise and a way to step out of your comfort zone. I’m sure your copinaute will avoid vampire stories if they know you’re not into fantasy.
I’m not at home for Christmas, how am I supposed to post a billet that day?
If your blog is on WP, you can write it earlier and schedule it for Christmas. I suppose the same option exists on other blog platforms.
How long does the copinaute have to read the books?
You have all 2014 to read them. No pressure of any kind, reading is a pleasure, not a duty.
If you have any other question, just ask in the comment section or on Twitter (@Bookaround). All the questions are welcome. Check on Guy’s blog for more information.
I do hope you are tempted to join us. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comment section.
Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.
YEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.
This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in love, tortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.
The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.
I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.
I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.
The stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.
More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.
This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.
If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov 1995 French title: Le pingouin. Translated from the Russian by Nathalie Armagier.
|Victor posa sa machine à écrire sur la table de la cuisine et se mit, un mot après l’autre, à composer des portraits vivants de futurs défunts.||Victor put his typewriter on the kitchen table and, one word after the other, started to compose lively portraits of future deceased.|
For November our Book Club had selected Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I have read the French translation, which means I’ll have to translate into English the quotes I want to include in this billet. I’ll leave the French translation for you as well. If you can read in French, then at least you’ll read a version by a professional translator. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with my attempts at translation. Now back to the book.
We’re in Kiev in the 1990s and the main character of our novel is the would-be writer Victor. He’s been trying to write a book, to no avail. He needs a job to pay the bills, so when an editor at the Stolitchnaïa, Igor Lvovitch wants to hire him to write obituaries, he accepts. Victor writes “little crosses” about people who are still alive; the newspaper will be prepared in case of their death.
Victor lives in a two-bedroom flat with his penguin Micha. He adopted him the year before when the zoo was giving animals away because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Victor knows nothing about penguins but the waddling presence of Micha distracts him from his solitude. They complement each other.
Soon after taking on this new job, at which he is very good, several people enter into Victor’s universe. First, he strikes up an acquaintance with a man named Micha. He comes upon Igor’s recommendation and requests a necrology for a dying friend. Victor accepts to write it and Micha becomes an occasional visitor, coming with his daughter Sonia. Then he meets Sergueï, a policeman who accepts to come at Victor’s and feed Micha while Victor is away. Victor and Sergueï quickly become friends, taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together.
Victor slowly realises that since he’s taken on this new job, weird things happen around him. The persons he has written about seem to die suddenly and of unrealistic cause:
|Il est tombé du cinquième étage. Il semblerait qu’il ait été occupé à laver les carreaux, mais étrangement, ce n’était pas chez lui. En outre, il faisait nuit.||He fell down from the fifth floor. It seems he was cleaning the window, but strangely, it wasn’t his. And, it was at night.|
It reminds me of a Corsican death where the guy commits suicide by shooting himself three bullets in the back. Then Micha disappears, leaving Sonia under Victor’s care. Then Igor warns Victor that he should maintain a low profile for a while, which leads him to spend Christmas in Sergueï’s dacha. Micha the man doesn’t come back and Victor hires Sergueï’s niece Nina to babysit Sonia. The three of them start living together. In a short span of time, Victor goes from living like a hermit with a penguin to sharing his life with a child and a woman.
That’s not the most important preoccupation here. With what kind of mob has Victor become involved? What should he do? Close his eyes and look the other way? Stop writing “little crosses”? But can he stop? I was interested by the plot and wanted to know who was behind Victor’s job and what it was all about.
However, there’s more to Death and the Penguin than just that. It was written in 1995, not long after the collapse of the USSR. Through the characters’ everyday life, Kurkov depicts life in Ukraine during those years. Material goals prevail. Everybody wants to survive and that’s the most important. Public services are in bad shape and corruption is everywhere. Here’s Pidpaly, one of Victor’s acquaintances after he has discovered that he has cancer:
|- Et le médecin, il en dit quoi ?- Le médecin, il dit que si je lui donne mon appartement, je vivrai encore trois mois…||- And what does the doctor say ?- The doctor says that if I give him my apartment, I’ll live three months more…|
We’re far from the Hippocratic oath, aren’t we? The environment is violent: the book opens with Victor being hit by stones and the dachas are protected from thieves by antipersonnel land mines. Charming. On a lighter tone, I enjoyed reading about underground malls, parties on the ice to let Micha the penguin have fun, Christmas traditions and dishes.
In Kurkov’s voice I heard typical Russian literature. There’s a strong sense of humour and of the grotesque. The idea of a man living with a penguin that eats frozen fish, takes baths in a bathtub and sleeps on a little blanket is rather funny. The penguin attracts attention and affection. He’s a silent but comforting presence in Victor’s life. Micha is depressed but his sadness seems to reflect Victor’s. Gogol could have invented him.
Victor is a strange character. He’s passive and adapts to the events as they happen. He changes his diet when Sonia starts living with him because she needs to eat properly. He doesn’t particularly like children but never tries to get rid of her. She comes into his life, he adjusts. Nina wants them to live as a family, he adjusts. Igor needs to hide for a while, he helps him. When Pidpaly is in the hospital and dies, he takes care of the ceremony even if he only briefly knew the man. Victor brings his help to people who need it and yet he seems indifferent to everything. There’s a strong feeling of resignation in the novel, something I attach to Russian literature. Perhaps I’m wrong to generalise.
Kurkov’s style is quite lively. I liked his description of the city, the weather and how it impacts Victor’s mood.
|Dehors, l’hiver que le gel faisait croustiller suivait son cours. Tout était plutôt calme.||Outside, winter that frost made crusty followed its path. All was rather quiet.|
It’s a tale laced with black humour or comic stemming from situations. I laughed at this passage:
|Victor était assis tout au bout du divan, Sergueï occupait le fauteuil, et le pingouin restait debout ; la nature ne l’avait pas doté de la faculté de s’asseoir.||Victor was sitting at the end of the couch, Sergueï was in the armchair and the penguin was standing. Nature hadn’t granted him the faculty to sit down.|
In literature, we often see children speaking like little adults and too mature for their assumed age. In Death and the Penguin, I thought that Sonia’s voice was convincing. I could hear a young child speaking when reading her dialogues. She makes observations typical from young children. When spring comes back and the ice starts to melt outside, she says Uncle Vitia! (…) The icicles are weeping! It reminded me of our son who declared very seriously one morning Look Mom, the orange juice is smiling. He was about Sonia’s age at the time.
The combination of the plot, the offhand observations of the Ukrainian society and the picturesque characters makes of Death and the Penguin a funny tale tainted with crime fiction. I had a good time reading it. In our book club, someone couldn’t finish it, she couldn’t care less about Victor’s fate and didn’t accept the assumption that it is perfectly plausible to live with a penguin. (No problem for me, I remind you that I’m totally sold on a story about a man who lives with a python who hugs him, written by the way, by a Frenchman of Russian origin.). Just to say that opinions aren’t unanimous on this one. For another review, please find Guy’s here.
Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. 1974 (excellent year)
Something literarilly fantastic happened to me today. I’m in Paris on business and this morning, as I was walking in the metro, my new purple scarf snaked around my neck, distractedly looking at the advertisements on the walls, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at this:
New visitors of these blogs don’t know what it means. Copinautes know pretty well that I was ecstatic: a novel by Romain Gary, made into a play! I HAD to see that. My previous experiences with Gary on stage were all excellent. I’ve already seen Gary/Ajar where Christophe Malavoy impersonated Gary telling his life. The text was adapted from souvenirs by André Asseo, Gary’s friend from high school. Jacques Gamblin also read Gary on stage, using the texts of his fake interviews gathered in La nuit sera calme and I’m not quite recovered from the disappointment of missing this one. La vie devant soi (Life Before Us) has been made into a very successful play with Myriam Boyer as Madame Rosa. And the theatre version of La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) was a delight to see. Romain Gary might be unknown in the Anglophone literary world, but in France he keeps interesting readers and theatre directors. And his texts bear the stage adaptation very well.
I wrote a billet about Gros Câlin (literally “Big Hug” or “Big cuddle”) as we read it with our book club in 2011. It is the story of M. Cousin who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a python named Gros Câlin. This is the first novel Gary wrote under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. Cousin describes his life with his python and it’s both hilarious and sad. It’s comical because Cousin sees life through distorting glasses. He’s fond of his python because he loves to be hugged by Gros Câlin, it helps for his desperate case of loneliness. M. Cousin is in love with his colleague Mlle Dreyfus and he explains their interactions in the office in the middle of his dissertation about pythons and the anecdotes about his life with Gros Câlin.
The play version is faithful to the novel. Jean-Quentin Châtelain played a convincing Cousin. His playful tone put forward all the fun of the text, showed how crazy Cousin is sometimes. He never crossed the fatal border of farce. He managed to be pathetic when Cousin is and he let us know that behind that façade of craziness was hidden a troubled and lonely man. In the novel, there’s an episode when the python goes to the apartment below by slipping into the toilet pipe and caused a fright to the neighbour by accidentally brushing against her bottom while she was using the toilet. When Châtelain told this on stage, the whole audience was shaking with laughter.
The setting was sober, made with mosaic tiles that reminded me of the skin of a snake. The lights were well used, not too much. It’s a challenge for the actor: he’s alone on stage and leads the show during 1:30 hour. Impressive. As good as the actor and the direction were, the real star is Romain Gary himself and his wonderful way of playing with the French language. It’s unique and he reinvented himself when he wrote under the name of Emile Ajar. M. Cousin is Gary’s imaginary relative. He plays with words. He slips, twists the grammar, speaks in riddles, uses one word for the other and yet keeps the sentence intelligible.
Chien Blanc starts with Gary watching a python in the Los Angeles zoo and interacting with it. I wonder if Gros Câlin stemmed from this observation or if the choice of a python has something to do with Gary’s love for the Monty Python.
If you can read in French, Gros Câlin is worth a try. I exited the theatre with a huge grin on my face and an ache in my jaw muscles due to laughing out loud so much. My next billet will be about Victor who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Kiev with a penguin. He doesn’t have a Miss Dreyfus to dream about but he has a Nina in his life. And Nina was the name of Gary’s extraordinary mother, the heroin of La Promesse de l’aube. La boucle est bouclée.
Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. 1946. French title: Pendez-moi haut et court.
He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in. An ex-cop who ran a gambling joint in Reno and a New York attorney. A woman, with class written all over her, who was somehow tied in with Parker and who didn’t hesitate to sell out the man she worked up. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. Not afraid—because he couldn’t find anything to be afraid of.
That’s it in a nutshell. Former PI Red Bailey is spending a bucolic life in Bridgeport, California. He runs the gas station, goes fishing and has a loving relationship with the young Ann. In this sweet opening chapter, everything seems peaceful except that Red doesn’t want to commit himself to Ann because of his past. He’s sitting on a time-bomb and he knows it.
Precisely, Guy Parker, a ghost from his past, comes back in his life and blackmails him into flying to New York to get a line for him about the lawyer Lloyd Eels. Parker is now shacked up with the siren Mumsie McGonigle. She was involved with Red ten years ago and is part of his muddy past as a PI. Red doesn’t want the job but doesn’t have a choice. Either he does it or Parker uses the information Mumsie has given him about their common past to turn Red to the police.
So Red leaves for New York, only to realise that there is more to this job than it appeared. He’s in such a trap that it seems impossible to come out of it unscathed.
As a reader, I took side for Red, even after discovering what he had done to be in such a predicament. I wanted him to have a way-out although what he has done is condemnable. It’s a strange thing to root for a character when you perfectly know that in real life, you wouldn’t support someone who has committed such a crime. His choice for a quiet and honest life seems to redeem himself. But still. Isn’t it normal that he pays for what he’s done?
I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the descriptions of the places. I was in the mountains with Red and Ann when they went fishing. I thought the picture of the popular New-York quite lively, like here:
The hockey players had departed, but Forty-Eighth Street wasn’t quiet. Women yelled at each other across the narrow way or screamed for their offspring. The offspring paid little heed. Two girls traded witticisms with a man in a delivery truck. A crap game was in progress on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery. The woman who ran the place stood in the door watching the boys roll the cubes against a brick wall.
This book has been in the “upcoming billets” box of my blog for a while. I procrastinated and waited a long time to write my billet, mostly because I’m not comfortable with writing about crime fiction. I have said this before and unfortunately, I’m forced to acknowledge that my skills don’t improve. When I write about literary fiction, words come easily. For crime fiction, it’s laboured. I never know where to stop writing about the plot without giving away too much information. I have difficulties to analyse the characters without mentioning spoilers. I doubt my billet conveys how much I enjoyed this book and what a great read it is. So it goes. It is highly recommended and if you still hesitate about reading it, pay a visit to Guy’s blog and discover there his excellent review about it. Finally, as you can see from the book covers, Build my Gallows High was made into a film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it and this one I want to watch.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. 1968 French title: Les androïdes rêvent-ils de moutons électriques ?
I’m not a SF fan in general, so I’ve never read Philip K Dick –the guy has a name to write hardboiled, not SF, if you want my opinion. And of course, I haven’t seen Blade Runner, based upon this novel. My last attempt at reading SF was War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells –I abandoned the book. My last SF film was 2001 The Space Odyssey –I fell asleep just after the first images of the spaceship. Bad, bad track record. I wanted to read Do Androids Dream on Electric Sheep? because I found the title funny and intriguing. I had no idea what it was about before reading Caroline’s review of the novel. So, where am I after my first Philip K Dick? I have finished the book and I have no intention of watching the movie. That sums it up. Now the book.
We are in the future in San Francisco, after World War Terminus. Humanity has conquered Mars, where they have settled colonies with androids as the workforce. The planet Earth is polluted with radioactive dust; WWT has almost eradicated life on Earth and living critters are the most valued properties. The biggest the animal, the richest you are. Owning a pet is synonym of social status and some have electric animals that resemble real ones. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is one of them. He owns an electric sheep and he dreads that his neighbours suspect it is a fake animal, although they most likely will be too polite to ask.
To say ‘Is you sheep genuine?’ would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair or internal organs would test out authentic.
This society works in a reversed way to ours. For us, it is valuable to own the latest electronic device or a beautiful car. We swat ants or spiders without second thoughts. For Rick and his wife Iran, finding a wild spider is a source of wonder. On Earth, the radioactive dust is so thick that nobody can see the stars anymore. Also, as a consequence of the radioactive dust, humans are checked up regularly to verify that their faculties don’t deteriorate. When it happens, they become second class citizens called Specials and referred to as chikenheads.
Philip K Dick doesn’t spend a lot of pages describing this devastated world. We don’t learn much about its political regime. Countries still exist, including the USSR. We don’t know how people entertain themselves, except that their Oprah Winfrey is named Buster Friendly. They have a new religion, Mercerism and people fuse with Mercer, the guru of that cult. The fusion allows them to share feelings and emotions.
Rick is on the police force as a bounty hunter; his job is to “retire” androids that would live on Earth among humans, which is totally illegal. As technology advances, androids resemble more and more to humans and the only way to differentiate a human from an android is to pass a test named the Voigt-Kampff profile test. It is based upon the assumption that only humans feel empathy for fellow humans or for animals. The test registers tiny reflex reactions to questions involving animals or humans in situations which would make a human flinch.
At the moment, a new generation of androids has been created, the Nexus-6 and they’re harder to find among humans. Rick has now a new assignment. His colleague Dave has been injured by an android he had to retire and is in the hospital, unable to finish the job. Rick needs to finish it and has to retire six Nexus-6 androids. The task is not easy. To help him, he’s sent to the Rosen Association which creates androids for the colonies and the goal of his visit is to ensure that the Voigt-Kampff test is relevant to pick out Nexus-6 androids. At the time his assignment arrives, Rick is already questioning his life-style, his job and he’s obsessed with genuine animals. For example, he keeps the catalogue of the pet shop with him and acts about pets as men usually act about fancy cars.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a political novel. I saw it more like an existentialist novel, although I’m not sure it is the right adjective. The central question of the book is “What is the essence of humanity?” The androids act more and more like humans and Rick starts feeling empathy for them. He questions his own humanity. What does it mean to be human? Philip K Dick bases its novel on the philosophical concept that empathy is what differentiates humans from androids. Only living beings can feel empathy and make impulsive and irrational decisions fuelled by empathy. As a coincidence, the day I finished the book, I heard a radio show on France Inter named Sur les épaules de Darwin. It was about scientific experiments on empathy and the link between scientific discoveries in that field and philosophical thinking on that very concept. They said that Marcus Aurelius and then Adam Smith and then Darwin supported this theory.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel about the human condition and a quest for identity. Rick wonders How am I a man? How do I remain a man? Or shall I say a Mensch? Frontiers start to blur when he interacts with Rachael. He doesn’t recognise her as an android right away. He meets with androids that are sure to be human. Rick craves for natural interactions with people. He’s not sure that it is right to retire androids any more. He thinks he’s killing them, not retiring them. He has empathy for machines and it affects his work. Doubt about his job creeps in his mind but events always bring him back on the right track. Androids are not human beings. Even sophisticated androids betray themselves in stress situations: they don’t react as humans and don’t understand the humans’ reactions around them as they are irrational. Philip K Dick seems to say: “See, humans are too complex to be copied”. Irrational is hard to imitate, to program: these humans have foolish reactions and can have feeling for machines.
At the beginning, I saw Rick as another Montag, the hero of Farenheit 451. Both are married men with questionable jobs. Both meet a woman who unsettles their vision of life and of themselves. Both start questioning the rightfulness of their profession. This new acquaintance happens at a moment in their life where they were ready for a change. When Montag rejects the society he lives in and joins the resistance against it, Rick has a more personal quest about his place on earth. Montag chooses to fight against institutions; it makes sense. Rick struggles against himself to fight his angst and life seems absurd. I couldn’t help thinking about Malraux, Camus and Gary. I don’t have enough education to elaborate that thought but that’s where the book led me to. It is set in an imaginary reality but Rick’s quest is ours.
When I closed down the book, I thought “I didn’t like it”. I would have stuck to that opinion if I didn’t have the rule to write about all the books I read. Writing the billet helped me see how interesting and complex this novel is. It is not easy and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I didn’t enjoy myself. I’d rather read Camus to think about that kind of concept. Or Romain Gary.
For another review, discover Brian’s here.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. 1856. Translation by Eleanor Max-Aveling.
Guy and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary after his review of The Doctor’s Wife by M.E. Braddon, based on Madame Bovary which Ms Braddon found immoral. Given her lifestyle, I was surprised of that statement. Actually, we both wondered why Madame Bovary was more immoral than other novels previously published and a re-read imposed itself. I had that nagging question in mind while I was reading: What did Flaubert do to make it so immoral?
Now I’m a bit intimidated at the idea to write about such a masterpiece. The first time I read it, I was 15 or 16. I read it for the story. The next time I was in my twenties and still read it for the plot. Now that I’m older, I saw much more in it than before and the difference comes more from a better knowledge of the history and literary currents of that time than to maturity, although it has its part, of course.
Given that it’s a very famous novel, maybe THE French novel Anglophone readers know the best –with the Three Musketeers— I don’t feel like writing too much about the plot and there will be spoilers in this billet. So if you haven’t read it and intend to read it and don’t want to know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.
Let’s make a quick summary though. The book is set in Normandy, in the countryside near Rouen, during the Restauration. (1830-1848). Charles Bovary is not the brightest guy in school (In French, I’d say, “Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre”, which is appropriate for a Normand) and he barely manages to study medicine. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy; his mother chose his career and his first wife. He’s widowed and settled as a GP in Tostes when he meets Emma Rouault. She’s the daughter of a farmer and was educated in a convent. Charles is smitten by her, she thinks this is love and they soon get married. Emma is full of high ideas about love and romance. Nothing can cheer her up from her ennui. Charles decides to change of setting and moves to Yonville. Emma is pregnant at the time and will have a daughter, Berthe. Emma is pretty and graceful; she’s a male magnet. Léon, a clerk at the local notary practice falls in love with her but doesn’t reveal his feelings. Then she is seduced by Rodolphe Boulanger, the local womaniser. After he left her before eloping, she becomes a devout. Then Léon and she mutually seduce each other. All that time, she doesn’t care much about her daughter, makes extravagant expenses and Charles remains blissfully ignorant of her actions and worships her. After her money troubles become public, she commits suicide with arsenic, leaving behind an inconsolable Charles. That’s for the plot.
So what’s the verdict? Do I know now why it was such a scandal at the time? The answer is yes, I think I do. So much that I have noticed the same quotes as Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who represented the State at the trial in 1857. (It is in my paper edition of the novel)
Everything in the book concurs to tag the book as immoral. It is impudent on several fronts at the same time: it criticises religion, mocks progress, shows adultery through a sensual side and without any remorse. It shoots at close-range at the rural society praised by the king. It attacks Romanticism as a literary movement and ridicules the Romantic attitude of young people. It tramples on literary geniuses such as Chateaubriand, Balzac or George Sand. It shows corrupted characters without condemning them, except with sarcasm. Stupidity is a character in itself considering that almost all the characters have contracted that disease. Not one character is likeable. Charles is bovine, as his name and his attitude let it know:
|Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le cœur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent.||And then along the highroad, spreading out its long ribbon of dust, along the deep lanes that the trees bent over as in arbours, along paths where the corn reached to the knees, with the sun on his back and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the past night, his mind at rest, his flesh at ease, he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner taste again the truffles which they are digesting.|
I just see him as a cow in a field, chewing grass, moving slowing from one side of the field to the other. He’s a good person but Flaubert opens the books with Charles’s start at collège and he’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to have another image of him afterwards. He’s blind to Emma’s every flaw and nothing she does will make her fall from the pedestal he put her on.
Homais, Yonville’s chemist, is criminally imbecile and self-satisfied. Léon is weak. Rodolphe is a scoundrel. Emma is …Emma, the one who created the term of bovarisme, which means being chronically dissatisfied with life. The micro-society of Yonville mirrors the society of the time and it compares to Balzac’s novels or even better to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Homais is the heir of the French Revolution and the Empire. He idolises Voltaire and can’t stand Bournisien, the priest. The said Bournisien tries to win back religion’s influence on people. Lheureux, the merchant has only one religion: money. The rest of the citizens fluctuate between the three summits of this triangle. The verbal confrontations between Homais and Bournisien are violent. Homais doesn’t mince his words and what Flaubert puts in his mouth doesn’t help his case:
|Je suis pour la Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard et les immortels principes de 89 ! Aussi, je n’admets pas un bonhomme de bon Dieu qui se promène dans son parterre la canne à la main, loge ses amis dans le ventre des baleines, meurt en poussant un cri et ressuscite au bout de trois jours : choses absurdes en elles-mêmes et complètement opposées, d’ailleurs, à toutes les lois de la physique ; ce qui nous démontre, en passant, que les prêtres ont toujours croupi dans une ignorance turpide, où ils s’efforcent d’engloutir avec eux les populations.||I am for the profession of faith of the ‘Savoyard Vicar,’ and the immortal principles of ’89! And I can’t admit of an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who lodges his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which prove to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in turpid ignorance, in which they would fain engulf the people with them.|
If this isn’t a strong attack against religion…
The young writer Flaubert depicts an Emma corrupted by literature. She has read the Romantics and loves trashy romance novels. She expects to live a flamboyant life like the heroines of her novels. She never managed to distance herself from what she reads. Instead of reading romance novels and treating them as fairy tales, she believes that it’s what love should be. She has a husband who loves her, behaves properly, has a steady income and is healthy. She should be content but she’s not because she dreams of a great passion:
|Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons.
|She let herself glide along with Lamartine meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys.|
An exchange with Max about Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín had me thinking about how novels shape our vision of what relationships should be. We were at least three to think that the love story in Brooklyn is not very interesting in itself. And yet, it’s a plausible one between people who have an average life like most of us. We found this uninteresting and I wrote “you don’t expect this in a novel”. It’s mundane and deep down we think the characters of a novel shouldn’t be mundane. Anyway.
Charles is content with the quotidian, Emma expects grand passion. Charles’s imagination is turned off; Emma’s is working at full regime. They are imagination-incompatible. He won’t suspect her affairs, she’ll find fuel for her imagination in her lovers. He looks stupid; she looks silly.
Emma is immoral for the time because she isn’t ashamed of her affairs. She’s living the grand passion she reads about and nothing else matters. She has no remorse except for fleeting moments. She’s capricious and haughty.
|elle ne cachait plus son mépris pour rien, ni pour personne ; et elle se mettait quelquefois à exprimer des opinions singulières, blâmant ce que l’on approuvait, et approuvant des choses perverses ou immorales : ce qui faisait ouvrir de grands yeux à son mari.||Moreover she no longer concealed her contempt for anything or anybody, and at times she set herself to express singular opinions, finding fault with that which others approved, and approving things perverse and immoral, all of which madeher husband open his eyes widely.|
When she gives herself away to Rodolphe and starts their affair, she doesn’t put up much resistance. It happens at their third meeting; she’s quite bold in her rendezvous with him. Nothing else matters. She doesn’t care about her reputation, her family and doesn’t try to fight against her attraction. She’s immoral because she is not conflicted about what she’s doing. She’s not as vicious as Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or as manipulative as Valérie in La Cousine Bette. The Red and the Black was published in 1830 and neither Madame de Rênal nor Mathilde de la Mole is virtuous; Madame de Rênal is adulterous too. In the eyes of society, Emma doesn’t have a valuable motive to be unfaithful. She just wants to live the passion she’s heard about. She’s ordinary. She could be the wife next door and it frightens a society that such behaviours could reach the middle class.
Let’s see her with our modern eyes: she’s stuck for life with an oaf for a husband (no divorce possible), she has no profession (so she gets bored) and lives in a village. She’s intelligent enough to yearn for more but focuses her quest on love instead of something else. If I read between the lines, I figure that Flaubert the chauvinist thinks that women aren’t capable of more.
From the start, Emma is portrayed as a sensual woman. Her love is in her head, her heart but it’s not a platonic love. She enjoys the physical aspects of her affairs and is not ashamed of that. From the beginning, Flaubert hints at her sensuality, at her perversion.
|Mais elle triomphait maintenant, et l’amour, si longtemps contenu, jaillissait tout entier avec des bouillonnements joyeux. Elle le savourait sans remords, sans inquiétude, sans trouble.||But now she triumphed, and the love so long pent up burst forth in full joyous bubblings. She tasted it without remorse, without anxiety, without trouble.|
|Elle se repentait, comme d’un crime, de sa vertu passée, et ce qui en restait encore s’écroulait sous les coups furieux de son orgueil. Elle se délectait dans toutes les ironies mauvaises de l’adultère triomphant.||She repented of her past virtue as of a crime, and what still remained of it rumbled away beneath the furious blows of her pride. She revelled in all the evil ironies of triumphant adultery.|
|Quand elle se mettait à genoux sur son prie-Dieu gothique, elle adressait au Seigneur les mêmes paroles de suavité qu’elle murmurait jadis à son amant, dans les épanchements de l’adultère.||When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery.|
|Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage.||Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.|
|Elle partit donc vers la Huchette, sans s’apercevoir qu’elle courait s’offrir à ce qui l’avait tantôt si fort exaspérée, ni se douter le moins du monde de cette prostitution.||So she set out towards La Huchette, not seeing that she was hastening to offer herself to that which but a while ago had so angered her, not in the least conscious of her prostitution.|
|Ensuite il récita le Misereatur et Undulgentiam, trempa son pouce droit dans l’huile et commença les onctions : d’abord sur les yeux, qui avaient tant convoité toutes les somptuosités terrestres ; puis sur les narines, friandes de brises tièdes et de senteurs amoureuses ; puis sur la bouche, qui s’était ouverte pour le mensonge, qui avait gémi d’orgueil et crié dans la luxure ; puis sur les mains, qui se délectaient aux contacts suaves, et enfin sur la plante des pieds, si rapides autrefois quand elle courait à l’assouvissance de ses désirs, et qui maintenant ne marcheraient plus.||Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indulgentiam, dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began to give extreme unction. First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness; then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.|
In these quotes we see strong words like prostitution, triumphant adultery and a comparison between marriage and adultery. Shocking. Emma attracts men. Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, Justin (a domestic), her father-in-law (Her mother-in-law once hastens their departure from Charles’ household because she fears that Bovary Senior could attempt at sleeping with his daughter-in-law.) Emma is referred to with sexual innuendos. Léon is surprised by her dexterity at adultery. She enjoys herself and that’s unforgivable. Moreover, she doesn’t want to sacrifice her happiness for Charles and do her duty.
Emma’s behaviour is not acceptable for society at the time and the icing on the cake is Flaubert’s tone. He could be moralising to acknowledge that Emma’s behaviour is inadmissible and choose the side of bourgeois way of thinking. He doesn’t. Instead, he’s caustic. He doesn’t like his heroine and openly criticises her reading tastes:
|Ce n’étaient qu’amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s’évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu’on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu’on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du cœur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l’est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes.||They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, “gentlemen” brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.|
With this, he criticises the authors who write these books or feuilletons. He also pictures the education received at convents as useless. The isolation grows young girls into women who have no idea of what real life is. They’re disconnected from reality. That’s another dart sent at the church (they run the convents) and at society (they consider this as good education). Balzac’s Mémoire de deux jeunes mariées proves Flaubert’s point.
In my humble opinion, Madame Bovary is much more than the tragic fate of a serial adulterer. It’s the writer’s rebellion against society’s hypocrisy (you can read Romantic literature but not put its ideas into practice), against an established literary movement, against stupidity and bourgeois thinking. I haven’t read Flaubert’s biography but I’d say that Madame Bovary is him because she does what she wants regardless of the consequences. She’s a rebel with a silly cause, that’s all.
I’ll leave you with a last quote:
|Le devoir, c’est de sentir ce qui est grand, de chérir ce qui est beau, et non pas d’accepter toutes les conventions de la société, avec les ignominies qu’elle nous impose.||One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and not accept all the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.|
PS: As a side note, I never understood why Chabrol chose Isabelle Huppert to impersonate Emma Bovary. Emma can’t be a readhead. Flaubert keeps on describing her beautiful dark hair. How could he choose Isabelle Huppert, who is also too old for the role?
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín 2009.
Brooklyn is our Book Club choice for October. Eilis is in her early twenties, lives in Enniscorthy in Ireland with her mother and her sister Rose. We are in the 1950s, jobs are scarce in her town, her two brothers have already gone to England to work. While Rose is outgoing and self-confident, Eilis is shy and reserved. She doesn’t stand up for herself and lets other people decide for her what is best for her future. This allows Miss Kelly to hire her as a shop assistant when Eilis is qualified as a bookkeeper. This is also why Rose, her mother and Father Flood manage to ship her to Brooklyn. Father Flood is an American-Irish priest who immigrated to Brooklyn. He finds Eilis a job at Bertocci’s, a shop that sells woman’s clothes and lodgings at Mrs Keroe’s. The plans are made, Eilis has to go.
Brooklyn relates Eilis’ story, her life in Enniscorthy, her departure from Ireland and her arrival in Brooklyn and her new start in the USA. I enjoyed the descriptions of her first year in the USA. She had to adjust to a new life, a new town, a new job, a new home, a new climate. She felt homesick in the beginning and Father Flood helped her get into night classes for bookkeeping.
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there.
I liked reading about the atmosphere in her neighbourhood. Colm Tóibín pictures how the Irish and Italian immigrants bond and are allowed to mix because they have the same religion. They meet in balls and when Eilis starts dating Tony, I enjoyed reading about the outings, the days at the beach and all the social codes around dating at the time. Father Flood takes good care of the new immigrants and Eilis was welcome. He helped her when she felt homesick, Miss Fortini at Bartocci’s showed empathy when Eilis needed some. There was a sense of community and solidarity, as proved by the organisation of Christmases for people whose family was abroad.
As a character, Eilis is a curious mix of strength and weakness. In appearance, she’s pliable but she still tries to do what she wants. She doesn’t see herself very well. She feels plain and average but Tony doesn’t see her that way and the easiness with which she studies bookkeeping and commercial law in the State of New York led me into thinking she’s intelligent. Her intelligence isn’t flamboyant but she has a mind of her own, she’s a good judge of characters and doesn’t derive from her course of business when she has a goal. Her weakness is that she wants to please the people who like or love her. She can’t say no to someone important to her. So she can’t say not to her mother, her sister or Tony.
We see the events through Eilis’s eyes. Colm Tóibín recounts minutely what goes through her mind. We see her fears, her hesitations and her desire to stay in the shadows. She doesn’t like being on stage and she shies away from situations where she could be questioned or singled out or where she could have to justify her actions. It results in her keeping secrets from her relatives and untold secrets are more and more difficult to reveal as time goes by. This tendency puts her in difficult situations. She also tends to look the other way when something unpleasant happens. It’s like she imagines it will disappear if she doesn’t pay attention to it.
The best parts of Brooklyn were the style and the descriptions of Eilis’ feelings as an immigrant. She didn’t leave Ireland because she wanted to. Her mother and sister chose for her and she couldn’t say no, couldn’t find worthy arguments for her to stay. As a consequence, the fear of the unknown isn’t tamed by the excitement of finally doing something she’s dreamt of. She’s terrified to go and see her life take another course than the one she had always imagined:
She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding, days in which everyone looked at her in the rush of arrangements with light in their eyes, days in which she herself was fizzy with excitement but careful not to think too precisely about what the next few weeks would be like in case she lost her nerve.
I enjoyed the style both easy to read and beautiful in its quiet precision but I have reservations about the love story. I’m usually good public for this but I found it took too much space in the novel when it was not the most original quality of the book. However, I’m grateful that Colm Tóibín avoided the pitfall of Irish miserabilism. Yes life was difficult, yes, lots of people had to find a job abroad but his picture of Enniscorthy also includes happiness and warmth of living at home, where one has their bearings.
Next month, our Book Club reads Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov and as always, you’re welcome to read it along with us.
L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).
I’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.
L’âge heureux. (Happy days)
There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.
When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.
After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.
Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:
|J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie…||I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…|
A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.
Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.
|Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question.||Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.|
Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.
Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.
L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.
|Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient.||Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.|
L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…
If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..
In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.
It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.
I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.
Le Journal d’un corps, de Daniel Pennac. 2012
Je lisais ce livre et je me disais « Jamais je n’arriverai pas à écrire sur ce roman en anglais, je n’ai pas les mots. » Puis je me suis dit que puisque tous les lecteurs fidèles de ce blog lisent le français, j’allais écrire en français pour une fois. Je suis un peu intimidée, à vrai dire. Je n’ai jamais écrit de billet dans ma langue natale. Et le cerveau humain est une chose étrange, il compartimente nos expériences, apprend, stocke et définit des habitudes. Mon cerveau a l’habitude d’écrire des billets en anglais. Cette activité est en anglais depuis le début et pour lui, c’est un peu aller contre nature que de changer de langue tout à coup. Mais ce n’est pas pour parler de mon cerveau ou de mon corps que je saute ce pas aujourd’hui, c’est pour Daniel Pennac.
La vie est un grand théâtre et nous faisons notre petite performance tous les jours, entrant en scène dès le matin, dès que quelqu’un pose les yeux sur nous. Le regard de l’autre fait sortir l’acteur en nous car dès que nous ne sommes plus seuls, l’autre attend quelque chose de nous, un comportement, un retour, une réassurance. Les écrivains aiment à montrer ce qui se cache derrière le rideau de ce théâtre et nous dévoilent les pensées et les sentiments des personnages. Avec son Journal d’un corps, Daniel Pennac a choisi de s’intéresser aux coulisses. Notre corps. Le projet est original, il faut le reconnaître.
Un garçon décide à l’âge de douze ans de maîtriser son corps qui l’a trahi en dévoilant sa peur. Une trouille paralysante l’a envahi et ses sphincters ont abdiqué, une vraie Bérézina dans le pantalon. Cet enfant est le fils d’un combattant de la guerre 14-18 affaibli et finalement emporté par les conséquences des gaz toxiques respirés au front. Le père s’étiole, trahi par son corps. Quelques temps après sa mort et cette déroute intestinale, le fils se prend en main. Nous sommes en 1936 et jusqu’à sa mort, il tiendra le journal intime de ce corps, ce compagnon de route. Le livre est conçu comme un journal intime et aucun événement significatif n’y est consigné s’il n’a pas un impact corporel ou s’il ne peut être décrit via une altération du corps. Nous devinons ce qui se passe dans sa vie car quelques mots furtifs ici et là en dévoilent les grands moments. Après tout, ces grands événements marquants le prennent au corps. La mort de sa nounou, Violette. Sa première amante. La rencontre avec Mona, sa femme, le coup de foudre. Et le voici papa :
Devenir père, c’est devenir manchot. Depuis un mois, je n’ai plus qu’un bras, l’autre porte Bruno. Manchot du jour au lendemain, on s’y fait.
Le Journal d’un corps est un livre drôle qui nous parle de ce qui ne se dit pas, de ce qui ne s’écrit pas. Il n’y a pas d’analyse profonde des sentiments ici, rien que les sensations d’un corps. Certaines me sont familières, comme bailler, sentir la peur vous prendre aux tripes, le vertige, l’eau sur le corps lors de la toilette, la fulgurance d’un mal de dents. Certaines me sont étrangères car je suis une femme ; je ne connais pas le plaisir de se raser le matin. Certaines sensations trahissent les émotions, montrent ce qui se passe sur scène, là où notre homme interagit avec son public, ses collègues, ses employés, sa famille.
J’adore Pennac, ses dix droits inaliénables du lecteur sont dans un cartouche en bonne vue sur mon blog et la série Malaussène est un excellent souvenir de lecture. J’aime son humour, sa chaleur, sa joie de vivre. Il a le verbe gourmand et gourmet à la fois, direct mais jamais vulgaire. (Ponctuation amoureuse de Mona : Confiez-moi cette virgule que j’en fasse un point d’exclamation.) Il marie poésie et trivialité avec un bonheur qui sent l’enfance, les joues rougies par le jeu et l’absence d’arrière-pensée. (Notre voix est la musique que fait le vent en traversant notre corps. (Enfin, quand il ne ressort pas par le bas).) Il ne se prend jamais au sérieux. (Nous pouvons nous gratter jusqu’à la jouissance mais chatouille-toi tant que tu veux, tu ne te feras jamais rire.). Sa force est qu’il ne se contente pas de décrire son corps comme le réceptacle de plaisirs volés, tout y passe, le bon et le moins bon. Cette apparente légèreté, ce badinage sensoriel n’empêche pas Pennac de réfléchir un peu sur la place du corps dans notre vie sociale.
Nous passons notre vie à comparer nos corps. Mais une fois sortis de l’enfance, de façon furtive, presque honteuse. A quinze ans, sur la plage, j’évaluais les biceps et les abdominaux des garçons de mon âge. A dix-huit ou vingt ans, ce renflement sous le maillot de bain. A trente, à quarante, ce sont leurs cheveux que les hommes comparent (malheur aux chauves). A cinquante ans, le ventre (ne pas en prendre), à soixante, les dents (ne pas en perdre) Et maintenant, dans ces assemblées de vieux crocodiles que sont nos autorités de tutelle, le dos, les pas, la façon d’essuyer sa bouche, de se lever, d’enfiler son manteau, l’âge, en somme, tout simplement, l’âge. Untel fait beaucoup plus vieux que moi, ne trouvez-vous pas ?
C’est tellement vrai, on le fait sans même s’en rendre compte. Cette histoire est à la fois universelle et unique. J’ai évoqué précédemment les moments universels. Mais cet homme a également une relation à son corps qui est celle d’un homme de sa génération. On le sent un peu guindé, ce père que ses enfants ne voient jamais en pyjama. A un moment il dit qu’il aimerait lire le journal d’un corps de femme pour entrer dans cette intimité et comprendre –entre autres—ce que c’est que d’avoir des seins. Intriguant pour un homme, je suppose. Il décrit ses petites misères, ses maladies, sa curiosité pour ce corps à qui on ne prête vraiment attention que quand il se manifeste violemment ou avec insistance. Il fait des expériences sur le corps comme bailler en réunion pour voir si son bâillement crée une cascade de bâillements chez les autres participants. Ce roman est jouissif, tendre et triste à la fois. On devine un homme traditionnel, pince sans-rire et généreux. Un homme qui a réussi sa carrière, un mari fidèle, un père un peu distant, un grand-père affectueux. Un homme qui cohabite avec son corps.
J’ai beaucoup aimé ce texte et malheureusement, il n’est pas traduit en anglais pour l’instant. Il est sorti en 2012, il le sera peut-être plus tard. C’est certainement un bon livre à acheter pour quelqu’un qui souhaite ré-apprivoiser son français. C’est un journal, composé de petits moments ; il permet une lecture décousue, hachée.
Voilà, ce billet s’achève et pour tout dire, écrire en français n’est pas simple. L’anglais n’a pas cessé de vouloir s’imposer au français, tellement c’est devenu ma langue d’écriture dès que cela touche à la littérature. Mon esprit change de langue dès que j’envisage de restituer mes impressions sur un livre. J’ai dû effacer quelques anglicismes (et non, on ne dit pas compartimentaliser en français !) ou des faux amis (on ne dit pas caractère, mais personnage) et traduire en français quelques adjectifs qui me sont venus d’abord en anglais. Weird, I know.
Bonne lecture à tous.
PS : If anyone needs a translation, please, just ask in the comment section.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. 1956 I don’t think it’s been translated into French.
London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.
It’s quite rare that I write a billet about a book more than a month after finishing it. It’s interesting to see what remains of it after several weeks.
Sam Selvon was from Trinidad and lived in London in the 1950s. The Lonely Londoners describes the life of immigrants from the West Indies. It starts with Moses who goes to Waterloo Station to welcome a fellow Trinidadian who’s arriving to London. His name is Henry Oliver and Moses quickly renames him Sir Galahad. The same day, Tolroy is also at the station, waiting for his mother’s arrival from Jamaica and he’s filled with dismay when he realises she didn’t come alone, but also took FIVE other family members along with her. Follows a funny scene at the station where the mother plays on the guilt chord, is interviewed by a journalist while Tolroy wonders how everybody will fit in his lodgings.
Henry’s arrival is the opportunity for Selvon to introduce us to the life of the Trinidadian immigrant. He mentions the difficulty to adjust to the cold, the lurking racism and the constant articles about the flow of immigrants from the West Indies in the papers. Moses regrets that so many of them arrive in London, building up a community visible enough to catch attention from the media. I loved the part where he describes how easier it becomes to find food from his home country in London, as Jamaicans gather in a neighbourhood. Shopkeepers adjust, they have in store what they customers want.
Selvon depicts a vivid picture of the daily lives of immigrants in Notting Hill. Moses stays away from trouble but his life never really moves on. He doesn’t spare any money and doesn’t manage to climb any social ladder. He lives in a shabby room, cooks there, sleeps there and shares it with fellow countrymen until they can live on their own. He’s a stable figure of his community. He explains British social rules to Galahad and guides him in through paperwork at the labour office to find a job. Here’s Moses mentioning how job agencies classify unemployed people according to their origin and colour of skin:
‘Now, on all the records of the boys, you will see a mark on the top in red ink. J-A Col. That mean you from Jamaica and you black. So that put clerks in the know right away, you see. Suppose a vacancy come and they want to send a fellar, first they will find out if the firm want coloured fellars before they send you. That save a lot of time and bother, you see. In the beginning it cause a lot of trouble when fellars went saying that they come from the labour office and the people send them away saying it ain’t have no vacancy. They don’t tell you outright they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled.’
Selvon portrays several colourful characters, fete among immigrants (I didn’t know that this French word had migrated into English). Moses and the others barely survive. Some never really work but float on the surface living off other people’s help. Selvon also describes Sundays in Hyde Park, men dressing up to chat up women, nights at the theatre. The lingering feeling is that they all fight against loneliness and homesickness as best they can.
Moses belongs to early immigrants. He’s been in London for ten years when Galahad arrives. He knows he will probably never go back to Trinidad but still entertains the fantasy. He likes to evoke his old life and to hear from people he knew there. He reminded me of Maghrebi workers in France in the 1960s. They lived in dreadful conditions and had the toughest jobs. Some are retired now and still live in their old and decrepit “foyers Sonacotra”, in other words, special council flats built for migrants.
The Lonely Londoners is also an ode to London, the city of the immigrants’ dreams:
The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Picadilly Circus is my play-ground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.
Living there is still a dream, no matter how tough their circumstances are. Selvon describes streets, parks, shops and places. It seems that belonging to this place is a privilege that overcomes any hardship. They don’t have an American dream, they have a London dream. Galahad is happy to be in places he had only heard of before. In a way, NW by Zadie Smith is a child of Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. They make you feel the city.
Selvon’s tenderness for London doesn’t prevent him from being realistic. He mentions that the environment is sometimes hostile. He also doesn’t give a rosy picture of his people. Some are on survival mode which means that honesty isn’t as crucial as it should be. That’s something Hamsun describes very well in Hunger. When life gets too hard, honesty and moral principles cost too much to be followed.
The Lonely Londoners is written in vernacular English (is it the right adjective?) and it wasn’t always easy for me to read it. See: ‘Yes, yes,’ Galahad say, so relieved to see Moses that he putting his hands in his shoulders like they is old pals. Phew! I needed more attention than usual to keep on reading. It gave an authenticity to the text though; how could have Moses spoken perfect Oxford English? He would have sounded all wrong. I also had trouble with a ten-page passage where there was no punctuation at all. (p92, if someone has the same edition as me). It’s nice stream of consciousness but it’s hard to follow, at least for me.
Anyway, I recommend this book for its style, its picture of these immigrants’ way-of-life and of working class London in the 1950s. Selvon shows their neighbourhood from the inside and gives a voice and a face to people we hardly hear of. I don’t know if a Moroccan or Tunisian writer has written such a book about North African immigrants in France. I hope so, it could be worth reading.
Thank you Max for recommending this book when I mentioned I wanted to read something set in London.
The Pets by Bragi Olafsson. 2008 French title: Les animaux de compagnie.
September proved as challenging as predicted. Every year I swear I’ll be better organised and every year I’m as overwhelmed as the year before with school, things to buy, activities to schedule, etc. The Pets was our Book Club choice for September. It’s as crazy as the month and it kept its promises of entertainment. You may have noticed, this book is filed under the category Beach and Public Transport. I use this category for books that don’t require much concentration. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good books; they’re entertaining. The Pets sure fills the bill but reading it on the beach or in public transports might win you strange looks for the constant chuckles and reading it during a flight might give you the creeps. After all, as Olfasson mentions it:
Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.
So we’re with Emil S. Halldorsson who is flying back to Iceland after a shopping trip to London. He comes home with CDs and books and gifts for his family and friends. As he settles on the plane, his neighbour starts talking to him. He introduces himself as Armann Valur, linguist. The guy is a complete nut case and he invades Emil’s privacy. Of course, Emil can’t get rid of him. On the plane and later in the airport, he also chats with Greta, a woman he had a secret crush on years ago. He has the opportunity to chat her up and he manages to have a rendezvous at his apartment later in the evening.
At the same time Emil is flying back to Reykjavik, we follow Havard Knutsson who has just come back to town after a long stay in Sweden. He intends to meet with Emil with whom he had spent a fateful summer in London five years before.
Arriving at his apartment complex, Emil learns through his neighbour that someone has tried to visit him just before he came home. Then he realises that he has accidentally taken Armann’s spectacles with him. So he leaves him a message on his voicemail to let him know where his glasses are. After that, he’s preparing coffee when he sees Havard coming over and hurriedly decides to hide under his bed to avoid him. Havard notices the coffee in progress, climbs through the window and settles to wait for Emil’s return. Emil dreads meeting with Havard and doesn’t show up.
Acquaintances (Armann, Greta) and friends arrive at Emil’s and Havard opens the door, welcomes them and starts a party while they’re all waiting for Emil’s return. Surely, he can’t be far away, since he was making coffee? That’s where Sartre proves right “Hell is other people”. Or perhaps it’s a remake of Goldilocks and the three bears with reversed roles. Havard, Armann and Greta make themselves at ease at Emil’s while Emil is hiding under his bed and listening to everything. Emil doesn’t lack a sense of humour or lucid self-analysis:
I pause for a moment over the word supernatural. Here I am lying under my own bed, recalling the ridiculous death of several animals which my companion and I were paid to look after five years ago, and now this Havard, whom I thought had cleared out of my life and was under careful supervision in an institution abroad, is back to haunt me, standing just a partition’s width away in the living room. Am I imagining all this? Am I all right? Is something strange going on in my brain, just as I imagined a few hours ago was the case with Armann Valur? Am I experiencing what I felt earlier today, that I don’t really belong here, that this isn’t my own home? Is the eccentric up there playing with me?
That’s Emil in all his glory. The first part, relating the trip back home, is already funny, the second part can be hilarious. It shows a lot about Emil and his immature doormat attitude. Things happen to him, he never leads the dance. He’s thirty-something and has a son who lives with his mother in Denmark. He doesn’t see him very often. He has a girlfriend, Vigdis, who works in a hotel in another town but he doesn’t really miss her and doesn’t hesitate to invite Greta over. He’s a bit naïve; during his first trip to London, he expected to find books at bookmakers’:
He discovered that one could walk into certain offices—that I initially took for printing firms because bookmakers was printed on the signs—and bet on horses and dogs, amongst other things.
You’d want to give him self-help books and urge him to grow up. He’s afraid of Havard and when he unravels the events that took place in London five years before well, you can understand why he’d rather dodge out of seeing him. Honestly, I couldn’t pity Emil’s predicament. He had brought it all to himself with his cowardice. However, who says “Sorry, I don’t want to talk” to someone who starts up a conversation on a plane or a train? Who is able to go out politely but frankly of a relationship they don’t want to pursue? Don’t we all know people we’d rather avoid and whose presence we dutifully bear? I’m a quiet person and for me, hell is chatterboxes who want to make me talk when I don’t feel like to. They exhaust me especially when they relate mindless stories about acquaintances or colleagues I don’t even know. I know someone like this. When I say it doesn’t interest me, she says I’m too intellectual and not enough interested in other people. It makes me want to isolate myself in a bubble of silence. Perhaps I should try hiding under the bed?
Anyway, it was funny to imagine Emil under his bed, witnessing everything that was happening without intervening. Olafsson has a wicked sense of humour and has a way with words, as you can read it here:
“But I am asking you, Armann,” Havard interrupts. “Do you think I’m ugly?” Armann hesitates for a few seconds and then says: “I think you harmonize quite well”
The smell in there was the smell of yesterday, or all the yesterdays that had been since it opened—stale cigarette smoke that seemed somehow to choke any possibility of good memories.
I couldn’t help imagining what a great theatre play this book would make. It has everything to be staged. Not too many locations, lots of comic effects and funny dialogues, this seems a good recipe for a comedy. Once again, this book was on my TBR thanks to Guy’s review. Thanks Guy! You can also read Max’s review here.
PS: An anecdote about names again. Emil S. Halldorsson. When I thought about him, it reminded me of a comic film by Les Nuls where one character named Emile is constantly urged to have a chewing-gum because of his chronic bad breath. (“Prenez un chewing-gum, Emile”) One day at diner, I mentioned this book to my family and that Emile brought back memories of that film when my daughter said. “Me, it makes me think of Emile Zola”. Before you go straight to cloud nine thinking how nice it is that a twelve-year old mentions Zola, let me bring you back to Earth: she only knows Zola because he’s a street name. She knows he’s a writer, sure, but she remembers him for the street name. We have this strange habit here, we name streets after writers, musicians, poets and less bucolic, war heroes. Some writers are eternal more because of their street name than because of their literary merits. And they become garages, cafés or driving- schools because owners name their business after their address. I’ve seen a Zola car workshop and a Balzac driving-school.