L’argent by Emile Zola. 1891. (Money).
Disclaimer: I have probably made mistakes on the business terms I use in this post. I had to check them in the dictionary and it can be perilous. Moreover, there are spoilers in this billet but I’m not sure it would really ruin the suspense of the book for someone who hasn’t read it.
As I mentioned in my previous entry about Money by Zola, I was engrossed by the business details described in the book and I wanted to research a little bit the laws for banking in the Second Empire. I’ve had trouble finding sources but I eventually found information on Wikipedia and stumbled across a very useful essay.
The underlying question was: is Zola accurate in his descriptions of the financial circles at the time or when he depicts of the speculation? The answer is yes. I’m not saying that he got all the details right, I don’t have time to check that thoroughly. From what I’ve read, I think he picked details in different episodes that occurred from 1850 until the time he wrote the novel and painted an accurate overall picture.
Why a volume about banking?
I’ve read that the 1850-1860s were the years of big changes in the banking world. Most of today’s French banks were founded at the time. With the development of railroad, steel industries and other industries requiring large funds to be launched, it appeared that the circulation of money wasn’t satisfactory. Before the Second Empire, banks were run by families upon their own fortune and they were responsible of the debts of the bank on their own money. In Great-Britain, the banking system had already gone through important changes (first “modern” bank in 1834) and the business circles in Paris wanted to do the same in France. In 1863, just a year before the story of Saccard starts, the regulation for founding a Société Anonyme (a Plc) became more flexible. As long as the capital wasn’t over 25 million Francs, you didn’t need a State authorization to found the bank. With a Société Anonyme, the shareholders of the company are no longer obliged to reimburse the losses on their own fortune. It’s not a surprise that the Banque Universelle starts with 25 million francs; Saccard doesn’t need a clearance from the government, and thus from his brother, the powerful Rougon, to start his bank.
Was the Société Anonyme of the 1860s very different from today’s?
I was very interested in the information Zola gives on the articles of incorporation of the Banque Universelle. Some regulations already existed but no controls were done and the rules were breached. For example, just as today, all shares must be subscribed to complete an increase in capital; a company isn’t allowed to own their own stock, the shares must be paid at least up to 25% at the moment of the subscription. (And, I guessed, the rest of the cash needed to be paid within 4 years.) This hasn’t changed. I thought the Board of Directors had too many members for proper governance. How do you run a company with a Board of 20 people? There was already a control of the accounts, done by two auditors.
|Et il n’y avait plus qu’à élire les deux commissaires censeurs, chargés de présenter à l’assemblée un rapport sur le bilan et de contrôler ainsi les comptes fournis par les administrateurs : fonction délicate autant qu’inutile, pour laquelle Saccard avait désigné un sieur Rousseau et un sieur Lavignière, le premier complètement inféodé au second, celui-ci grand, blond, très poli, approuvant toujours, dévoré de l’envie d’entrer plus tard dans le conseil, lorsqu’on serait content de ses services.||It then only remained for them to elect the two auditors, whose duty it would be to examine and report on the balance sheets and in this way check the accounts supplied by the management—functions, at once delicate and useless, for which Saccard had designated a certain Sieur Kousseau and a Sieur Lavignière, the first completely under the influence of the second, who was a tall, fair-haired fellow with very polite manners and a disposition to approve of everything, being consumed with a desire to become a member of the board when the latter, later on, should express satisfaction with his services.|
Although the English word is auditor, it is clear in French (commissaires censeurs) that these two persons don’t have the same independence and the same right to investigate as today’s commissaires aux comptes. (also auditors). When I was reading, the structure of the 1864 Société Anonyme sounded familiar; there are more controls today and more regulations but the general framework is the same. The controls are more efficient, even if they aren’t perfect.
Saccard and the white collar crimes committed in Money.
A few weeks before reading Money, I attended a fascinating conference by a commissaire detached from the police force to the service of the AMF, the French SEC. He was presenting all the criminal offences a CFO could commit and well, Saccard made them all: bankruptcy, paper dividends, fraudulent financial statements, insider trading. He also explained how the AMF monitors stock exchanges to detect abnormal changes in stock market prices, sometimes leading to an investigation. Any time a big event is announced for a company (a merger for example), the AMF checks out the stock market price on the few days or weeks before the announcement. There is no such control in Money. The financial circles perfectly know that the stock market prices are manipulated. Big investors use the Bourse to fight personal battles and ruin companies. Investors also play for their own profit. The battle between bulls and bears at the Bourse really occurred in these years, causing havoc in the economy.
Money, the scandals at the Bourse and the collapse of the Union Générale in 1882
According to Wikipedia, the climate around banks was really the one described in Money. A Jules Mirès used the press to manipulate the opinion and attract investments on certain stock. The press was linked to the business circles in unethical ways. In Money, Saccard buys a newspaper and advertises a lot about the profits and the activity of the Banque Universelle. An Achille Fould who wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother, used his position as a minister to fight against the liberalization asked by the business circles. Saccard isn’t on speaking terms with Rougon, who is still in the government. Rougon takes the opportunity to kill Saccard when he has the chance.
The Union Générale was a Catholic bank founded in 1878 by Eugène Bontoux. It went bankrupt in 1882, it lasted four years, like the Banque Universelle in Money. The pope’s secretary was involved in the capital, it invested in North Africa and in Egypt. In Money, the Banque Universelle, a similar name to Union Générale, is close to Catholic investors. Saccard and Hamelin want the Banque Universelle to help settle the pope back in Jerusalem and meanwhile it invests in Turkey and Lebanon.
The value of the Union Générale grows until January 1882 when it collapsed. It came from an overcapitalization of the company, bad governance as the company owned their own shares and from a deadly fight between bulls and bears. Many small investors were involved through brokers and lost their fortunes. It generated a violent recession with social consequences. It’s exactly what happens in Money. Bontoux fled to Spain; Saccard immigrates to Holland. At the time, the opinion reacted strongly to this scandal because of the speculation that happened, the involvement of clergymen in the capital of the bank. It inspired Zola who had the genius to link the speculation on properties in the wake of the transformation of Paris by Haussmann to the speculation on stock markets. Saccard is the link as he is a participant in both frenzies. It shows an atmosphere of thirst for money that was, from what I read, a reality in those years.
Money and the anti-Semitism
Money was published before the Dreyfus Affair started and we all know what role Zola played in it. Zola already describes the rampant anti-Semitism of the business circles, especially in the bank industry. I was ill-at-ease when I read Saccard’s outbursts against Jewish bankers. Sadly, it appears it was accurate; Catholic bankers made a point to fight against Jewish ones. The roots for the Dreyfus Affair are there and it confirms what Proust depicts in In Search of Lost Time. It grows slowly but strongly; it shows that Vichy could happen because there were strong roots for anti-Semitism before the war.
The little research I’ve done proves that Zola is accurate in the description of the events, of the climate of that time. I found Money fascinating because it’s really the creation of modern capitalism. I have to say I’m not satisfied with this billet because I would have liked to dig a little bit more. I don’t have time for this, unfortunately. So it goes.
I picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.
A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.
I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.
The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:
The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.
I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.
However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.
[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”
The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:
“It’s raining hard.”
“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”
“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.
“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”
“I like it.”
“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”
“I’ll love you always.”
“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”
“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”
Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.
For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.
To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)
So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.
A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.
L’Argent by Emile Zola. 1891 The English translation I used for the quotes is by Vizetelly.
L’Argent was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late) and we all loved it.
|Et la Bourse, grise et morne, se détachait, dans la mélancolie de la catastrophe, qui, depuis un mois, la laissait déserte, ouverte aux quatre vents du ciel, pareille à une halle qu’une disette a vidée. C’était l’épidémie fatale, périodique, dont les ravages balayent le marché tous les dix à quinze ans, les vendredis noirs, ainsi qu’on les nomme, semant le sol de décombres. Il faut des années pour que la confiance renaisse, pour que les grandes maisons de banque se reconstruisent, jusqu’au jour où, la passion du jeu ravivée peu à peu, flambant et recommençant l’aventure, amène une nouvelle crise, effondre tout, dans un nouveau désastre.||And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster.|
I promise Zola wrote this and not a contemporary journalist. It’s a quote from Money, one of the last books of the Rougon-Macquart series. It was published in 1891, just before La Débâcle.
In this volume, we are in 1864 and we find Aristide Saccard again, one of the main characters of La Curée (The Kill). My post about The Kill was entitled Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power. Well, Aristide Saccard hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the novel, he is defeated, living rather poorly in an apartment in the hotel of the Princess D’Orviedo. She inherited a colossal fortune from her dead husband who didn’t earn it honestly. She’s expiating his faults by using his money for charities. Saccard works for one of her charity, the Institute of Work and runs it rather well. In the same hotel live a brother and a sister, M. Hamelin and Madame Caroline. They are also impoverished and try to make ends meet. Hamelin is an engineer and when he describes to Saccard all the great projects he could be starting in Asia Minor, Saccard sees an opportunity to start a new business, a bank. The three friends discuss the projects and Saccard relies on Hamelin’s ideas to promote his new company and new way of earning money.
Basically, the book relates the rise and fall of the Banque Universelle, created by Saccard with financial partners. It shows the madness of the stock exchange, the way people are corrupted by money easily earned on betting on the right stock and selling them at the right time.
The strength of the novel is the large net of secondary characters who serve one purpose: to show all kinds of unhealthy relationships with money and prove how it can turn honest people into despicable beings. All the characters in Money are involved with money at a level or another.
The main one is Saccard who appears like a megalomaniac, enjoys money for itself, for the power it gives him. He’s addicted to money. He’s full of energy, is afraid of nothing, is busy inventing scheme after scheme to reach his goal. At some point, he seems crazy. At the same time, you can’t despise him totally because he is hard working, full of enthusiasm but his ideas of grandeur are totally disproportionate. He has an appetite for life, for power and for all kinds of pleasures. Zola compared him to Napoleon: a man with lethal ideas or projects beyond imagination, someone who is a real leader, adored by people and at the same time leading his troops to death and desolation. Saccard is shown as a Napoleonic businessman. Zola describes his fall with lots of military comparisons and they enforce the image of Saccard as a Napoleon of finance.
|Les cours, de chute en chute, tombèrent à 1 500, à 1 200, à 900. Il n’y avait plus d’acheteurs, la plaine restait rase, jonchée de cadavres.||The quotations, from fall to fall, dropped to one thousand five hundred, one thousand two hundred, nine hundred francs. There were no more buyers ; none were left standing ; the ground was strewn with corpses.|
When I read the French original, I cannot help thinking about Hugo’s poem L’Expiation about the battle of Waterloo. (Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !)
Along with Saccard’s business, Zola portrays the business circles in Paris and especially the ones gravitating around the stock exchange, la Bourse. He describes the development of a new type of capitalism around banks and Sociétés Anonymes (Plc or AG). He depicts the workings of the Bourse, the behavior of investors, the optimists, the pessimists, the ones for who silence is gold. Zola shows the reader how enriched bourgeois, using impoverished nobility for their name are the new masters of the Bourse. He details rotten business practices, the manipulation of stock value and how people make money out of speculation. He always compares it to gambling.
The side characters are vivid too and Zola uses them to show how the madness of speculation, of easy money that corrupts people. It’s Dejoie, who buys stocks of the Banque Universelle to earn the 6000 francs he needs to pay for his daughter’s dowry. When the stock exchange price rises, he could sell and get his 6000 francs but he wants more. It’s the Maugendres who disowned their daughter because she married a poor writer and who’d rather play on the stock market than help her financially. It’s women who use prostitution to earn more.
Aside from the Bourse, Zola portrays the dirty market of bad debts and of devaluated stocks. Busch is our man and here is his business:
|Mais, outre l’usure et tout un commerce caché sur les bijoux et les pierres précieuses, il s’occupait particulièrement de l’achat des créances. C’était là ce qui emplissait son cabinet à en faire craquer les murs, ce qui le lançait dans Paris, aux quatre coins, flairant, guettant, avec des intelligences dans tous les mondes. Dès qu’il apprenait une faillite, il accourait, rôdait autour du syndic, finissait par acheter tout ce dont on ne pouvait rien tirer de bon immédiatement. Il surveillait les études de notaire, attendait les ouvertures de successions difficiles, assistait aux adjudications des créances désespérées. Lui-même publiait des annonces, attirait les créanciers impatients qui aimaient mieux toucher quelques sous tout de suite que de courir le risque de poursuivre leurs débiteurs. Et, de ces sources multiples, du papier arrivait, de véritables hottées, le tas sans cesse accru d’un chiffonnier de la dette : billets impayés, traités inexécutés, reconnaissances restées vaines, engagements non tenus. Puis, là-dedans, commençait le triage, le coup de fourchette dans cet arlequin gâté, ce qui demandait un flair spécial, très délicat. Dans cette mer de créanciers disparus ou insolvables, il fallait faire un choix, pour ne pas trop éparpiller son effort. En principe, il professait que toute créance, même la plus compromise, peut redevenir bonne, et il avait une série de dossiers admirablement classés, auxquels correspondait un répertoire des noms, qu’il relisait de temps à autre, pour s’entretenir la mémoire.||In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of ‘bad debts.’ This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of Paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries’ offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the ; sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments !of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again ; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory.|
A charming profession, isn’t it? This man is merciless when he tracks down old debts and the additional expenses reach incredible amounts. I haven’t checked, but I bet these professionals really existed. This questions the access to credit: these debts were a way to have credit somewhere, when we basically rely on banks for this now.
Zola tries to balance his judgment. On the one hand, even evil characters have a good side. Busch is also a very kind brother attending to his ill relative like a mother hen. Saccard was perfectly honest when he ran the Institute of Work. On the other hand, the generous characters aren’t as good as it seems. The Princess d’Orviedo gives her fortune away but the useless luxury she puts in her charities is to be criticized too. She gives her money away more for herself, because this money is dirty, than to really improve the beneficiaries’ life. She could do more if the investments were more efficient.
Madame Caroline is the only character who seems to keep her moral compass but she is also momentarily blinded by Saccard. He’s hard to resist. She’s seduced but can keep to her promises when she has decided something. She’s the only one who’s interested in life for itself and who has a healthy relationship with money. She enjoys it when she has some but wouldn’t give up her principles for more. If her income decreases, she adjusts her way of living.
Lots of elements in this novel were depressing because things haven’t changed that much since Zola. The behaviours he describes still exist. Crashes like Enron look a lot like the crash of the Banque Universelle and their outcome is alike with major consequences for shareholders and the whole market. Small people lose their fortune, but aren’t they responsible for stupidly believing that making so much money without doing anything was sustainable? If Money rings true, it’s because the foundation of all this is greed. The alternative is represented in the book by Busch’s brother Sigismond. He’s a thinker and an idealist who dreams of a Marxist society. Zola depicts him as a idealist. The society he dreams of cannot be implemented because it is based on the absence of greed and greed is part of the human nature. It’s doomed to failure.
Money also prepares the reader to La Débâcle. The political events mentioned here and there remind the reader that a war is in the air. The crash at the Bourse (a real one occurred in 1867, probably resulting in the new Corporate Law of July 24th, 1867) is described as a battle field and prefigures the agony of the regime.
Money is an excellent novel. I was really interested in the business and legal elements it includes and will come back to them in another entry. Highly recommended.
Discover Guy’s excellent take on this novel here.
Sleeping patterns by J.R. Crook. 2012. Published by Legend Press. Not translated into French. (It would suit Les Editions de Minuit, though)
I rarely receive solicitations from writers or publishers to read their books and I don’t complain about it. Indeed, I’m not comfortable with the idea or the feeling of someone expecting a billet from me, and of course, a glowing one. Otherwise, why bother sending free copies of books? I don’t want to feel guilty about writing a negative billet. Of course, I’m not conceited enough to think that a negative billet on Book Around The Corner will ruin the book’s chance of success; I just think about the writers who put something about themselves for us to read and well, I suppose negative billets aren’t agreeable to read. So, when I received an email from J.R. Crook asking whether I’d like to read his book, I wanted to refuse right away. I decided to go and have a look at Litlove’s review of his novel, Sleeping Patterns. The review is entitled In praise of “Difficult books”. I thought “Ooh, not good.” I browsed through it and spotted a reference to experimental fiction and Roland Barthes and it made me cringe. “Definitely not good” was the next thought. I emailed the writer, warning him that I probably wasn’t the right reader for his book, having a hectic history of hit-and-miss with experimental fiction. But he was brave enough to send it anyway.
So Sleeping Patterns? I’m supposed to write a summary of the book and I won’t. It would ruin everything for someone who would want to read it. Let’s say it opens with an introduction by Annelie Strandli, a.k.a Grethe. She’s a character of the book and she explains that the author, J.R. Crook, is dead. She received Sleeping Patterns by the post, chapter after chapter. The table of contents lists chapters in the order Grethe received and read them, ie not in the chronological order of the events. I was intrigued.
I started to read, not knowing what to expect. The chapters are in a strange order, the characters pop in and out; most of the events happen in a residence for students in London. Their lives are intertwined and one of the characters is Jamie, the author of the novel. It reminded me of Short Cuts by Robert Altman and of Money by Martin Amis, because he’s also in the story as a writer. I was about to take a sheet of paper to write the names of the characters and map out the links between them but I stopped. I spend ten hours a day in an office, thinking rationally; there is no room for the irrational in my job, believe me. I was about to slip into my usual and well-experienced thinking pattern when I decided against it. I thought it would be healthy for me to give up the rational for a moment, to let myself be drifted by the book, catching what the writer wanted me to catch when I was reading a specific chapter, hoping that the confusion would dispel as I progressed in my reading. I was right.
I read Sleeping Patterns in one sitting, not able to put it down. I was in the perfect mood for it, the rain outside my windows mirroring the rain in the book. At a point, the novel questions our ability to daydream, an activity I enjoy but can rarely indulge in because I don’t have time for this, except when I’m on holiday. That’s why I love the beach. It’s a place where adults are authorized to lay down and daydream.
It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. You don’t go out of the atmosphere and have to re-enter it after picking the book again. You have all the details in mind and it’s easier to reconcile the pieces of the jigsaw and see the interactions. There are multiple layers in the book but it’s not confusing as the story between Grethe and the aspiring writer Berry Walker remains the life-line of the narrative. You wander a bit, don’t go from point A to point B in a straight line but you remain on the main path.
I didn’t find Sleeping Patterns difficult to read or difficult to understand. I think that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein by Marguerite Duras is a lot more difficult to read than this. (Same thing for a more conventional narrative as The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst.) After making a conscious decision to forget about the usual construction of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The chapters felt like memories or flashbacks from dreams. After Proust, everyone knows that memories don’t come in chronological order or sorted in a logical or rational way. They come unexpectedly and dreams aren’t always consistent, are they?
I’m happy I decided to go past my initial wariness and that I gave this novella a chance. Changing of thinking pattern brought a bit of fresh air, I should do it more often. If I have a cheeky message for the author, it would be this one: Lots of people who read know nothing about literary criticism and theories. They just enjoy reading and appreciate a good style. Scaring them off with references to highbrow literature thinkers doesn’t do any justice to your book. Don’t burden your writing with these heavy shadows, it deserves better.
|Les mots sont faits pour scintiller de tout leur éclat. Il n’y a pas de limite concevable à leur agencement parce qu’il n’y a pas de limite à la couleur, à la lumière. Il n’y a pas de mesure à la mesure des mots. Il ne viendrait à l’idée de personne de mettre un frein à la clarté nue de midi en été. Les mots. Silex et diamant. Votre rôle est de fouiller là-dedans à pleine main au petit bonheur. Pourvu que ça rende le son qui est en vous quand vous écrivez.Louis Calaferte.||Words are made to scintillate of all their brightness. There is no conceivable limit to their order because there is no limit to colour, to light. There is no measure that measures up with words. Nobody would dream of refraining the raw brightness of light at noon in the summer. Words. Flintstone and diamond. Your role is to dig in there heartily and haphazardly. As long as it gives back the sound that is in you when you write.|
I find this quote beautiful as it intertwines all sensations with the pleasure of reading and writing. One more chapter is what I say to myself at night when I know I ought to turn off the light but am reluctant to put my book down. When a book is gripping, how can you resist?
One more chapter: Book Around the Corner is three-years-old. I decided to celebrate that milestone with a little book entitled Au Bonheur de lire or To Happiness in Reading. The English translation doesn’t give back the literary reference of the French title. Au Bonheur de lire refers to Au Bonheur des Dames by Zola. (Ladies’ Paradise for you, dear Anglophone readers) It’s a collection of texts about reading and it is split in three parts.
The first one covers childhood memories of hours spent with a book. They are either fake (excerpt from Madame Bovary) or real (Les Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The second part describes the pleasure of immersing in someone else’s words and thoughts, and sometimes feel like they’re your own. I was touched by the passage of Septentrion by Louis Calaferte; I’d like to read this book. The third part concentrates on books as an object and the strange relationship we have with our books. This relationship is changing now that we can read on ebooks. (Well, not in France since only 1% of books sold are ebooks, according to a recent article in Télérama)
It was a lovely book, an ode to my favourite hobby, to the blissful hours spent with the words of others. As a coincidence, I read it shortly after watching a fantastic theatre version of Farenheit 451. It was directed by David Géry who has also directed a theatre version of Bartleby. The play was faithful to the book (spectacular fires on scene) and once again it struck me how Bradbury managed to imagine things that are now part of our daily life: music in the ear, huge flat screens, pills. The people who fight against the loss of books were present on scene at the end of the play. They weren’t actors, only avid readers sharing a quote from their favourite book. Very moving and an incredible celebration of literature.
My blog aims at celebrating literature too, at sharing my enthusiasms or my disappointments. I hope it makes you want to try a new writer sometimes. Talking about favourites.
Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes recently posted his personal Pantheon of writers, based on a simple criterion “after reading one of the books by the author, I had the strong desire to read everything that author had ever written”. I like this criterion because I feel free to leave aside geniuses who don’t speak to me or are interesting but no fun reading, even though I acknowledge their literary worth. So, here is my Pantheon:
- Romain Gary. Do I need to say something?
- Jane Austen. Under polite and civilized phrases lays a sharp analysis of the society of her time.
- Philippe Djian. American in style and French in the characters.
- Molière. Laugh was his weapon. Massive destruction of egos in his wake.
- Philip Roth. From a character’s daily trivialities to the analysis of our world.
- Raymond Chandler. Crime fiction breaking into literary fiction.
- Thomas Hardy. Irony and poetry in rural England.
- William Somerset Maugham. Leaning on a character’s story to explore the core of mankind.
- Emile Zola. Isn’t he almost historical fiction?
- Dezső Kosztolányi. Humanity, poetry and description of society all wrapped in one.
- Philippe Besson. For his incredible ability to share passion and its forceful wave.
- Jim Harrison. For the American dream and his flawed characters.
- David Lodge. For his British sense of humour.
- Rainer Maria Rilke. Beautiful, soothing and painfully human.
- Anne Perry. Excellent series of historical crime fiction in London. She manages to renew herself.
- Edith Wharton. Acute perception of the human heart, feminism and both in France and America.
- Max Barry. When I read Company, I laughed so hard I decided I wanted to read all of his books.
- Antal Szerb Impossible to describe in a few words.
- Elizabeth George. Inspector Linley and Barbara Havers are sort of relatives by now.
- Steven Saylor. No one resuscitates Rome during the Roman Republic like he does.
Please welcome this billet as a heartfelt thank you for reading, following, commenting, putting up with my typos and misuse of the English language and take it as an opportunity to share your Pantheon in the comments. I’d love to discover the writers who thrill you.
L’école des femmes by Molière. 1662. The School for Wives.
I’ve seen a brilliant production of The School for Wives by Molière, directed by Jean Liermier and I can’t wait to share this with you. It’s a play I’d never read and the French title misled me. When I heard L’école des femmes, I thought The School for Women as in French we only have one word for woman and wife. I assumed it was something about educated women like in The Learned Ladies. Not at all.
The main character of this play is Arnolphe. He’s a middle aged bourgeois, a rich merchant. He recently changed his name into de la Souche, to give it a noble resonance. Arnolphe is a bachelor and his greatest fear in life is to be married to an unfaithful wife. He abundantly made fun of husbands among his acquaintances when they were unfortunate cuckolds.
Arnolphe is now ready to settle down and his friend Chrysalde warns him against the risk of ridicule if his wife eventually deceive him. Arnolphe then exposes his plan: he took the young Agnes away from her peasant family, had her raised in a convent and now keeps her in a separate house until he marries her. He made sure that she’s as stupid as possible as he doesn’t care for an intelligent wife. Quite the contrary. His assumption is that a silly wife will be less tempted to flirt and betray him. So Agnes is naïve, so ignorant that she recently asked whether babies are born in a woman’s ear. Arnolphe is more than delighted by her stupidity.
When Arnolphe comes home to see her, he stumbles upon Horace, one of his friends’ son. The young Horace doesn’t’ know that Arnolphe is now M. de la Souche and he tells Arnolphe that he’s madly in love with Agnes and that she returns his affections. Arnolphe is devastated and confronts Agnes. She has met Horace quite innocently and relates the origin of their acquaintance. He flirted with her, sent a messenger to win her heart with sweet paroles:
Agnès. “Have I wounded any one? ” I answered, quite astonished. “Yes,” she said, “wounded; you have indeed wounded a gentleman. It is him you saw yesterday from the balcony. ” “Alas!” said I, “what could have been the cause? Did I, without thinking, let anything fall on him? ” “No,” replied she; “it was your eyes which gave the fatal blow; from their glances came all his injury.” “Alas! good Heaven, ” said I, “I am more than ever surprised. Do my eyes contain something bad, that they can give it to other people? ” “Yes,” cried she, “your eyes, my girl, have a poison to hurt withal, of which you know nothing. In a word, the poor fellow pines away; and if ” continued the charitable old woman, “your cruelty refuses him assistance, it is likely he shall be carried to his grave in a couple of days. ” “Bless me!” said I, “I would be very sorry for that; but what assistance does he require of me?” “My child,” said she, “he requests only the happiness of seeing and conversing with you. Your eyes alone can prevent his ruin, and cure the disease they have caused.” “Oh! gladly,” said I; “and, since it is so, he may come to see me here as often as he likes.’’
Arnolphe(aside). O cursed witch! poisoner of souls! may hell reward your charitable tricks!
Agnès. That is how he came to see me, and got cured. Now tell me, frankly, if I was not right? And could I, after all, have the conscience to let him die for lack of aid?—I, who feel so much pity for suffering people, and cannot see a chicken die without weeping!
Agnes is so ignorant of all worldly manners that she doesn’t catch the figurative meaning of words and takes everything literally. How can she not rescue a poor man who’s dying because her looks almost killed him? Poor Arnolphe is now the victim of his own scheme. He raised her to be stupid; she behaves accordingly and with such a perfect honesty that he can’t complain. Agnes falls in love with Horace. Like any adolescent, she discovers love and desire. She rebels against Arnolphe and is unhappy to be so uneducated. She resents Arnolphe for keeping her away from the world. He wanted to play God, to be Prometheus and it didn’t work.
Molière is a brilliant playwright, very accessible. He mocks everyone. Arnolphe is ridiculous is his attempt to create his perfect wife. However he loves Agnes and I felt compassion for him and his unrequited love. There are memorable passages about Arnolphe’s vision of women and marriage.
“The Maxims of Marriage; or the Duties of a Wife; together with her Daily Exercise.
First Maxim. “She who is honourably wed should remember, notwithstanding the fashion now-a-days, that the man who marries does not take a wife for anyone but himself.’’
Second Maxim. “She ought not to bedeck herself more than her husband likes. The care of her beauty concerns him alone; and if others think her plain, that must go for nothing.
Third Maxim. “Far from her be the study of ogling, washes, paints, pomatums, and the thousand preparations for a good complexion. These are ever fatal poisons to honour; and the pains bestowed to look beautiful are seldom taken for a husband.”
Fourth Maxim. “When she goes out, she should conceal the glances of her eyes beneath her hood, as honour requires; for in order to please her husband rightly, she should please none else.”
Fifth Maxim. “It is fit that she receive none but those who visit her husband. The gallants that have no business but with the wife, are not agreeable to the husband.”
Sixth Maxim. “She must firmly refuse presents from men, for in these days nothing is given for nothing.”
Seventh Maxim. “Amongst her furniture, however she dislikes it, there must be neither writing-desk, ink, paper, nor pens. According to all good rules everything written in the house should be written by the husband.”
Eighth Maxim. “Those disorderly meetings, called social gatherings, ever corrupt the minds of women. It is good policy to forbid them; for there they conspire against the poor husbands.”
Ninth Maxim. “Every woman who wishes to preserve her honour should abstain from gambling as a plague; for play is very seductive, and often drives a woman to put down her last stake.”
Tenth Maxim. “She must not venture on public promenades nor picnics; for wise men are of opinion that it is always the husband who pays for such treats.”
The audience – full of teenagers as this play is studied in school –guffawed at the words. Heartily. This sounded so ridiculous. I’m glad French men find it funny and improbable. However, I thought about the film Wadjda directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour from Saudi-Arabia and I recalled that Wadjda wouldn’t find this so funny but rather close to her everyday life.
I love Molière because he’s always an advocate of moderation. He makes fun of Arnolphe in this play and of learned ladies in another one. He shows his contemporaries that ignorance isn’t a solution; only balance can be a viable path. In the end, Arnolphe hurts someone to save himself from a potential ridicule, for honour’s sake. Chrysalde tells a great speech about how to react when your wife cheats on you. To make a long story short: shrug it off. I’m not saying I approve of it but this might explain when the French are rather relaxed about extra-marital affairs. It’s a personal matter and the betrayed partner is the only person entitled to assess the importance of the affair on their relationship. From outside, nobody will judge the cheating partner the same way as they would judge them for being a thief.
In this play, Molière speaks directly to the cuckolds in the audience, which is unusual for him and it initiated laughter across the room. The production was excellent, timeless. The clothes were nice, each character wearing a coherent ensemble and yet they were hard to attach to a century or another. It was a patchwork of fashions across the centuries without looking like a weird costume.
Jean Liermier gave a comical and lively pace to this play. I forgot the alexandrins and the text is rather neutral regarding contemporary references like living in a kingdom or driving carriages. It highlighted the universal themes of the text. To picture Agnes’s isolated house, the director chose to build a house in a tree. I thought it was an excellent idea. Agnes was above the ground, kept prisoner in her wooden cabin. It gave the play the eternity of a fairytale, it reminded me of Rapunzel, kept in her tower. I also thought about Oedipus who stayed away to avoid fate, all in vain. Myths and fairy tales tell us it’s useless to try to protect someone from life.
An excellent time in the theatre.
Ceci est bien une pipe. San-Antonio by Frédéric Dard. 1999. Not available in English. (Again, I know, I know…)
For a French, San-Antonio is probably as famous Philip Marlowe. He a commissaire created by Frédéric Dard, a French crime fiction writer. There are 175 San-Antonio books and the first one was published in 1949. It’s a cult crime fiction series, my paperback edition even includes a guidebook by category. For example, you can know which novels are about a kidnapping. With such a reputation and such a fan base, I had to try one and my random pick brought me to Ceci est bien une pipe. Well not exactly random since the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe and I love Magritte.
Frédéric Dard is not translated into English and there’s certainly a reason to it: the style. It’s literary lad lit. – Try to say this aloud. That’s probably why this genre doesn’t exist in book stores, you can’t even pronounce it. So Frédéric Dard writes lad lit. That’s an undeniable fact: sex, dead bodies, fights, sex, dead bodies, fights,… the pattern is easy to recognize – not that I’m that familiar with the genre. The plot in Ceci est bien une pipe is as engaging as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Wait, actually, I still have to decide whether Scooby-Doo isn’t even more suspenseful than this. In addition, the characters aren’t well-drawn and they all seem rather strange. San-Antonio and his colleagues still live with their mothers in their old childhood rooms despite behaving like stinking machos. I’m not sure I want to know the Freudian interpretation of it.
Why didn’t I abandon the book? Because of the Queneau-like style. Frédéric Dard was well-read and his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres. It starts with the title as pipe is both a pipe and a blow-job. Now my challenge is to translate a few sentences to try to show you what I mean.
|English syntax Contremauvaisefortuneboncoeurfaisant||Makingthebestofabadjobly|
|Literary reference : Apollinaire’s poem Sous le Pont Mirabeau. Quand tu deviens gênant pour ton entourage, retire-toi dans un mouroir ou enjambe le parapet du pont Mirabeau sous lequel coulent la Seine et nos amours, tout le monde t’en saura gré.||When you become a burden to your relatives, retire in an old people’s home or cross the parapet of the Mirabeau bridge under which the Seine and our loves flow, everybody will be grateful.|
|Old FrenchChangeons de page, je vas te narrer la chose !||Let us change of page, I will narrate thou every thing!|
|Subtle lad litMon Dieu, pouquoi avez-Vous fait les “autruis” si chiants? Je ne demande que leur cul aux unes et un peu d’amicalité aux autres. Pour le reste, je parviens à m’arranger.||Dear God, why did Thou create the “others” so annoying? I only ask their ass to the ones and a bit of friendshipness to the others. The rest I can manage.|
|Play-on-words after discovering a mutilated bodyAujourd’hui, le fond de l’horreur est frais.Based on the French phrase « le fond de l’air est frais », meaning it’s chilly.||Today, the horror is chilly.|
It’s pearl after pearl of funny, inventive language and major use of argot – some words I didn’t even know. Lots of good play-on-words. Excellent ideas to twist the French syntax, include literal use of English expressions. To be honest, I had a lot of fun during the first 100 pages. Then it becomes old and tiring and since the plot wasn’t worth it…I finished it but used a lot of times the second unalienable right of the reader: I skipped pages, scanned through many ones and reached the end. You might love chocolate, when you eat too much of it in a row, you get sick.
By the way, Frédéric Dard comes from in Saint-Chef, a quaint village in the Dauphiné. It’s between Lyon and Grenoble and he makes several allusions to his region in the book. He includes local ways of speaking (mimi for kiss on the cheek), allusions to the Basilique de Fourvière (Lyon) and a touching reference to the cemetery in Saint-Chef, where he is now buried.
|[Je] songeais qu’après une longue immersion dans la médiocrité, je prendrai un pied éléphantesque dans le nouveau cimetière de Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné où j’irai attaquer mon éternité à l’ombre de la « Tour du Poulet » (XIIè)||[I] was thinking that after a long immersion in mediocrity, I’ll get an elephantly kick out of starting my eternity in the new cemetery in Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné, in the shadow of the Chicken Tower. (12thC)|
There really is a Tour du Poulet in Saint-Chef and it really dates back to the 12th century.
Touching as this is, no more San-Antonio for me, but I’m glad I read it. Frédéric Dard also wrote La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer, which was made into a film with Jeanne Moreau. I want to read this one as it doesn’t feature San-Antonio.
L’histoire d’une solitude by Milán Füst 1956 (Egy magány története) Translated by Sophie Aude. No English translation found. (I even twitted to George Szirtes to ask if he knew any but he doesn’t)
I’d never heard of Milán Füst before stumbling upon this novel in a bookstore, which again points how much we need brick-and-mortar bookstores to discover new writers. Milán Füst (1888 – 1967) is a Jewish Hungarian writer. Imagine what he’s been through during his life: like a Frenchman a century before, he has lived under several political regimes. He was born in Austria-Hungary, after WWI, it collapsed; he lived through the 1920s, the 1930s, WWII and communism. I wonder how someone can cope with all the changes. For the record, Füst was friend with Dezső Kosztolányi and Frigyes Karinthy. (I haven’t read Karinthy but he wrote a novel entitled Reportage céleste (de notre envoyé spécial au paradis) in other words, Celestial Report (from our special correspondent in paradise). Doesn’t it sound marvellous?) Füst is famous enough in his country to have a literary prize named after him and be seen as a Nobel Prize candidate in 1965. Füst’s most famous novel is A Story of my Wife, which is available in English, unlikeA Story of a Solitude.
Vendel Probst is the hero of A Story of a Solitude. He’s our narrator and relates some events of his life during the 1910s. He lives in Pest, not yet united with Buda. As the novel opens, Vendel is living with his mother when a young woman knocks at their door. She says her name is Erzsébet Lakos-Lőwy and that she’s coming on behalf of a mutual friend. She needs money. The Probsts believe her and give her the money only to realize later they’ve been conned. However, the young woman was enchanting and her image lingered in young Vendel’s memory. At his age, he’s never been in love and he dreams of falling in love:
|Il aurait fallu chercher quelqu’un que j’aurais enfin pu aimer vraiment, et sans tracas ni entrave…Je caressais le rêve d’un amour léger et vaporeux, qui ne pèserait pas, se répandrait au contraire dans un cœur comme touché par le rayon du soleil, d’un amour qui coulerait tout transparent et tendre comme le miel. Mais qui a jamais rien connu de tel ? je savais bien déjà que pareil amour n’existe pas.||I should have looked for someone I could really love, no strings attached…I caressed the dream of a misty and light love, a love which would have no weight, which would spread in a heart as if touched by a sunbeam. I dreamed of a love that would flow crystal clear and sweet as honey. But who has ever experienced that? I knew already that such a love didn’t exist.|
After graduating from university where he studied painting, Vendel works in a museum; he’s a specialist of Caravaggio. During WWI he joins the army and has not been sent to the front yet when he enters into a fight with a captain. Both are judged, the captain is sent to the front and Vendel is punished. As he fell ill, he’s transfered to the hospital. And, who does he find working there as a secretary? Erzsébet! Only she says she’s Teréz now. Imaginative as he is, he soon thinks himself in love and his feelings are returned since Teréz pulls strings to liberate him. They don’t get married but live together in Vendel’s apartment and he gets his old job back in the museum.
I think A Story of a Solitude is a coming-age-novel. It’s partly based upon Füst’s life – he was 22 in 1910; Vendel is the same age as Füst and there are probably similarities between young Füst and Vendel. In the foreword, Péter Esterházy mentions that Füst reported to a friend an incident with a young woman similar to the first encounter between Erzsébet and Vendel. The relationship between Vendel and Teréz is interesting but not in itself. It’s the Ariadne’s clew that holds the novel together. I thought that Füst mostly intended to relate how Vendel turned into a man.
Vendel has a formidable mother, both Jewish and German in her education. The mix is so powerful, especially in the absence of a father, that it’s almost lethal. When Vendel’s mother moves to Vienna with her new husband, Vendel stays behind in Pest and enjoys his freedom. She’s the usual Jewish mother in her way to keep in touch with her son but without the overwhelming love. She’s attentive, protective but her German side tempers her displays of affection. Her principles are rather rigid; falling in love is to be avoided; studying Caravaggio is not a serious occupation…She’s controlling and steps in if she thinks her son goes overboard according to her values. Vendel tries to break free and even if he’s in his twenties, he acts as a rebellious adolescent:
|Il est vrai que je m’étais toujours plus à scandaliser ma mère, c’est un vice que j’ai depuis longtemps. Car elle savait bien, par-dessus le marché, que je vivais avec quelqu’un. Il était en effet impossible qu’elle ne sache pas tout sur moi, puisqu’elle me faisait en effet surveiller, se faisait envoyer des rapports à mon sujet, — mais j’y reviendrai plus tard.||It is true that I always enjoyed shocking my mother, it’s a vice I’ve had for a long time. Because she knew very well, to top it off, that I was living with someone. Indeed, it was impossible that she didn’t know everything about me since I was under surveillance and she had someone send her reports about me, — but I’ll come to that later.|
Needless to say that Teréz is not marriage material in the eyes of Vendel’s mother.
During this formative decade, Vendel will also see his character settle. He knows more about himself, his likes and dislikes and forms an opinion about his personality. He comes to the conclusion that solitude and imagination are the two roots of his self.
|Lorsque que je me suis assis pour écrire cette histoire, j’ai longtemps délibéré pour savoir quel serait son titre. Je voulus d’abord l’intituler Histoire de chien, mais je le remplace maintenant par Histoire d’une solitude, c’est ce que je viens d’écrire tout en haut, car c’est bien de cela qu’il est question, et de rien d’autre. De ce que seules la solitude et l’imagination, rien de plus, sont faites pour moi. C’est triste, mais c’est ainsi.||When I sat down to write this story, I pondered a long time to find its title. First, I wanted to entitle it The Story of a Dog but now I replace it by The Story of a Solitude. It’s what I just wrote at the top, because that’s what it is about and nothing else. About how only solitude and imagination agree with me and nothing else. It’s sad but so it goes.|
He refuels on his own and needs time to let his imagination wander. After he settled this, he’s more at peace and able to live his life.
I also enjoyed this book as it shows another side of Hungary than the one in Kosztolányi’s novels. In Skylark (1923), you’re in Hungary. People speak Hungarian, eat Hungarian and live among themselves. It’s a mono-cultural environment. In A Story of a Solitude, you’re in Austria-Hungary. Vendel’s mother is probably of Austrian origin and moves to Vienna with her new husband; the officers in the army are mostly Austrians. The dialogues are full of German words (not translated, and I suppose they were in German in the original Hungarian text). A few samples of his lively prose:
|Was heisst das ? Seulement. Qu’est-ce que c’est seulement ? Vous avez de drôles de façons de parler, vous, Hongrois.||Was heisst das ? Only. What’s only ? You have strange ways of speaking, you, Hungarians.|
|Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Continuez à dessiner.||Pouah ! Popanz ! Doch eine Schweinerei. Keep on drawing.|
|Schon wieder etwas. Avec toi, il faut toujours s’attendre aux pires complications||Schon wieder etwas. With you, I expect the worse complications.|
It gives back the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city but also the domination of Austrian over Hungarians. You can imagine the sound of different conversations in the streets in German or in Hungarian. Beside the mixed languages, the text is also full of thoughts about life, spiced up with a good sense of humour.
|Pour être plus précis, il semble que quiconque connaît bien la vie et y a bien réfléchi soit capable de rire aussi froidement, même si c’est à sa propre existence ou à sa propre mort qu’il pense.||More precisely, it seems that anyone who knows life well enough and has thoroughly thought about it is capable of laughing so coldly, even if they think about their own existence or their own death.|
The fight between Vendel and the captain, the young woman reminded me of Lermontov. I had the feeling that Füst wanted to root his work in the Russian literary tradition. Furthermore, I know I’m more than obsessed but again, after reading this book written by a Jewish man from Central Europe, I can feel how much this cultural background influenced Gary’s writing.
Eventually, I’ll leave the last words of this billet to Vendel:
|Et il y avait encore beaucoup d’autres choses. Mais ce n’est quand même pas possible de tout raconter. On n’aurait assez ni de poumon, ni de tristesse.||And there were lots of other things. But it’s not possible to tell everything. One wouldn’t have enough lungs or sadness for that.|
A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman 2013. Not available in French.
Right now, I’m very happy that you and all the regular readers of this blog are familiar with the word billet. After turning the last page of A Virtual Love and putting down the paper book on the table, the last thing I want to do is write a blog post. And I’m glad the word billet covers the good old-fashioned letter I’m going to write. I hope you don’t mind. It seems more intimate than a usual blog entry but I don’t feel like slipping into the blogger’s shoes. I’m also glad I had a paper copy of your book and not a kindle version, A Virtual Love made me want to distance myself from virtual things.
Now, hopefully, readers who don’t know your book are curious. Allow me to tell them a bit about the plot. Jeff Brennan is a nobody who works as an IT consultant, not the space-age ones who implement complicated systems but the ones you call in the office when the report you’ve been typing since three hours without hitting the save button, suddenly goes AWOL. As a total geek he spends his Saturday nights with his equally geek friend Jon playing video games, drinking. His score with the ladies is approximately of zero. So when he accidentally meets Marie and she mistakes him for his homonym, the famous political blogger Jeff Brennan, it seems easier not to correct her. This is how a relationship starts on a lie, a lie that stays, grows larger, invades the smallest corners of his life and turns it into a living hell. How will he get out of it?
I shied away from the reviews I came across and started it with a fresh mind. I was hooked from the first chapter; I really enjoyed your novel, Andrew. I had a hard time putting it down, my mind drifted to it when I was driving to work, pondering the different possibilities for an ending. Of course, the identity quest made me think, and think twice since I’m also a blogger. I felt a bit self-conscious as I was reading these pages while tweeting to people I’ve never met. It made me pause and think about the web of lies created out there. I liked the description of Jeff’s identity jungle. It’s so simple to recreate yourself on the internet, be the one you want to be but also say out loud all the things you’d never dare to say in so called “real life”. It’s easy to criticize this side of the Internet and social networks, so let me be the devil’s advocate. Thinking of real life vs virtual life is a reflex from people who weren’t born with the internet. For younger people, it is life. There’s no dichotomy. Their internet identity is another side of their personality. Other people always see a side of you, the one you show them in the function they know you into and the one conjured up with the assumptions they make about you. Think about it. As a child, would you have imagined that your schoolmaster could play in a rock band during his free time? Probably not. You had him pigeonholed in the role of a schoolmaster and he couldn’t have any other activities, other functions than this one. Well, for me it’s the same on the Internet, people see one side of you and make their assumptions according to what you show. The difference is that you can cheat on an exponential scale and if you do it right, nobody can recoup the lies. But even the lies are yours and tell about who you are. The lies differ from a person to another.
Then there’s Marie. Marie loves someone who is not who she thinks he is but doesn’t she deserve the deception? After all, she loves the idea of dating the famous blogger more than the idea of loving a man. She’s living with someone she would have looked down on if she hadn’t assumed he was a celebrity. You show us a whole love relationship based on a wrong assumption. But I don’t think it is new, you know. Only the means differ. Swann’s love for Odette is kindled by an assumption: she looks like a painting he loves. The Odette he loves is not the real one but the one he created in his imagination. Marie finds all kinds of ways to eliminate all doubts that creep into her mind. She rationalizes and her brain finds consistent explanations for everything. Anything not to admit that this man isn’t as wonderful as she wants him to be. Loneliness is too frightening. I’ll spare you the quote by Romain Gary that came to my mind when I mulled over this.
Have you read or seen Cyrano de Bergerac? I think Jeff genuinely loved Marie. Your novel is a bit like a modern Cyrano, with Jeff borrowing someone else’s identity to have Marie fall in love with him. The difference is that technology speeds things up, widens everything and there’s this underlying thirst for fame which is a trademark of our Western societies. I think it always existed because it’s a human trait. Now, cheap technology allows everyone to act upon it.
On the form side, I thought your style flowed more freely, less constrained than in your debut novel, On the Holloway Road. I felt you more confident in your writing and it sounded effortless. Either this book poured out of your head or you sweated on this novel but managed to make it sound effortless to the reader. Describing the events from different points of view except Jeff’s was a good idea. I loved the grandfather’s voice, he’s my favourite character, the one who keeps in touch with his values. The imposter never has a chance to explain himself and he was a multiple personality through his friends, family or lover’s eyes. He remains elusive. What do they know of his real motives, his insecurities? What do I know? What’s my picture of Jeff?
The title of this billet, I is somebody else is simply the translation of a phrase by Arthur Rimbaud, “Je est un autre”. I want to add something about what you read on this blog: I’m the real thing just a lot less shy than in flesh-and-blood life; I can’t invent a personality far away from mine, lying is too much work. Moreover, when you click on a “like” button or leave a comment, what worth would it have if I knew you were actually talking to a mirage?
I hope your book will be a success and invite other readers to discover more conventional reviews on A Virtual Love here.
All the best,
Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem. 2008 French title: Nager sans se mouiller. Not available in English, sadly.
Remember last week I mentioned I bought three crime fiction books at Quais du polar? Well, here is the billet about the first one I read, Matar y guardar la ropa, the second book by Argentinian writer Carlos Salem.
In the first chapter, we meet Number Three in the course of action: he’s killing a man in an elevator, in cold blood. Not surprising since Number Three is a professional killer. His real identity is Juanito Pérez Pérez and in appearance, he’s a successful but dull executive in a large corporation. He’ll turn forty soon, is divorced from Leticia and has two children Antonio (10) and Leti (15). After finishing his job in the lift, he’s on holiday, going to a camp-site with his children for he first time in two years.
On his way to pick up his children, Number Two, his boss in the Firm contacts him to send him on a surveillance job right away. Juan must watch the victim of a future job, the driver of a certain car in a campsite. Unfortunately, Juan knows the licence plates of the car since it belongs to his ex-wife. Unable to walk away from the job, he drives to the camp-site with Leti and Antonio, only to discover that they will be staying in the camping space right beside his ex-wife and her new lover, the judge Beltrán who shouldn’t be there without bodyguards since he works on touchy cases. Who is he supposed to watch? His wife or the judge? Anyone would be ill-at-ease in such delicate circumstances…especially when the campsite happens to be for nudists.
So here is our Juanito, on a job for the Firm, a job that possibly involves his ex-wife or a judge he admires for his valuable contribution to the justice of the country. And in the said ex-wife’s eyes, he’s just Juanito, boneless, boring corporate executive. When his childhood friend Tony, the one he injured twice while trying to protect him, shows up in the same camping with his lethal blondie of a girlfriend, Juanito thinks the world is kind of small. When he accidentally stumbles upon his co-worker Number 13 in the lavatories, he starts thinking these are two many coincidences to be true. Is he really on a job or did the Firm decide it was time to eliminate him?
In a way, Matar y guardar la ropa is the mid-life crisis of a professional killer. Juan regrets not finishing medical school, wonders about his unofficial job and is plagued with guilt about what he did to Tony. He’s in a stressful moment of his life. He’s mulling over the failure of his marriage, he doesn’t have a real connection with his children, he’s still haunted by the death of his mentor, the former Number Three, the one he was ordered to kill. When he meets young, beautiful and sexy Yolanda in the camp site, he turns into a horny teenager and starts re-assessing his life. Can he start a new relationship? Can he mend the broken bond with his children? He has trouble reconciling the official Juanito, a person who needs to be a wallflower to be invisible and cover his illegal activities with the efficient Number Three he has become for the Firm. It’s the first time he has to be the two persons at the same time under the eyes of his children and ex-wife and his two personalities permeating into one another. His conscience starts nagging at him about the people he killed, his life style. But is quitting his job at the Firm even an option?
Salem’s style has a steady pace, showing the events through Juan’s eyes. The absurdity of the location, the nudist camp site, is an opportunity to bring comic situations into the mix. How do you conceal a weapon when you have to go around stark naked? How do you behave when you’re ruining the romantic getaway of your ex-wife with her new lover and that you’re there with the children? It brings light moments in the heavy atmosphere, since after all, a life is at stake.
Salem’s novel is gripping in many ways. It’s a page turner as the reader wants to know the ending (What’s behind the surveillance? Who’s the real target?). I became engrossed with the personal anguish Juan feels and I wanted to know what was going to happen and what turn Juan’s life was going to take.
Highly recommended. Well, to those who can read in French or in Spanish…
This weekend Lyon hosted a festival dedicated to crime fiction named Quais du polar. Let me explain the name. In French, polar is a crime fiction category that covers Noir, thriller, hardboiled and pulp. Cozy crimes and whodunnits aren’t called polars. I have a category Polar on the blog since I never know exactly how to tag the crime fiction book I’m reading. So more precisely, a Raymond Chandler is a polar and an Agatha Christie isn’t. That was for polar. Now, what about Quais? In Lyon, we have two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. This means lots of banks and piers (Quais) in the city. In addition to this geographical consideration about Lyon, 36 Quai des Orfèvres is the address of the police department in Paris. So a festival named Quais du polar makes sense when it deals with crime fiction.
This event is a firework of crime fiction feasts. There are conferences with writers and publishers, a literary fair (more about that later), an investigation organized in the city, theatre plays, touristic tours, operas and films in the Institut Lumière, the place where the cinema was born.
We did the investigation with the children and I went to the literary fair. It was held in the Palais du Commerce, the beautiful buildings owned by the Chamber of Commerce, located Place de la Bourse. (Stock-exchange plaza). I mused about the irony to have a book fair in the premises of the corporate world. There, independent book stores had stands and each stand had writers present to meet readers and sign copies of their books. I’m not usually looking for signed copies of books, except for particular writers. I was really happy to discuss with Nancy Huston once, more to talk about our common love of Romain Gary than about her own books. This time I was on a mission; my mother is a huge crime fiction reader and with Mother’s Day coming soon, I had the perfect idea for a gift! So I got the signed books I wanted.
To me, the most interesting part was to meet with enthusiastic booksellers. (Sorry, sorry, writers… I never know what to say to you). The nicest one was the crime fiction aficionado from Au Bonheur des Ogres. The name of the book shop itself is attractive since it’s the first title of the Malaussene series by Daniel Pennac. (You can read a review of Fairy Gunmother another volume of this series here) This bookseller uses “tu” at first sight because we’re members of the great brotherhood of compulsive readers. He recommended a Spanish writer, Carlos Salem, and you’ll read about him soon. This bookseller helped Salem’s career in France, along with two other independent bookstores in Toulouse and Paris. I know because they are all mentioned in the acknowledgments of Matar y guardar la ropa, the book I purchased. Yes, as far as I know, the only murder that occurred during the festival is that of my book buying ban. I came home with:
- Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem (Nager sans se mouiller). I’m loving it so far.
- Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Three to kill, review here) I’ve never read Manchette and I’ve been willing to try him for a while.
- The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. Also recommended by the friendly bookseller. I knew the name though, thanks to Guy. (See his review of Severance Package)
I love crime fiction, I’ve always read this genre and I wondered why I hardly read any lately. I came to the conclusion that it stemmed from a language Chinese puzzle. I don’t know much about French crime fiction writers and I’d rather read English-speaking ones in English. And here come the difficulties: I enjoy reading crime fiction to unwind and reading crime fiction in English requires more concentration than in French. Plus, I came to question old translations of crime fiction classics, so reading them in French isn’t an option anymore. With hindsight, it seems quite stupid not to pick crime fiction on the shelf because of a bad concentration-fun equation. So I’ve decided to read recent polars in French; you’ll have to make do with billets without quotes (terribly frustrating at times) and probably poor ones too because I’m not very skilled at reviewing crime fiction.
I think the festival was a success, the place was full of people engrossed in conversations with booksellers, avidly reading their recent purchase on one of the side benches and writers seemed happy to be there. There were lines in front of the conference rooms, we crossed a lot of families and couples also doing the fake Chinese investigation in town. The Palais du Commerce is gorgeous, it gives a classy touch to the event and I hope these independent book stores gained new readers. I can tell you Au Bonheur des Ogres has me now, especially since they also deliver books.
PS: The book buying ban is a phoenix, it can be born again from its cinders.
Foster by Claire Keegan 2010. French title : Les trois lumières.
I bought this book on a whim, in French, something I tried to avoid when it’s Anglophone literature but sometimes I’m just too lazy to read in English.
Foster is a very short book (around 80 pages) and is narrated by a child. It’s hard to say when it is set, probably before the 1970s. Her father drives her to a foreign house to spend the summer with relatives she’s never seen. The girl arrives at the house, is quickly left behind by her thoughtless father. We soon understand that her mother is pregnant again, that she’s too tired with her pregnancy, the girl’s siblings and trying to make ends meet to take care of this quiet little girl. Her father seems to be lazy, spending more time gambling than working, leaving all the farm work to his wife. This little girl arrives in a childless household and is welcomed by kind and caring foster parents. They are quite silent, willing to take care of her and she progressively adapts to her new surroundings.
Foster is a lovely book, delicate in its way of unravelling dramas and describing the bond this little girl creates with this couple. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside near the ocean. It’s lovely but a bit too smooth and not exactly predictable, but a bit clichéd and déjà vu. How can I explain this. First the style is too polished and even if it’s good and flowing it’s not that creative. I imagine that the translation (Belgian or Swiss, probably, I spotted a septante instead of soixante-dix, somewhere) is faithful and reflects Claire Keegan’s style.
Second, it reminded me of a comment Caroline left when I wrote about True Believers by Joseph O’Connor. She wrote “I think he writes well but some people would argue that they hate exactly this poor people’e tales because it sounds so Irish cliché.” I didn’t think this applied to O’Connor’s short stories but perhaps it does to Foster. Just read the first paragraph:
Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.
So we have a tired and respectful mother married to a useless man who spends the family’s money gambling, lets his pregnant wife organize farm work and housework and can’t even keep his hands off her to avoid another pregnancy since contraception isn’t an option. They live on the edge of poverty, the father doesn’t do anything at home and the mother is too overwhelmed with everything to take care of her children the way they deserve. The other couple has also lived through a traumatic experience.
I think this is too much: too much misery in a book kills compassion. I have the same feeling as when I read Hidden Lives by Sylvie Germain. The story has been seen before in a way, and well, it’s a nice read but I don’t think it’ll stay with me. If I were Irish, I’d be a bit irritated that it fosters the expected clichés about Ireland. I preferred Joseph O’Connor; his characters sounded real.
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.
*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.
The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.
Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!
Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.
What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.
Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.
I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.
The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:
The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.
What is she? A cow?
The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.
All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.
You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947 French title: Sous le volcan
Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.
After a disconcerting first billet about Under the Volcano, this is my attempt at writing a sensible one. I still have Pulque, mescal y tequila playing in my head as I try to collect my thoughts. I started reading that masterpiece without knowing anything about it, apart from the difficult masterpiece tag.
Under the Volcano is located in Mexico, precisely in small town named Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2. On that very day of 1939, M Laruelle recalls the drama that occurred the same day the year before. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in position in this little town. His wife left him the year before and on that day of November 2, 1938, she comes back to him. It is also the day that Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s half-brother returns to town too. Geoffrey expected Hugh, but not Yvonne. The novel relates that day, the day these four people with intertwined lives gather again and try to communicate and interact with one another.
The Consul is an alcoholic and his disease impacts the lives of the ones who love him. Yvonne loves him madly, would like to save him but is at loss what to do. She tried to leave to save herself or him.
Yet they had loved one another! But it was as though their love were wandering over some desolate cactus plain, far from here, lost, stumbling and falling, attacked by wild beasts, calling for help– dying, to sigh at last, with a kind of weary peace: Oaxaca.
Everything but the first chapter happens the same day. The narrative alternates between M Laruelle, the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh. Each of them ruminates about their life and the reader discovers about their past lives and their current predicaments and anguish. (What was life but a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn?)
The Consul is the main character. Laruelle is his childhood friend, Yvonne is his wife, Hugh is his half-brother. The chapters where the reader sees the event through the Consul’s eyes are the most difficult. Because he’s drunk and Lowry manages to put you into the mind of the drunkard like no other writer does. I felt a lot of sympathy for the Consul’s struggles.
The Consul felt with his right hand his left bicep under his coat. Strength—of a kind—but how to give oneself courage? That fine droll courage of Shelley’s; no, that was pride. And pride bade one go on, either go on and kill oneself, or “straighten out,” as so often before, by oneself, with the aid of thirty bottles of beer and staring at the ceiling. But this time it was very different. What if courage here implied admission of total defeat, admission that one couldn’t swim, admission indeed (though just for a second the thought was not too bad) into a sanatorium? No, to whatever end, it wasn’t merely a matter of being “got away”. No angels nor Yvonne nor Hugh could help him here. As for the demons, they were inside him as well as outside; quiet at the moment—taking their siesta perhaps—he was nonetheless surrounded by them and occupied; they were in possession.
He tries to keep up appearances but his vision of reality is blurred. The pages of his delirium tremens are amazing; you’re there, in his head, seeing the world through his blurred and confused mind. He wants to make a decision, but he needs a drink first. He hides bottles everywhere. He wants to resist but cannot. The booze comes first, whatever the situation, even if his life is at stake.
For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.
Hugh is also an interesting character. He’s a product of the 1930s, he’s probably read La condition humaine by Malraux He comes from a wealthy family, tries to be a songwriter, decides to be a sailor to piss his family off and much to his dismay, they don’t fight against it. He becomes a journalist, covering wars and especially the Spanish Civil War. He’s into a bolshevist or communist (whatever the right term is) movement and supports the Spanish Republicans. I suspect Lowry put a part of himself in Hugh, just as he put his experience with alcohol into the Consul.
Lowry excels at describing landscapes (as in the quote in my previous post) and at creating bonds between his characters and their surroundings.
There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride–the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains, and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it is his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.
The volcanoes are characters themselves, the landscape interacts with the humans living there. Does it come from his reading of Indian legends and cosmology? Like here, about a storm:
Up in the mountains two drunken gods standing far apart were still engaged in an endlessly indecisive and wildly game of bumblepuppy with a Burmese gong.
Under the Volcano is also about politics. The story takes place in November 1938 and the political context of the 1930s is both present in the background and plays deus ex-machina. It’s set during the Battle of the Ebro, the decisive battle in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country after that. This war made people pick a side in other countries too and it weighed on local political contexts. It filters through the pages.
The poultry was a sad sight. All alike had submitted to their fate; hens, cocks, and turkeys, whether in their baskets, or still loose. With only an occasional flutter to show they were alive they crouched passively under the long seats, their emphatic spindly claws bound with cord. Two pullets lay, frightened and quivering, between the hand brake and the clutch, their wings linked with the levers. Poor things, they had signed their Munich agreement too. One of the turkeys even looked remarkably like Neville Chamberlain.
In addition to the Spanish Civil War, Lowry evokes the Jews and anti-Semitism and the situation in Germany. The political context in Mexico also plays a role. The communist ideas are spreading; Hugh is involved in political movements. I’m not qualified to discuss this and I actually missed most of the political references mentioned. I don’t know anything about the history of Mexico and I don’t remember much about the Spanish Civil War although I plan on reading about it later. (I have Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Geroges Bernanos on the shelf.) I decided not to research this aspect of Under the Volcano. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes not to understand all the political implications of the novel but a reader can enjoy it without that. The content is rich enough and the style is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me.
Under the Volcano is full of literary references, questions about the meaning of life.
Yes, indeed, how many patters of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?
You can find useful explanations about the references here. (Leroy, if you read this, thanks for the link)
Lowry’s language is his own and sometimes a strange pix-and-mix of English, French and Spanish. His sense of English grammar and use of vocabulary can drive MS Word’s spelling and grammar check tool go wild with green and red waves. I don’t speak Spanish but I discovered I’m not that bad at guessing the meaning of the sentences sown in the text. Thank God for seven years of learning Latin in school. I suppose it helps being French, especially for sentences like this one: The Consul decapitated a dusty coquelicot poppy growing by the side of the gutter with his stick. A coquelicot is a red poppy. The dialogues with Spanish native speakers attempting at English are funny.
You were so perfectamente borracho last night I think you must have killèd yourself with drinking. I think even to send a boy after you this morning to knock your door, and find if drinking have not killèd you already.
It’s an untamed flow, a new way of disposing of words. Lowry can write proustian two-pages digressions between brackets. His sentences are long, full of strings of adjectives, propositions. I don’t have the words to describe it, suffice to say it’s different from any other writer. Was he influenced by Virginia Woolf? I’ll leave the analysis of his astounding style to specialists.
On a personal level, several coincidences pulled me toward Under the Volcano. Details kept on bringing back fond memories. M. Laruelle comes from Moselle, like me. I bought my copy during an extraordinary trip to New York with colleagues; I was in a bookstore while they were queuing at Abercrombie and they thought I was nuts to prefer books to shirtless salesmen. I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia, so I loved the descriptions of the region by Hugh and Yvonne when she imagines living there with Geoffrey. And last, but not least, Huston, who directed the film Under the Volcano also directed The Roots of Heaven.
I hope I did better in this billet than in the previous one. Let’s face it, Under the Volcano is a difficult read but please, try it.
PS: I have a special message for the writer Emilie de Turckheim and to the question she left in the comments of my billet Promising French women writers, they say. She wrote “Take Under the Volcano, read it as if you were reading a foreign language, and tell me if it wasn’t worth disturbing the dust on your shelf !” You are so right. It was more than worth it.
The Seagull by Anton Chekov 1895. French title: La Mouette.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched The Seagull at the theatre and was disappointed. Usually, I forget quickly what I didn’t like but here it’s been on my mind since that day. I thought I’d try to write about it to find out why it didn’t fade away.
The Seagull is a play Chekhov wrote in 1895 and it was first staged in 1896. It is set in the country, in a dacha. The owner is Sorine and his sister Irina is arriving soon with her current lover Boris. Her son Treplieff is an aspiring playwright. He’s put on his play for the first time; the lead actress is Nina, the daughter of a local landowner. Treplieff and Nina are in love; she’s an aspiring actress. Treplieff is anxious to show his play to his mother and Boris for Irina is a successful theatre actress and Boris a famous novelist. The play is bombastic, Irina can’t hide her irritation and her amusement; Treplieff is devastated. Meanwhile Boris is attracted to Nina and she’s bewitched by the attention she gets from such a great man. The two first acts end with Irina and Boris going back to the city and Nina following them to be an actress and Boris’s mistress. Treplieff stays behind, devastated.
The two last acts happen two years later when the same group of people meets again at Sorin’s. What happened in their lives during these two years slowly unravels and leads to an inevitable drama.
Several threads are intertwined in the play. One is the difficult relationship between Treplieff and his mother. He’s the son of a star and he feels he will never compare to her and lacks tremendously of self-confidence. Her careless way of treating him doesn’t help strengthening his ego. The exchanges between mother and son are painful; the love they feel for each other never manages to cover the pain Irina inflicts on Treplieff. Chekhov seems to say: “Hey, she’s an actress. By definition, she’s selfish, self-centered and needs all the attention drawn to her. She can’t bear that Boris looks at someone else. How can he set his mind on someone else when he has the star? She can’t wish the best to her son, encourage him to write, consider he could be talented. He could outshine her, be a brighter star than her. How awful.”
A second thread is unrequited love. Treplieff still loves Nina when he sees her again two years after she left him for Boris. Several second characters love the wrong person and are terribly miserable. It reminded me of classic plays by Shakespeare or Corneille or Racine. These people don’t have a crush on the wrong person; they pine for them forever and settle for dull marriages. They accept their fate and the one who doesn’t ends up badly. Chekhov seems to say “Poor of them. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is a curse. How do you eradicate feelings? How do you live your life knowing you’ll never be with the partner your heart chose?”
A third one is thoughts about theatre, its need to be reinvented. It’s also about writing as Treplieff first finds Boris’s prose quite simple, not elaborated enough. He thinks his fame is overrated. Two years after, he reconsiders his judgement. Chekhov seems to say “It requires a lot of gift to ally simplicity and style. Behind the apparent easy flow of words is either a remarkable gift and/or a lot of work.” Something I totally agree with as I particularly like uncomplicated sentences with common language but with powerful images. Boris, as a writer, is constantly taking notes. He’s like a Japanese tourist with a camera: they seem to live their journey through the lens of their camera instead of enjoying it and making mental pictures and three dimensional memories. Boris lives his life through a notebook; he notes down moments and feelings he captures for future use in his writing. As a writer, he’s like an observer and he’s totally dominated by Irina and smitten with Nina. He’s a gifted writer but he writes better than he lives his life.
The text manages to knit these threads together, to lead the spectator through a story and spread ideas. So the disappointment didn’t come from the text but entirely from the production. Part of the cast was in cause. Nicole Garcia played Irina and Magne-Håvard Brekke was Boris. She talks in a clipped Parisian way and he’s got Norwegian accent. He’s got a haircut à la Bernard-Henri Lévy and she acted like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who’s Lévy’s partner. They sounded wrong, all along. It didn’t help that the strong Norwegian accent reminded me of Dave, an old singer of Dutch origin; I was there with my sister and a friend, they had the same thought. Wrong cast for two important roles.
And then the production. It was staged with heavy décors. They glided on rails and consisted in full decorated rooms. They weren’t useful to the acting; they caught the spectator’s attention for nothing and were detrimental to the play. The first act was in a garden where the stage for Treplieff’s play had been installed. Did we need full rooms of the house in the background? They were used in the two last acts of the play and I found myself watching stage helps moving the décors during a scene instead of concentrating on the text. I found it annoying. In my opinion, this play deserved a light décor suggesting the garden, the rooms and letting the full power of Chekov’s words sink in the spectator’s mind. I would have preferred a production like the one Declan Donnellan did for Macbeth, light and classy. It left me frustrated and that’s probably why it lingered on my mind like a missed opportunity.
Too bad for Chekov.