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Efficient, entertaining but not literary enough

August 8, 2014 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good for beach and public transport but not much more.

The sorting of scumbags and other assholes by Sébastien Gendron

August 5, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masters and servants

July 31, 2014 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a cinch, a Pynch

July 30, 2014 26 comments

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

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

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

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

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

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

July 22, 2014 14 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris in July : Madame du Châtelet

July 18, 2014 20 comments

Discours du le bonheur (1746/1747) by Emilie du Châtelet. (1706-1749) English title: Discourse on Happiness.

My participating to Paris in July organised by Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria feels a bit like cheating. The aim of this blogging event is to celebrate anything French and since I’m French and living in France, I ooze Frenchness with all my pores. What kind of challenge is that? Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity of this rendezvous with French culture to read and write about Le discours sur le bonheur d’Emilie du Châtelet. (Discourse on Happiness)

Chatelet_BonheurI discovered Emilie du Châtelet when I read Voltaire’s biography. They had a tumultuous relationship but remained friends until she died. Emilie du Châtelet was a born scientist; she studied mathematics and physics and her most important achievement is the translation of Newton’s work into French. For a long time, her translation remained the only one available in French. She was brilliant and Voltaire admired her mind. If she were born today in this country, she could have a stellar career. But she was a woman in the 18thC and according to her, studying hard was the only way a woman could reach fame and posterity. She sure did and not only as Voltaire’s lover and study buddy.

With her discourse, Emile du Châtelet aims at enlightening younger people in order to share her experience of life and help them reach contentment and happiness sooner, without losing time to figure it out by themselves. She sums up her thought marvellously in this quote:

Tâchons de bien nous porter, de n’avoir point de préjugés, d’avoir des passions, de les faire servir à notre bonheur, de remplacer nos passions par des goûts, de conserver précieusement nos illusions, d’être vertueux, de ne jamais nous repentir, d’éloigner de nous les idées tristes, et de ne jamais permettre à notre cœur de conserver une étincelle de goût pour quelqu’un dont le goût diminue et qui cesse ne nous aimer. Il faut bien quitter l’amour un jour, pour peu qu’on vieillisse, et ce jour doit être celui où il cesse de nous rendre heureux. Enfin, songeons à cultiver le goût de l’étude, ce goût qui ne faire dépendre notre bonheur que de nous-mêmes. Préservons-nous de l’ambition, et surtout sachons bien ce que nous voulons être ; décidons-nous sur la route que nous voulons suivre, et tâchons de la semer de fleurs. Let’s try to be in good health, to be devoid of prejudice, to have passions and to make them serve our happiness, to replace our passions by hobbies. Let’s try to nurture our illusions, to be virtuous, to avoid repentance, to push away sad thoughts and to never allow our heart to keep a spark of liking for someone whose love vanishes and who stops loving us. We have to leave love behind, eventually, at least if we get older, and that day must be the day when love ceases to make us happy. And, let’s endeavour to cultivate our fondness for studying because this liking makes our happiness independent from other people. Let’s protect ourselves from ambition and most of all, let’s try to know exactly who we want to be. Then we can choose which path to follow and endeavour to have it paved with flowers.

Well, the quote is marvellous in French. I had to translate it myself, and I’m not able to translate anything into 18thC English; you’ll have to suffer my translation in 21st century English, spoken by a non-native. (Perhaps it just means it’s time for you to learn how to read in French.)

She managed to pack a lot of thoughts in this paragraph, didn’t she? I like her realism. She says before this quote that she’s only writing for people of her social class. She doesn’t pretend to bring her pearls of wisdom to people who don’t share the same background. Not that she thinks that she’s superior or that they’re not worth it. It’s more that she’s conscious that some of her recommendations are difficult to pursue when you have to fight for your daily bread. It’s more a matter of respect. I also like that she starts by mentionning being healthy as the first thing to wish for happiness. She doesn’t mean that you need to be healthy to be happy but that you must not endanger your health to remain on the path to happiness.

A few things speak to me in that quote. I do believe that passions, in the sense of hobbies you’re deeply invested in, make life more interesting and bring us pleasure and happiness. That’s what reading does to me. By nurturing your illusions she means to remain capable of wonderment, to watch a magician without trying to understand his tricks. She believes in suspension of belief as a way to live happy times. She wouldn’t want to know how they make special effects in films. It’s also something I share with her. I enjoy shows from the audience and I’m not much interested in what’s happening behind the curtains or in literature how the writer built their book.

You may be puzzled by the “avoid any repentance” concept. She explains her point. She thinks wallowing in repentance is harmful to one’s happiness; that one should acknowledge and repair their mistake but not rub into it for too long. Understand, apologise, make amends and move on. It goes with avoiding sad thoughts and not letting disquiet invade your life and thoughts and gnaw at your ability for happiness.

In the introduction of this discourse, Elisabeth Badinter argues that all the references to lost love, letting go of your lover are a reference to her relationship with Voltaire. That’s what happened, he got tired of her as a lover, not as a friend or as a thinker.

I personnally think of reading when she mentions studying as a liberating passion: it brings you happiness on your own and on your own terms. When I think of it now, I was an easy child or teenager for my parents; give me a place to stay, enough books and I’m happy. I don’t get bored, I don’t ask for more and I don’t need anyone to entertain me. Well, I do need someone: I need writers and publishers to provide me with these wonderful books.

The best advice she gives is probably in the end: know yourself and try to figure out which road is the best for you.

Voilà, that was my contribution to Paris in July, a way to make you discover a great French lady, someone who was equal to the best scientists of her time and lived a grand passion with Voltaire. I hope I stirred your curiosity, that you’ll check her Wikipedia page or even better that it encouraged to read her biography. She’s introduction to French spirit.

Anyway I say Hi from France. Thanks to Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria for hosting this event and thanks to the participants for the interest they show for my culture and my country.

They Read That Post And Rush To The Nearest Bookstore To Buy The Book

July 17, 2014 21 comments

The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle. 1989. French title: Midnight Examiner.

A long rectangular plaque on my desk bore my name, HOWARD HALLIDAY, lest I forget it amidst the many identities I assumed from week to week; since, as an economy measure, we never purchased outside material from anyone, our small staff had to write everything, and we all had many names, sometimes we even had the same names, but lately we’d tried to coordinate. I’d assigned each of us one letter of the alphabet from which to choose our noms de plume, and so far this month I’d been Howard Haggerd Halberd Hammertoe Harm Habana Hades Halston Handy Harley Hamon Heman Hence Hardman Hardon.

KotzwinklePlease Ladies and gentlemen, meet with Howard, our narrator. He’s the chief editor of Macho Man, Bottoms and Knockers. He works for the trashy Chameleon Publications which has a classy portfolio of papers and magazines also named The Midnight Examiner, Ladies Own Monthly, Young Nurses Romance, My Confession, Brides Tell All, Beauty Secrets, Prophecy, Real Detective and Teen Idol. As you can see, they cover the whole spectrum of gutter press from crime to teen angst through romance and beauty tricks.

Their publisher, Nathan Feingold loves to play with his blowgun so much that nobody dares to enter his office until sure that the coast is clear. After all, he shoots poisonous darts. Fernando, the art director paints bikinis on pictures before publication, to differentiate Bottoms and Knockers from the competition: no way they’re selling nude bodies. Hip O’Hopp is the editor of The Midnight Examiner and showers his colleagues with improbable writing requests such as “Can you do a story for me about a woman who gives birth to puppies?” The other editors there are Hattie Flyer, in charge of romance orientated titles and Amber Adams, specialised in beauty topics, Celia Lyndhurst the writer of detective stories. The team wouldn’t be full without Siggy Blomberg, the publicist; he sells advertising space in the papers and always ends up with dubious ads about expending your breasts or other magical creams and utensils. And let’s not talk about the lengths he has to go to collect the payment of the ads from shady companies. They’re a crazy bunch breathing trash articles all the time and it shows in Kotwinkle’s style as they spout crazy headlines at Mach speed like Our Sister Has Two Heads But We Love Her.

That’s for the crazy environment. At the beginning of the book, they hire a new editor, Mr Crumpaker who will be in charge of Nathan’s new project, a religious paper named Prophecy. The job interview is absolutely hilarious. Things move to full speed when Mitzi Mouse, one of Chameleon Publications’ models, shoots at a guy from the mafia, Tony Baloney. She has now the bad guys after her and the whole team with stick together and help her.

It’s a fast pace road trip in a New York cab and a track race against the bad guys. And I will say no more.

The Midnight Examiner doesn’t have a strong plot but what a fun read! It’s a light read as I love them: well-written, full of quirky characters and a page turner. Chameleon Publications is quite a circus and a lot of the fun comes from the description of the daily job of these “journalists”. Howard has a crazy sense of humour and I’ll let you discover by yourselves what kind of unbelievable weapons they picked to fight against gangsters. I was about to tag it in the Literary UFO category when I realised how apt it is for the author of…E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Rush to the nearest bookstore, buy it and have fun.

PS: In French, a headline is a manchette.

Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

July 13, 2014 8 comments

Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 1995. French title : Coupable d’avoir dansé le cha-cha-cha.

Cabrera_chachacha_FrenchI’ll be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias with my book club in August and that’s too late for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month. So I decided to pick Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante instead. I bought it when I was browsing through the Folio 2€ collection in a book store. I like this collection, it’s a good way to discover new writers or forgotten texts. I’d never heard of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I expected three short stories but it’s something totally different and hard to define. (Help, if you know in which literary category this one goes. I put it in Literary UFO)

Regular readers of this blog know that I haven’t studied literature beyond high school, that I’m not particularly curious about literary criticism and that I read mostly for enjoyment. I’m not much interested in the techniques leading to the books I’m reading. So, Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha and me started on the wrong footing since the first page is about repetitive literature and something I don’t even know how to translate into English but I’m trying anyway.

La littérature répétitive tâche de résoudre la contradiction entre progression et régression en répétant la narration plusieurs fois. Il s’agit d’un jeu de narrations qui veut dépasser la contradiction entre réalité et fiction. Les fragments sont autonomes et d’égale valeur, mais l’auteur se réserve le droit d’exercer un certain déterminisme narratif. Les choses ne sont pas, elles arrivent, mais en littérature autorité devient auteur. Repetitive literature endeavours to solve the contradiction between progression and regression by repeating the narration several times. It is a set of narratives that wants to overcome the contradiction between reality and fiction. The fragments are stand-alone and of equal worth but the writer has the right to impose a certain narrative determinism. Things aren’t, they happen but in literature authority becomes author.

Cabrera_chachacha_SpanishThis is a totally literal translation as I don’t even understand what that means in French. This introduction is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante himself and to say I started the first story with a feeling of dread is an understatement. The book is some sort of literary exercice, like Exercice de style by Queneau where the same story is told three times but each time with a different style. The basic outline of the story is: a man and a woman have lunch in a restaurant in La Havana in the 1950s and it’s raining. The first version entitled The Great Ecbó is a third person narrative and the style reminded me very much of Marguerite Duras. It’s told in that clipped and neutral tone you can find in The Lover. I liked it. The second version –A Drowing Woman—is also a third person narrative and the style is warmer. The third one –Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha—is a first person narrative and it’s in a messy stream-of-consciousness style. Oh my, what a labyrinth of words. I lost track of where digressions started and I almost wished that like in a Excel formula I could browse the closing parenthesis to found out where the opening one was. What’s more terrible than having literature make you crave for Excel spreadsheets? In the end, I’m not sure I would have understood anything without reading the two other versions.

Cabrera_chachacha_GermanThat aside, each story represents a side of Cuba and of its culture and history. The first story brings the characters to an ecbó, a ritual ceremony of African origin, like voodoo. The second one shows the luxury hotels and the last one pictures communism and its political persecutions.

In the conclusion –that I didn’t fully understood, I’m afraid—Guillermo Infante Cabrera compares his three stories to music and to the three steps of ChaChaCha. Hmmm…It’s a hundred pages long, it’s good to read it in one sitting and if someone out here has read it or will read it, please come back and explain it to me. It left me puzzled. I also don’t understand why three translators were involved in translating this short book into French. When I see three translators like this, I expect a collection of short stories published at different times and put together afterwards. Here we have a fully constructed literary exercice wanted by the writer himself and I really don’t know why one translator didn’t do the whole job. After all, it’s only 100 pages long.

Cabrera_chachacha_EnglishPS: I’m adding four covers of the book, the English, the French, the Spanish and the German one.  The French and Spanish ones are great for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but for this? The English one is a mystery although there’s a car involved in story one and two. I think the German one is the best and represents the book better than the others. You see the two men, the woman and the communist.

New York, New York

July 6, 2014 28 comments

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. 1925 Translated into French by Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Dos_Passos_Manhattan_TransferI loved Manhattan Transfer. It’s a gorgeous, unusual piece of literature. Dos Passos portrays New York from around 1900 till 1925. He uses the interwoven lives of a series of characters to do so, but the real star of the book is New York. I didn’t try to read Manhattan Transfer in English, I already had an old copy in French at home. It was a wise decision, I doubt I’m able to read that kind of novel in the original. The problem now is that I don’t have quotes unless they come from the first pages of the books, the ones available as sample on Amazon. It’s really frustrating as the prose is gorgeous and the snapshots of the city extraordinary.

I don’t know how to write about Manhattan Transfer, to make you want to read it right away. I could pick one character or the other and tell you about them. It wouldn’t be enough and it wouldn’t do justice to the book. Dos Passos takes us through a gallery of characters and lives. They get lucky and rich. They had the financial world in their hands and lost their magic. They’re struggling journalists, party boys in the bubbling 1920s, simple employees, actresses, hobos and drunkards. They’re immigrants, workers going on strike, or waiters. You could see it as a journey in a maze but I didn’t. Reading this is like spending an evening flipping through channels on TV and picking five minutes of a program here and there, switching from one to the other, not exactly following thoroughly any of them but grasping enough of the content to understand the main thread. More importantly, these characters are New York’s inhabitants. They give the city its soul, its liveliness, its backbone. We follow them and explore the city with its parks, avenues, harbour, and theatres. We see the glitter and the dark places. We see the shops, the milkman, the cafés and the fancy hotels. We feel the energy, the bustle on sidewalks, the lines of cabs, the traffic and we hear the noise. We hop on the highline, on trains and on ferries. We see the impact of its unique architecture on the atmosphere, the way it plays with the light on the streets. We stroll in Central Park, visit Broadway, linger in Battery Park. Each chapter of the book starts with a vignette about New York. This is the one of the second chapter, Metropolis

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble colums. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn…Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the material of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildinigs will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.

The descriptions of the city are marvellous. Dos Passos is like a painter who’d use words instead of brushes. I’ve been to New York a couple of months ago and I’m so glad I read Manhattan Transfer after this trip, while I had the geography in mind, while the images were fresh in my mind. Dos Passos captures the essence of the city. In New York, sometimes buildings seem to have been thrown together by a playful giant. There’s no unity in height, size or materials. Skyscrapers can be neighbours with a church. I was surprised that the DNA of the 21st century city was already there at the beginning of the 20th century. Employees already had lunch in the cemetery in the financial district and lawyers were already suggesting victims to sue companies after an accident and they were already getting paid in percentage of the settlement they’d get. The moments we pick in the characters lives tell us about the society they live in: their vision of marriage, their ambitions, their reaction to WWI, the strikes and the arrival of prohibition. It’s consistent with Fitzgerald’s Tales From the Jazz Age. (highly recommended, btw)

I’m not going to discuss the place of Manhattan Transfer in the history of literature. I know it’s a modernist novel, it uses the stream-of-consciousness method (although I don’t understand where) but I’m not qualified to start a discussion about this. What will stay with me is how the little vignettes, the descriptions of fleeting moments and the characters bring New York to life.

Here’s another review by James at The Frugal Chariot and an excellent one by Max here at Pechorin’s Journal

Time After Time by Molly Keane

June 29, 2014 15 comments

Time After Time by Molly Keane 1983 French title: La revenante.

Keane_TimeTime After Time is our Book Club choice for June. I’m sorry to report I couldn’t finish it, I stopped at 36%, the kindle says. I never managed to enter into the book’s universe.

It is set in Ireland, in the decrepit aristocratic mansion Durraghglass where the four Swift siblings live together. They are over sixty year old and kindly hate one another. Jasper is the only man of the group. An accident in his childhood left him one-eyed and he loves cooking and gardening. April, the only one who was married once, is almost deaf; her main hobby is buying pretty clothes and taking care of her beauty. May has a hand with only two digits and is the President of the Flower Arranger’s Guild. June –Baby— is slow and loves farming. The four of them worship their deceased mother. For example, Jasper still wears the hat she picked for him years ago and the sisters quote her words like the Gospels. Saint Mummy, pray for us.

They all have clear but different memories of the cousin Leda who was a half-Jewish Austrian. She had stayed with them during a summer and they all assume she died during WWII. A Jew married to a Jew, what else could have happened? But Leda arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep…

This is where I stopped reading. There was a feeling of déjà vu that bothered me. Molly Keane has a lovely and humorous style but the outline of the characters and the plot sounded more like a literature exercise than real creation. Four siblings, each with a disability, raised in grandeur and now impoverished. The three sisters have month names, the mother’s ghost is hovering over their lives. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs and Jasper has a cat. Each sibling has their little quirk. And you can feel that cousin Leda’s return is going to set things in motion, dig out dark secrets and shatter the fragile modus vivendi of the Swift siblings. So she’s the deus ex-machina, as my literature textbook calls it.

This is why I couldn’t finish it. I thought the characters, setting and plot were artificial. It reminds me of theatre play rules, unity of time, place and action. I felt like Molly Keane was trying to comply with literature rules for a school assignment more than expressing herself. Four disabilities were too much for my liking and the names put me off. Seriously: April, May and June? The accumulation of quirky irritated me and I saw an accumulation of details and characters that didn’t mesh well.

I’m now curious to know what the other Book Club participants thought about it. For another review, discover Guy’s thoughts here. He was delighted by the book.

PS: I can’t reconcile the cover of the book with anything I’ve encountered in the 36% I’ve read. The explanation must come later.

 

Pennac embodies his Journal d’un corps

June 26, 2014 6 comments

Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. 

Pennac_afficheRegular readers of this blog know that I love theatre. There’s something special about seeing flesh and blood actors a few feet away from you, impersonating characters and telling a story night after night for an audience. Perhaps it resonates with childhood memories of listening to stories before bedtime or the pleasure comes from the knowledge that these actors are playing for us, the people sitting there and not for a camera. In a way it’s more personal. When my professional schedule leads me to Paris and there is time, I always look for a theatre play to watch. Last week was Mass Appeal and this week, it was Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac, with Daniel Pennac. If you’d looked inside my head when I found out about this on my usual theatre website, you would have seen my brain doing cartwheels in there. That’s how happy I was. I had loved the book Le Journal d’un corps and I’ve written about it here. I’ve been a Pennac fan for a long time now, loving the Malaussène series (see Guy’s review here) and his memoir about teaching, Comme un roman. It’s in this very book that Pennac lists the 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader which are also advertised on my blog. Bref, he and I have a long story of one-sided admiration, my side of course. So, I felt like a teenager going to see her favourite rock star playing unplugged.

Pennac_wikiMy brain was doing cartwheels again, after the show. That was amazing, he was amazing. The concept of seeing an author reading his book is appealing to a bookworm, per se. The concept of seeing a writer impersonating his words is mind-blowing. When you read a book and the writer is a real author, you hear their literary voice. There’s no way to know if this voice is their natural voice or if it’s ventriloquism. For Pennac, his physical voice matches his literary voice. His voice is a little nasal, conveying the irony, the wit of his words. He’s a gourmet of words and he lets them roll around his tongue, reaching his taste buds and gives them back flavoured with good humour and passion. His lower jaw gives a special texture to his voice and a unique rhythm to his sentences. His eyes are a bid hidden by Harry Potter glasses but his mischievous look escapes their metallic frame, revealing his rebellious side. Everything in Pennac’s body speaks of childhood, play and of his healthy appetite for life and language. This is what I felt when I read Le Journal d’un corps. This is what I saw on stage, and I was sitting in the third row, quite close and with a clear view. How often do we have the opportunity to see a writer on stage, ten meters away, living his text on stage. Not reading it, playing it, turning the writer into an actor, giving life to his own words. Not often. He has the ease of excellent actors and teachers. I would have loved to sit in his class and hear him read masterpieces aloud.

Apart from the performance, the play reminded me how good the book is. It’s funny, accurate in its rendition of the human condition, universal and particular at the same time. If you’re French and you have the opportunity, go to the Théâtre du Rond Point and watch Pennac on stage. For foreigners, there’s always the book, sadly not translated into English. Yet.

PS : Post publication of this billet, I asked Folio whether Le Journal d’un corps will be translated into English. Good news for UK readers, MacLehose Press will publish it. Publication date still unknown, though.

The place not to be

June 23, 2014 28 comments

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier. French title: La place du mort.

I have to admit that I discovered French writer Pascal Garnier on English-speaking blogs. Then a libraire at Quai du Polar highly recommended him as well. So I bought La place du mort, translated into The Front Seat Passenger. In French, la place du mort has a double meaning. Literally, it’s “the deadman’s place/seat”. For a car, it means the front passenger seat because according to the statistics, the risk to die in case of an accident is higher when you’re on this seat. Referring to the front passenger seat as la place du mort is very common language in France. The second meaning is to take a dead man’s place. Keep this in mind. Oh, and did I mention Garnier writes polars, aka crime fiction?

The book opens on a murder. A person voluntarily drives into a car, causes an accident where the driver and the front seat passenger die. First encounter with Garnier’s striking prose:

In the forest a fox had just ripped open a rabbit. It pricked up its ears when it heard the squealing of tyres on a tarmac and the clang of metal in the ravine. But that only lasted a few seconds. Then silence descended again. With one bite, the fox disembowelled the rabbit and plunged its muzzle into the steaming innards. All around it, thousands of animals, large and small, were eating or climbing on top of each other for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species.Translated by Jane Aitken. Dans la forêt un renard vient d’égorger un lapin. Ses oreilles se dressent en entendant le crissement des pneus sur l’asphalte et le bruit de la tôle dans le ravin. Ça ne dure que quelques secondes. Le silence reprend possession des lieux. D’un coup de dents, il éventre le lapin et plonge son museau pointu dans les entrailles fumantes. Partout autour de lui, des milliers d’animaux, des plus grands aux plus petits, s’entre-bouffent ou se grimpent dessus sans autre but que de perpétuer le jeu.

GarnierI’m afraid the English translation misses out a bit the black humour at the end of the quote. s’entre-bouffent or eat each other has a humorous tone and it’s not written to for the sole purpose of perpetuating their species but for the sole purpose of perpetuating the game. But perhaps it doesn’t sound as well in English as it does in French. When I read this paragraph just after the murder, I see Garnier reminding mankind that they are animals and that the animal world is not bucolic but full of violence. So violence is part of our nature and that’s what he’ll show us.

Just after this gruelling scene, we meet with Fabien Delorme, forfty-something, visiting his father. The two men have nothing to say to each other and Fabien is there out of duty and without his wife Sylvie. When he comes home to his apartment in Paris, the police pay him a visit and tell him his wife is dead. She was killed in a car accident near Dijon with her lover, Martial Arnoult. Fabien goes to the hospital and briefly sees Martine, Martial’s wife. He notes down her name and address.

Back home, his friend Gilles decides Fabien that can’t leave alone and as a recently divorced father, he’s happy to invite Fabien to live with him. As Fabien points out Il n’était pas incapable de vivre seul, il ne concevait la solitude qu’accompagné. (He wasn’t unable to live alone but his idea of solitude was being with someone.) They find a new routine but Fabien decides to stalk Martine. He wants to seduce her, to take Martial’s place. He’s sort of seeking revenge: “he stole my wife, I’ll steal his widow”. He doesn’t know yet he’s going to embark on a crazy journey.

Fabien is not a likeable character and he’s surrounded by insane or childish characters. The story is pure noir but everything holds in Garnier’s unique style. Like here, in this conversation between the police and Fabien, after Sylvie’s death:

- Did you know what her last wills were? - Her last wills?

- Yes, whether she wanted to be buried or cremated?

- I don’t know…I suppose she didn’t want to die, just like anybody else.

(my translation)

- Savez-vous quelles étaient ses dernières volontés?- Ses dernières volontés ?

- Oui, si elle souhaitait être inhumée ou incinérée ?

- Je n’en sais rien…Je suppose qu’elle ne voulait pas mourir, comme tout le monde.

The whole novel is full of eccentric thoughts and acid piques, placing Fabien in a realm of his own.

I’ve seen Pascal Garnier compared to Simenon. I haven’t read Simenon, except for two or three Maigret books. Based on this, I don’t know where this comparison comes from. There’s a wicked sense of humour in Garnier that lacked in the Simenons I’ve read. I haven’t read the best ones, I know. I assume that the good ones are rife with black humour. For me, Pascal Garnier the crazy son of a Patrick Manchette with sprinkles of a Duane Swierczynski. And that’s a huge compliment. I read La place du mort on a plane and I kept chuckling and chuckling despite the dark path the story was taking. I had obviously so much fun reading it that my neighbour had to politely ask Excuse me, but what are you reading? It seems excellent and she left the plane with the reference of the book.

While I’m not tempted to read L’A26, I’m much interested in Flux which won the Prix de l’humour noir. Definitely a writer to discover. Definitely a writer I’ll explore.

PS: this would make an excellent film. (with Daroussin as Fabien, for example)

Francis Huster on stage as a priest: just wow

June 17, 2014 5 comments

Mass Appeal by Bill C Davis. 1980. French title: L’affrontement

Disclaimer: This billet is about religion, but not only about religion. If I inadvertently hurt your feelings or beliefs, that was not my purpose.

I’ve been to the theatre again to see a marvellous play, Mass Appeal by Bill C Davis, adapted into French by Jean Piat and Dominique Piat.

AffrontementThe play starts in a catholic church where Father Tim Farley is telling his Sunday sermon. He’s a well-respected priest in a well-off community, his bishop likes him enough to go on holiday with him and his parishioners spoil him with good bottles. He has easy-going manners and gives unchallenging but entertaining sermons every Sunday. That day, as he casually brushes aside the idea that women should be allowed to priesthood, the young seminarian Mark Dolson dares to contradict him. The older man is outraged and intrigued by the younger one. Farley is later asked to take Dolson under his wing in order to instil a bit of Catholic Church good sense into him. In other words, Dolson must not say that women should be allowed to become priest or that homosexual relationships are respectable or challenge his superiors in any way. Farley’s place in the local community is such that he was assigned to the task. Mark Dolson lacks diplomacy and Farley has it in spades. Farley has to teach him just that, diplomacy.

The play is made of scenes corresponding to lessons given by Farley to Dolson. As the two men confront each other, their personalities are revealed. Father Farley is glued in his comfort. He feels lonely and wants his parishioners’ affection. He’s ready to adjust his speech to keep that affection, to receive good whisky bottles and live in peace. He plays by the Church’s rules, abides to its hierarchy and smothers any thought wandering out of the official path. He has lost his enthusiasm, he ditributes comforting words like an automatic dispenser, writes his sermons on auto-pilot and changes their course in the middle of telling them if he hears his audience getting bored. And how does he hear it? People cough abundantly and drop their prayer books when they’re bored. Mark Dolson is young, untamed, honest to the point it disserves him. Diplomacy is capitulation to him, white lies are hypocrisy and blunt honesty is his choice. In that, Dolson is like Alceste in The Misanthropist by Molière. He challenges Farley like nobody else and the older man is picked and eventually moved.

The play has two or maybe three trains of thoughts. The obvious one is meant to challenge the position of the Catholic Church on the ordination of women as priests. The arguments are well brought up. I don’t know if they’re convincing, as far as I’m concerned, Mark Dolson was preaching a believer. I’ll never understand why a community can neglect fifty per cent of their forces, just because these fifty per cent happen to be women. This statement is valid for professions, the right of vote and the right to become priests. This play was written in 1980 and it’s still painfully accurate. I’m an atheist but I’ve been raised a Catholic. If I were to turn to a church again, I would not go back to the catholic one. I find it mummified in old habits and it needs a real change. I dislike their position on contraception, marriage, homosexuality and the place of women. This play shows very well how the hierarchy destroys in the nest any challenging personality. They want sheep, they get priests who sheepishly yield to the inevitable. Mark Dolson states that the Catholic Church is destroying itself by not following the evolution of society. It sure showed an ugly face during the discussions for the law to allow same sex marriage in France. Where were the moderate Catholics? Why do they let the extremists speak in their name while they say nothing?

This play addresses this issue and fundamentally raises the eternal question about leading changes. The plays portrays the games of power and how church moguls –supposedly closer to sainthood than us, which makes their attitude harder to swallow than for common people—are willing to let go a talented priest to retain their power. Because, as the conversations between the two men go on, the audience understands that Mark would be a wonderful priest if he ever got the chance. He’s compassionate, honest and he believes in mankind. Once he tells Farley that he wants to challenge the parishioners because he thinks they’re capable of much more than what they do.

The underlying question is: what’s the best method to change an institution, to lead a revolution? Do you get in, play by the rules and try to change it from inside to the risk to lose yourself in the process? How do you draw the line between using the rules in order to later promote your cause and becoming part of the system yourself? Or do you fight it from outside? Is leading a revolution the best way? This question is asked here for the reform of the Catholic Church but it could be a political party, a political regime or a company. Where’s the best position to honestly conduct changes?

The last train of thoughts is the opposition between the young and the older man. I liked Mark’s rebellion. I’m not too keen on imposed hierarchy myself. Put me under a boss I respect, I’ll be a good soldier. Put me under one I consider incompetent and I’ll rebel or leave. Mark is ardent, his faith is genuine, untainted. He wants to do good deeds. He wants to heal and comfort people who suffer. He wants to live by his faith. The more he reveals about himself, the more we understand he’d be an excellent priest. He’s a mirror to Farley and the image he gives back is that of an old priest who used to be as enthusiastic about his calling but gave up along the way. He played by the rules and the rules played him. He’s the shadow of the young man he used to be and when Mark is ostracised by their bishop, Farley must make a choice. Will he speak up in favour of Mark or will he look away? This part of the play reminds us of the ideals we abandon along the way when we get older. It’s called wisdom but isn’t it a nice soothing wrap for renunciation?

As you’ve probably understood by now, this was an excellent play for a lot of reasons. The text is deep and thought-provoking on two universal topics: power and our submission to it and age and its toll on our dreams and ideals. It’s also extremely lively and funny. It deals with serious topics in a light tone and the audience was enraptured. The play was adapted into French by Jean Piat and Dominique Piat. The production I’ve seen was directed by Steve Suissa who picked great decors and a fantastic soundtrack. Francis Huster played Father Farley and Davy Sardou was Mark Dolson. Both were marvellous on stage; I’m more than happy to have seen Francis Huster. They play as if they were casually discussing in their kitchen. Nothing is overdone, they speak with total clarity. Both were convincing in their role. Nothing compares to live performances when they’re good.

What a treat! Or, as we say in French: Quel plaisir!

No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

June 12, 2014 8 comments

No Beast So Fierce (1973) by Edward Bunker. (1933-2005) French title: Aucune bête aussi féroce.

BunkerNo Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker is the second Humbook Guy gave me last Christmas. Born in 1933 in Hollywood, Edward Bunker had a rocky childhood and spent his youth in foster homes and reform schools. He was involved in criminal activities, mostly scheming robberies and extorting funds from pimps. He was caught several times, acquired quite a reputation and had spent 18 years in prison when he wrote his first novel No Beast So Fierce. I don’t usually linger on authors’ biographies when I write a billet but Bunker’s life experiences nourished his writing and the story of this novel.

When the book opens, Max Dembo is released on parole after eight years behind bars. The first part of the novel describes his first weeks of freedom. The second and third parts are about his subsequent offence. I don’t want to say a lot about the plot and the characters because it’s difficult to do so without spoilers. Max’s and Bunker’s childhood and adolescence have a lot in common. The difference between the two is that Bunker had a helping hand in the person of Mrs Wallis. Like Bunker, Max had a broken home, was in foster care and in reform school. He had to fend for himself when he was very young and he grew up like weed, without direction.

Bunker’s style is luminous, precise. It combines description of the action, glimpses of the environment and time in Max’s inner mind. No Beast So Fierce lets common people into the mind of a criminal. The criminal world raised Max. He grew up with a set of values given by the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, con artists and thieves.

I’d never had qualms about killing. My system of values came from the jungle of reform school and prison. I’d never heard anyone denounce killing on moral grounds. Violence was deemed by some to be “uncool” or “stupid”, but never evil or wrong.

He’s angry at society and while he’s determined to remain on the safest side of law when he goes out of prison, he quickly falls back into his old habit. He’s out of prison on parole and there’s no safety net.

I RODE off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. A uniformed guard drove me to the depot and waited until I was on board.

Then he’s left to meet with his parole officer. Earlier this year, I read On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. I couldn’t help but compare the social net that awaited the two characters. In Japan, Kikutani has a social worker taking care of him and showing him around to adjust to the city. He’s led to a temporary room until he lands on his feet and couldn’t have been out of prison without a job. Society makes sure that material conditions are good enough to give the ex-convict a chance to a successful rehabilitation.

Here, in California, the social net isn’t very solid. Max’s parole officer is totally oblivious of the canyon lying between his values and Max’s. He fails to convince him to go and live in a halfway house until he gets on his feet. They can’t find a communication channel and his rigid mental posture leads Max into refusing the little help he proposes.

“Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers, and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls. I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.”

His righteous parole officer can’t bend. Max will only bent a little. Well, you know what happens for the oak and the reed in the fable by Lafontaine. The reed bending adapts to the weather conditions, the oak is uprooted.

So Max is left to his own devices and must follow parole conditions:

There was a copy of the parole agreement I’d signed, and its conditions. They were standard—maintain suitable employment (what’s “suitable”?), make no address change and drive no automobile without written permission, no drinking, make no contract, borrow no money, avoid ex-felons and persons of ill repute, and heed the advice and counsel of the parole officer. Failure to comply with any condition was grounds for return to prison without notice or hearing.

It’s kind of hard to live in Los Angeles without a car; the city is not built for pedestrians and the underground is totally underdeveloped. He’s not allowed to drive a car and anyway, he’s not allowed to borrow money to buy one. He doesn’t have a job and by law, he has to tell his employer about his ex-convict status. He’s not directed to companies that are used to hiring ex-convicts (it is the case in the Yoshimura); he has to find a job by himself, say he’s just been out of prison and hope that his employer won’t mind hiring a thief on parole. Like these jobs are easy to find. What chances does he stand when he has no money and needs to pay for a hotel and food at least? And since Max has no family, no girlfriend, he turns to the only network he knows: the criminal network. The lack of empathy and communication skills of his only contact with the legal world can only lead to failure. He doesn’t stay on the right path for long and soon goes back to his old world. There, he knows the rules, he knows who he can trust and he has friends.

Being in Max’s head is not always comfortable. Being in Kikutani’s head was uncomfortable because I could feel he was unbalanced. Max is not unbalanced. He’s enraged against the society that mistreated him since childhood and he doesn’t want to follow its rules. He loves his freedom and lives by the only code he knows: the thief’s code. At times I felt compassion for him and at others I thought he was a lost cause. That said, I was very interested in his way of comprehending the world. It humbles you and shows that righteous condemnation will not ensure the rehabilitation of criminals. Incidentally, I talked about this book to a friend who’s a lawyer and discovered that in France, prisoners can’t be on parole; the system doesn’t exist and I wasn’t aware of that.

Among Max’s friends and help system are ex-convicts or wives of accomplices in crime. Max finds shelter in their homes, bringing a whiff of the underworld with him. He gives them money to help them raise their children. I felt sorry for them. They are victims of their social environment. The children grow up poor, with an absent father and a mother struggling to make ends meet. Shady characters crash at their house and they are in an unstable environment. What is their chance to have a better life? Who can show them another way to live? How can their parents’ fate not repeat with them?

No Beast So Fierce is an honest book. Bunker shows Max’s anger, pictures what the system made of him, pities him but doesn’t deny his responsibility in his actions. He never says that Max is a victim who doesn’t have a choice. He shows how his life story leads him to the choices he makes. Max is never hiding behind phony excuses to justify his actions.

It’s disgusting to behave stupidly, but doubly so while knowing it’s stupid in advance.

He made poor decisions and he went into crime with his eyes open. He also mentions the thrill it gives him (A tremor almost sexual passed through me as I anticipated the coming robbery.) and the rebel in him doesn’t want to bend. He’s a fascinating character but not one I’d want to be friend with.

I know it doesn’t show in this billet because I wanted to avoid spoilers but No Beast So Fierce is also a high-paced novel. The first part sets the décor and characters. The second part increases the pace and starts the action. The third part races to the denouement and it’s gripping. Quentin Tarantino loved No Beast So Fierce and hired Bunker to play Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs. I think I know why.

Many, many, many thanks to Guy for picking this book for me. I’d never heard of it and it’s a fantastic read.

Book Club 2014 – 2015 : new reading list

June 7, 2014 42 comments

book_club_2Our Book Club is currently reading Time After Time by Molly Keane and will be reading Anna Edes by Dezső Kosztolányi in July. Our new Book Club year starts in August and we’ve already picked the books for the coming year. We’ve chosen books from several countries, several genres, classics and recent ones and I think it will be an exciting reading year. I’ve never read most of the writers we’ve selected, and that’s a bonus. *drums* Here’s the list:

Book title in English

Book title in French

Author

Country

Month

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me Demain dans la bataille, pense à moi

Javier Marias

Spain

August

The Awakening Eveils

Gaïto Gazdanov

Russia

September

To Kill a Mocking Bird Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur

Harper Lee

USA

October

At Swim-Two-Birds Swim-Two-Birds

Flann O’Brien

Ireland

November

The Good Soldier Le bon soldat

Ford Maddox Ford

UK

December

On the Black Hill Les jumeaux de Black Hill

Bruce Chatwin

UK

January

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro La tête perdue de Damasceno Monteiro

Antonio Tabucchi

Italy

February

Not available in English De là on voit la mer

Philippe Besson

France

March

Fathers and Sons Pères et fils

Turgeniev

Russia

April

Machine Man Non traduit en français

Max Barry

Australia

May

Labor Day Le grand-weekend

Joyce Maynard

USA

June

Going to Meet the Man

Face à l’homme blanc

James Baldwin

USA

July

By Marias, I’ve only read All Souls (Le roman d’Oxford in French) and I liked it but not enough to start another one. I’ve seen Marias praised a lot on other blogs, so I’m curious about my response to this one. In September, we’ll read The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. It is set in France, in Provence, even if Gazdanov is a Russian writer. So no promenades in sleight in this Russian novel but garigue expected. Then we’ll move to the USA. I suppose most of you have already read To Kill a Mocking Bird but we haven’t. I’m glad it’s on the list, I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. After that, we’ll fly back to Ireland and read At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. He’s also a new writer to me and from the blurb of the book, I think that At Swim-Two-Birds should be right in my alley. Let’s hope the English isn’t too difficult or too full of Irish words I’ve never heard of.

According to Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, Ford Maddox Ford’s body odour was intolerable. That’s TMI to me, I’m not interested in writers’ bodily details unless they turn them into literature like Philip Roth. So I hope reading The Good Soldier will help me put Ford Maddox Ford back on his disembodied literary pedestal and that his prose will be so good it will erase any impression of him left by Hemingway.

Chatwin_Black_HillThen we’ll move our literary feast to Wales with On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The cover of its Penguin edition is consistent with my memories of Wales: lots of sheep. I’ve heard it’s an excellent book, so it should be a wonderful reading moment in January, the month made to read on the couch by a fire. Perhaps we’ll still be sitting there in February to read The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi. Isn’t that an intriguing title? It’s a dark novel set in Porto. After reading a novel set in Portugal and written by an Italian writer, we’ll head to Italy with a French writer and discover De là on voit la mer by Philippe Besson. (From There, You See the Sea, not available in English, yet.) I’m happy to have a Besson on the list, I’ve loved to two ones I’ve read  (En l’absence des hommes and Un homme accidentel) and I highly recommend him. I find his prose addicting, it carries me away like a leaf in the autumn wind.

Then we’ll have something totally different with Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, another writer I’ve never read. Fathers and Sons is his masterpiece, I’m looking forward to it. After this classic, I’ll be delighted to meet with Max Barry again and read his Machine Man. Company, Syrup and Jennifer Government were fantastic, the kind of books you want to buy to your friends. I love Barry’s sense of humour and insight. We will finish our booking year with two American novels. We won’t read Labor Day by Joyce Maynard in September but in June, just before reading stories by James Baldwin.

I’m looking forward to this new reading year and of course, I’ll share my impressions of these books with you in future billets. Have you read any of these books?

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