This week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.
There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:
|Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là.||I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)|
In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.
I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.
PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. 1935 French title: On achève bien les chevaux.
Now I know you can be nice and be a murderer too. Nobody was ever nicer to a girl than I was to Gloria, but there came the time when I shot and killed her. So you see being nice doesn’t mean a thing. …
The man speaking that way is Robert Syverten. He’s in court waiting for the verdict in his trial for murder and he relates what led him there.
We’re in 1935, in California. Robert accidentally meets with Gloria. She’s an aspiring actress and not surprisingly, she’s broke. He’s an aspiring film director, and not surprisingly, he’s broke. They have cinema and poverty in common. They need food and being noticed by someone influent in the film industry. Gloria suggests that they take part in a dance marathon as the organizers provide the participants with free food and there are cinema people in the audience. The rules of the dance marathon are quite simple: you dance non-stop, or at least, you have to keep moving.
One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.
As if dancing wasn’t providing the spectators with enough entertainment, derbies are organized to spice it up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby – but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit – the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are – if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’
Doesn’t it sound awful? Robert describes the marathon, the atmosphere. He explains the little tricks Gloria and he gathered to survive and keep going.
Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the John, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first. I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.
The style is very cinematographic something you could expect from a book that was first written as a scenario. I saw the place and the people in my mind. We follow Robert and Gloria along the way, see their interactions with other contestants and some spectators. We have a glimpse at their lives. Most of them are poor fellows who are after the prize. I was surprised to read about “professional” marathon participants. I wondered how desperate someone could be to enrol more than once in that kind of circus. The first time is an error of judgement, the others border to stupidity or desperation.
I found incredible that such shows existed. He talks about the other contestants, the anchor men and the spectators. People paid to see this and it was advertised in newspapers. Companies sponsored couples, giving them clothes and shoes with their logos. In the afterword, it is said that Horace McCoy had worked as a bouncer for such a contest. He knows what he was writing about. I could say I can’t believe such degrading events existed but living in the era of reality shows on TV, I’m perfectly aware that some fellow humans would do anything for fame and money. I still don’t know who I pity most: the participants who are desperate enough to accept this or the spectators who pay to see this show. There’s no end to human voyeurism.
In addition to the vivid picture of the contest, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is also a psychological novel and the relationship between Robert and Gloria is central in the story. The dancers stay inside of the building and after a while, Robert would do anything for a bit of sun. They are well-fed but lack of sleep. As exhaustion gets at the dancers, the atmosphere heathens. As days pass, the relationship between Gloria and Robert deteriorates. She’s moody, impolite and more importantly, she’s gloomy. She wants to die but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. She’s spiteful and keeps moaning about being alive. She’s obnoxious. Her temper weighs on Robert’s patience. She’s the kind of person you don’t want chained to your ankle because you know she’d make you sink and drown. She adds mental fatigue to Robert’s physical exhaustion from the dancing. She wears him down until he relieves her from her life. Out of mercy. They shoot horses, don’t they?
The novel isn’t suspenseful, you know from the beginning what Robert did. It’s worth reading for the description of the dance marathon, the side characters and the ups and downs of the contest. Robert is a good guy who found himself in a wearying situation. Gloria is a curse and despite the warning bells ringing in his head, he sticks to her. I wondered why he didn’t drop out of it and let her fend for herself. I guess he was still hoping for a positive outcome, money or a push for his career. It’s a good example of how we are led to acting out of character or are swept along a path that we didn’t really choose. It’s Great Depression in all its glory, economical and mental.
Romain Gary wrote Education européenne in 1943. He was in England at the time, an aviator in the Lorraine squad that had just been included under the commandement of the RAF. He wrote this novel between battles, in a climate of fear and brotherhood. Education européenne was published in early 1945 and won the Prix des critiques. It was Gary’s first success and the book was translated in more than twenty languages. It’s a coming of age novel about a young Polish, Janek, who joins the resistance in the forest at the time of the battle of Stalingrad.
It’s written during the war and about the war. World War II changed Romain Gary forever. His mother passed away during these years, a lot of his family died in camps and he joined the French resistance early in the war, first in North Africa and then in England. His novels reflect his time and he tackles with the hot topics of these years: How does humanity recover from the atrocities of the extermination camps? What does it mean about human nature? Why are men tempted by Communism and ready to sacrifice for a cause? Are high ideals worth the sacrifice?
Freshly appointed as a diplomat in Sofia, Gary witnessed first-hand the way Communists took power in Bulgaria. Contrary to a lot of French intellectuals or artists, he was never a member of the Communist party. He wasn’t blind and I like him for that. He was against extremism in every form, believing that reality is always grey and messy. Extremism only knows two colours, black or white. There’s no room for empathy, grey zones and multi-coloured areas. He was wary of passionate heroism and grand speeches, just like here:
|Lorsqu’ils affirment que rien d’important ne meurt jamais, tout ce que cela veut dire, c’est qu’un homme est mort ou qu’on est sur le point d’être tué.||When they say that nothing important ever dies, it only means that a man just died or you’re about to get killed.|
He was always keen on unravelling heroic messages and pointing out how empty they could be or how they just hid an ugly truth. Beautiful ideas about freedom become a prison for the mind. But we’ll discuss this later when I write my billet about Lady L.
See you next week!
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011 French title: Une fille, qui danse.
This month our Book Club picked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had read reviews about it and knew one of the themes was memory. That’s all I remembered, how ironic.
Our narrator is Tony, he’s in his sixties, retired and in the first part of the book, he relates his years in high school and university. He pictures his friendship with Alex and Colin and how Adrian came into the group. They went to college separately and tried to keep in touch. Tony studied in Bristol and stayed a year with his girlfriend Veronica and he even introduces her to his friends. They eventually break up and he later receives a letter from Adrian, saying he’s dating Veronica. After graduation, Tony leaves the UK to travel in America and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. He planned it at perfection and made of it a way of living and leaving according to his theories. Tony thinks highly of him to have put into practice all his reasoning about life and to have gone all the way through to be faithful to his principles.
In the second part, we fast forward to the present. Tony had a career, married Margaret, got a divorce, had a daughter Susie, who’s now in her thirties. He’s a grand-father and lives the orderly life of a common citizen. No ups and downs. He’s friend with his ex-wife. Small life, safe life, no big emotion. This comfort is disrupted when he receives a letter from an attorney saying that Veronica’s mother died and left him £500 and Adrian’s diary in her will. This leads Tony to meet with Veronica again and she shows him the spiteful letter he had sent to Adrian after he learnt he was with her. Tony is confronted with his younger self and the way his memory amended the events to picture him honourably. He feels ashamed and starts a crusade to atone his meanness.
This forced march down to memory lane won’t do him good.
Honestly, I’m not thrilled about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes portrays beautifully the impact of ageing, explores with great intelligence the tricks our brain does to us. I have tons of quotes. The structure of the book is masterfully crafted. He drops clues here and there and everything makes sense in the end. Perfect construction. Perfect language. Perfect little thoughts about life. Too perfect to be lively. Too perfect to be true to life because life is messy. To me, it remained a sort of cold work of art, a designer suit perfectly cut but with visible seams.
It also felt like déjà vu. The ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming, is a bit stretched and clichéd. The guilt trip Tony is taking seems over the top. The poor man just takes himself too seriously. What a bore!
Sure, Julian Barnes made me think. I don’t imagine this book written by a younger author. Life experience seeps through every page and I wonder how much of himself Julian Barnes put into this.
After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
That’s what the Sixties were for my parents and that’s why they missed The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to listen to Frank Alamo or Sylvie Vartan.
All the thinking about memory was interesting but not really new.
We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
Yes, our mind transforms memories until what we recall faintly resembles the truth. And what is truth, really? Julian Barnes makes it sound a bad thing. However, without that coping mechanism, we wouldn’t survive to pain or shameful moments. We’d be hurting all the time, we wouldn’t move on. We’d all be a walking bundle of raw wounds.
Julian Barnes also seems to share with Romain Gary the idea that “truth dies young”, meaning that you see yourself and the world clearly when you’re young and everything goes downhill from there. Years bury your young self under layers of habits and resignation as you settle in life. In both cases, there’s nostalgia for adolescence and especially for these years of illusions and undefined future. Personally, I don’t miss that part of my life. Do I want to go back there and spend my days half-drowning in an ocean of shyness? No thanks, I’m better off now.
I do agree with Julian Barnes on a lot of things he writes and especially with that quote:
Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval … and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.
For me, it’s no use regretting missed opportunities or thinking you didn’t live your life to your best potential. Because, who really sabotage themselves consciously? We all make what we think is the best decision at the moment we make it, we all let go of possibilities because we don’t have it in us to take a risk, face our families, risk pain or act out of character. If we hadn’t been ourselves…
There are lots of excellent things in that novel. If The Sense of an Ending were a human, it’d be a top model. Beautiful but aloof, perfect but a bit fake, so polished that it’s not real anymore. You know what? Top models don’t make me swoon.
Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. 2012. Not translated into English.
I’m supposed to be on a book buying ban but I had a too rare moment in town for myself and I couldn’t resist visiting my favourite book store. I bought Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger because it was short and had won the Prix du Livre Inter. This literary prize is awarded by readers who are selected by France Inter (the French public radio) after they apply to be in the jury. The applicants have to write a letter saying why they love literature and the journalists of the station pick up the jury members among them. So common readers like us get to read a selection of books, debate about them and decide which one they preferred. It’s a good prize, away from the Parisian literary coterie and pressure from publishers. Obviously, I don’t have the same reading tastes as the 2012 jury.
I started to read this in the theatre, before Chapters of the Fall began. The man sitting next to me was reading an essay about eroticism in Western countries. I’m sure his book was more interesting than mine. This slim novel(?) is a first person narrative and the narrator is Nathalie Léger herself. She has to write a short note about Barbara Loden for a cinema anthology. She watches Wanda, Loden’s only film as a director. She relates her research about Barbara Loden. It’s interlaced with moments of her personal life. She sort of tries to find Barbara Loden, the woman, behind the character Wanda. She sort of tries to understand why she’s taking such a sudden interest in Barbara Loden. She sort of tries to link Barbara, Wanda and her mother or herself through I don’t know what. I was bored out of my mind and abandoned it at page 74. The remaining 40 ones were too much to bear.
It’s written in pseudo-intellectual rambling and it didn’t make any sense to me. It’s a succession of vignettes about what Wanda does in the film, what Barbara did in her life and what Nathalie and her mother do in theirs. Fascinating stuff. It may be autofiction, I’m not sure about the tag. Anyway, the best thing about it was its cover and it confirms the saying: you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Le mercredi, c’est Gary! (It’s better in French, it rhymes)
|Rien ne vous isole plus que de tendre la main fraternelle de l’humour à ceux qui, à cet égard, sont plus manchots que des pingouins.||Nothing is more isolating than to hold out the brotherly hand of humour to people who are, in this respect, as awkward as auks. Translation by Erik McDonald.|
This quote is difficult to translate and I owe it to Erik to have found a good translation. In French, a manchot is a one-armed man, a penguin and a clumsy person. A pingouin is an auk. In this quote, Gary means that someone who lacks a good sense of humour is like a one-armed man. They’ve got a disability that prevents them to shake hand with someone reaching out offering humour and fun. They are missing out on a vital part of life and they are clumsy because they can’t navigate through life as easily without that help. I love the imagery in this quote. I picture someone who’s clumsy, wobbling through life and lacking dexterity in their dealings with life. If anyone finds a pun to replace the plus manchots que des pingouins, leave a suggestion in the comment section. It’s been nagging at me for a while but my English isn’t good enough to find a good one.
Humour is a theme often mentioned in Gary’s books. A good sense of humour is precious. It’s a weapon against others who take themselves too seriously. It’s an asset for someone who’s in a predicament as it helps you distancing yourself from the situation you’re in. It’s a medicine to heal when reality is falling hard on you. Self-deprecation is a jack to put you out of your misery. Gary has a sense of humour à la Woody Allen. You find Woddy Allen comical? You think Philip Roth is funny? You’ll like Romain Gary too and you’ll see what I mean about Gary and humour if you join us to our Let’s read Romain Gary event in May.
Chapters of the Fall. Saga of the Lehman Brothers by Stefano Massini.
Stefano Massino is a young Italian playwright and his Chapters of the Fall details in three chapters the saga of the Lehman brothers. The first chapter Three Brothers, covers the years from 1844 to 1867. The second one, Father and Son relates the span of 1880-1929 and the last one The Immortal, goes from 1929 to 2008. The first chapter describes the arrival of Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded a store selling fabric and clothes. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon emigrate to America too and they join their forces to develop their business. Soon they start selling raw cotton to Northern businessmen and settle in New York. The second chapter describes how Philip Lehman, Emanuel’s son develops Lehman Brothers, which is now a bank. The third chapter is about Robert Lehman, the last member of the family to operate the bank and the subsequent change in management eventually leading the bank to its fall.
Apart from the saga of this specific family, the play recounts the history of capitalism in America. Sure, there aren’t many details. But still, the big moves and changes are visible. The Lehman Brothers start by selling cloth and goods needed in plantations. It’s tangible. Then, they accept raw cotton as payment for goods and start selling raw material. They shift their profit towards a trading activity, working as middlemen between the North and the South. The Civil War destroys this business but they manage to float and come out of it unscathed. They relocate in New York because the trading is done there. They participate to the creation of Wall Street, know Mr Dow and Mr Jones who will create the Dow Jones. They accompany the changes in the economy. They turn from revenues from agriculture to revenues from industries and then from financial markets. They turn their back to the South and invest in the West through railroads. Philip Lehman will be the one to invest in railroads and to forever change the company into an investment bank. Supporting weapon industries helped the bank surviving several crisis and the Lehman involved the bank in financing innovative parts of the economy. (Cinema, television, electronics)
The first chapter is very clear. The second shows well the modernization of society and how the economy bolted and crashed in a wall in 1929. It pictures how greed and easy money turned people into madmen wanting more. The New Deal was voted and the State started to regulate the economy, to Robert Lehman’s dismay. The third chapter is more blurred. After Robert Lehman’s death, the bank is more and more driven by stock markets and traders take control of the company. Robert Lehman died in 1969. To me, the 1970s were the decade that paved the road to power to politicians who deregulated everything, at least in the USA. The 1929 crisis was a bit forgotten and greed was again a way of living. Until the fatal crisis of 2008.
When the theatre warned us that Chapters of the Fall would last 3:50 hours, I thought “Oh, dear, I hope it’s gripping.” And yes, it is. If you ever have the opportunity to watch this play, go for it. It’s entertaining and educational. It gives a good overview of the construction of capitalism. It’s not judgemental. It states facts and pictures how a family turned a growing business into an empire by adapting quickly to the changes in their environment. The play is really well written. The story is told by the brothers in a light tone. They are storytellers, using repetitions in the text like magic phrases in a fairy tale. It was directed by Arnaud Meunier and he managed to create the right atmosphere and he picked wonderful actors. It lasted 3:50 and my attention never failed. The stage set was sober and the images on a screen behind the stage brought the spectators to New York, to Wall Street and to a trade room. Societal changes seep through the text when the men evoke their marriages and wives. Emanuel and Mayer simply fall in love. Philip chooses a wife like he’s doing a merger or picking a good horse. Robert marries three times since divorce is accepted. The progressive loss of rituals when a Lehman dies pictures the loss of values. When Henry dies, the business is closed for a week and all the Jewish rituals are respected. When Emanuel dies, Philip doesn’t imagine closing the bank for more than a day. Life doesn’t stop on stock exchanges, even for the death of a founding partner.
I’ve read L’Argent by Zola and he describes exactly the same mechanism. Money calls for more money. People are focused on stock exchanges and stock rates. They put more money than they should in stocks and follow anxiously the outcome. They lose sight with the brick and mortar economy and live on the illusion that the market can rise forever, and of course it can’t. Robert Lehman had seen the 1929 crisis coming but Philip Lehman was in too deep to act and prevent the catastrophe. It seems we are unable to learn from our past mistakes and keep on believing in illusions. There were severe downturns in the stock markets in the 19thC too. The 1929 crisis brought havoc to the world and still, we forgot. I always wonder how we can be so forgetful. History recalls what it wants and the human mind accommodates their memories until they are liveable. But wait, that’s for the billet about The Sense of an Ending…
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. 1934. French title: Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois. Translated by Sabine Berritz.
Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it. I had her.
Frank Chambers is our narrator. He’s in his twenties, has lived across the country as a hobo and ends up at Twin Oaks Tavern, a diner and gas station along a road. The owner Nick Papadakis needs help and hires him to serve gas and take care of cars. Frank isn’t interested in the job but the food is great and he needs a place to crash. That’s until he spots Cora, Nick’s wife. Between them, it’s lust at first sight. He discovers that she married Nick to have a place to live in. She doesn’t love him at all and she’s even disgusted by him. Frank and Cora have an affair and eventually decide to murder Nick.
To me, Frank and Cora are like wild animals. They don’t think about the future, they act to satisfy their immediate needs. He stays at the diner’s for food, she marries Nick to be off the streets. Once their need changes, they change of attitude. They have no gratitude, no moral compass. Nick is a nice guy, generous, welcoming. He may sound a little stupid but he’s a good man. Cora and Nick call him The Greek and look down on him because of his origin. (She doesn’t want to be called Mrs Papadakis) Racism is rampant there, and their attitude towards him illustrates what Gary said about racism. It’s when they don’t count. Nick doesn’t count. His death doesn’t count, he’s not their equal, is that so morally reprehensible to kill him? I saw Frank and Cora as cold blooded murderers and not at all as people accidentally led to crime. That’s what happens in Build my Gallows High, not in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
As always, I have trouble writing about crime fiction. I have things to say but most of what I’d like to write about the plot and the characters is full of spoilers. My rule is not to ruin the book for another potential reader, so spoilers aren’t an option.
However, I have things to say about the French translation. I bought a paperback copy published by Folio Policier and the translation by Sabine Berritz dates back to 1936. I’m not judging Ms Berritz, she probably did her best given the context. It was a time when crime fiction like this was trash literature, when publishers didn’t hesitate to accommodate books for their public and when translators might not have had the wages and time necessary to do a thorough job. I’m just disappointed that Folio sells that great novel in such a poor translation. They could afford a new one, the book is less than 150 pages long. It’s not like retranslating War and Peace! When I reached page 16, I went to the Kindle Store to buy the original. The French version was unbearable. I switched between the electronic version in English and the paper version in French as I was on a plane and e-books aren’t allowed during take-off and landing. The French translation is bad, there’s no other word. Some things are ludicrous now but forgivable. For example, words like corn-flakes or bacon are in English and in italic, like miso in a book translated from the Japanese. Now, we have adopted these words in French. What made me really laugh out loud is the footnote to explain what Coca-Cola is. I had the same experience when I read On the Road in a 1950s translation. Again, it reminded me how our country got americanised during the 20thC. At least, that’s understandable given the time and even interesting, from a “historical” point of view. But what is absolutely unbearable is the tone of the translation: the overabundant use of argot that didn’t age well (boustifaille, c’est bath…); the explosion of exclamation marks when there are none in the original and worst of all, paragraphs mixing different levels of language for no reason.
« Ça n’me creuse pas l’estomac, ça! Ça n’me fera pas m’arrêter ici pour essayer de croûter. Elle vous fait perdre de l’argent cette enseigne et vous n’en savez rien » when the original is “Well, Twin Oaks don’t make me hungry. It don’t make me want to stop and get something to eat. It’s costing you money, that sign, only you don’t know it.” The “vous n’en savez rien” doesn’t agree with the previous “ça n’me fera pas”. A “vous en savez rien” would have been better, in my opinion. Then I noticed a « Je m’en retourne », which sounds like 19thC French poetry, not crime fiction, when the original is a simple “I’m going back”.
There are crimes in this book but the translation is almost a crime to literature as well. Please Folio, have someone retranslate this! This book is fantastic in the original and doesn’t sound as fantastic in French.
Max has read it recently and he’s a bit more positive than me about the characters. Have a look at his excellent review here.
Wednesdays With Romain Gary is back! This week I want to share with you a quote from Lady L. which was first written in English before a French version was made. It was published in 1963. Gary’s first wife was the British writer Lesley Blanch (Lady L., like Lesley?). 1963 is the year he divorced Lesley to marry Jean Seberg. I read Lady L. a long time ago and what I remember most about it was an incredible style and a furious sense of humour. It is is told from the point of view of the said Lady L. who is now quite old and sees life through a curious and rebellious lense. I loved that character, probably because of her nonconformist mind. She doesn’t like weaknesses, see what she thinks of tears:
|Les larmes sont des filles faciles et soixante ans d’ironie, d’humour glacé et d’Angleterre n’avaient pas encore appris à ces trotteuses indécentes un peu de retenue.||Tears are loose women and sixty years of irony, ice-cold humour and England had not yet taught these indecent wanderers the least bit of restraint. (translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)|
I have a copy from 1963 and the blurb is actually a word by Gary himself about the book.
|J’ai toujours été fasciné par un certain côté terroriste de l’humour anglais, cette arme blanche froide qui rate rarement son but. On rencontre souvent dans l’aristocratie britannique une sorte de tolérance universelle non dépourvue d’arrogance et que seuls peuvent se permettre des gens que rien ne saurait menacer. Dans Lady L., je me suis efforcé d’explorer ce thème et de faire en même temps le portrait d’une très grande dame qui a bien voulu me faire quelques confidences. Je me suis permis également de me peindre moi-même sous les traits de son compagnon et souffre-douleur, le Poète-Lauréat, Sir Percy Rodiner. Et comme les idéalistes m’ont toujours paru être, au fond, des aristocrates ayant une très haute et noble conception de l’humanité, cette autre très grande dame, l’histoire d’Armand Denis et de son extraordinaire amour ne pouvait manquer de m’intéresser. J’ai essayé de la raconter en respectant dans toute la mesure du possible la vérité historique. A ceux qui seraient un peu choqués par la façon dont finit mon récit, je dirai d’abord que je n’ai rien inventé et ensuite que le terrorisme passionnel a toujours été jugé chez nous avec indulgence. Humanité, humanité, que de crimes on commet en ton nom !||I’ve always been fascinated by a certain terrorist side of the British sense of humour. It’s a cold knife that rarely misses its target. One often meets among the British aristocracy a sort of universal tolerance not lacking of arrogance and that can only afford people to whom nothing can happen. I tried to explore this topic in Lady L. I also wanted to portray a great lady who confided in me. I also indulged in portraying myself under the traits of her partner and scape-goat, the Laureate-Poet Sir Percy Rodiner. Since I’ve always thought that idealists are aristocrats who have a very high and noble opinion of mankind, this other great lady, the story of Armand Denis and his extraordinary love couldn’t fail to interest me. I tried to tell this story and respect the historical truth as much as possible. To those who might be shocked by the ending, I’ll say that I didn’t invent anything and that love terrorism has always been judged with indulgence here. Humanity, humanity, how many crimes are committed in your name! (My clumsy translation)|
Just typing and translating this makes me want to read the book. Used copies are available in English and it was been made into a film directed by Peter Ustinovn, starring Sophia Loren and Paul Newman. I haven’t seen it. Perhaps the second semester of 2014 should be dedicated to Gary’s books made into a film. What do you think?
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. 1954 French title: Jim la Chance. (awful title in French)
For once in his life Dixon resolved to bet on his luck. What luck had come his way in the past he’d distrusted, stingily held on to until the chance of losing his initial gain was safely past. It was time to stop doing that.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is our Book Club choice for January. Lucky Jim and lucky us. That was fun.
Jim is James Dixon. He’s a young teacher in a provincial university. He teaches medieval history and he’s under the supervision of Professor Welch. Jim is also sort of involved with Margaret, who is just recovering from attempted suicide at the Welches. He doesn’t know how to behave around her anymore. When the book opens, the term is almost over; Jim is still on probation and he’s dying to know if he is going to be fired or not. Dixon is a reluctant medievalist and since his most private thoughts about the Middle Ages would be more like this…
As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.
…it is hard to imagine that he manages to keep his feelings for himself. He doesn’t exactly sound passionate about his work, does he? He hasn’t published an article yet and that weighs against him. He hasn’t made the best impression on Welch either. The older man has probably caught up with Jim’s refrained yawns whenever he talks to him. Welch is the epitome of the pompous and boring teacher who is oblivious to anything but himself. The Professor has a dragon wife and two grownup sons named Bertrand and Michel. He has Dixon at his beck and call and he quietly uses the power he has over the young man’s future. At least, that’s how Dixon feels.
Once, Dixon is invited by Welch to spend the weekend at his house where he’s hosting a party in the honour of Bertrand, the painter-to-be. There, Jim feels like a fish out of the water. He doesn’t belong to that crowd, he’s bored, he doesn’t know the right codes and he takes an instant dislike at Bertrand. After he accidentally burns the sheets and covers in his guest bedroom, he’s looking for a way to hide it from Mrs Welch and gets help from Christine, Bertrand’s girlfriend. This moment will create a bond between the two. However, by the end of the weekend, he has managed to alienate every Welch present at the house.
We see Jim struggling with academic rules. He really has a hard time adjusting to this life and the atmosphere of the university, of his boarding house. He’s bored by medieval history; he makes enemies among students and colleagues; he doesn’t know how to behave around Welch. Jim lacks a precious skill in his new world: he’s not good at small talk. Margaret comes at his rescue sometimes, mending with perfectly rounded sentences the hole that Jim’s bluntness has drilled in his credibility.
We see the university and the events through Jim’s eyes. It’s his perception. Mine was that he had a rather low opinion of himself, that it wasn’t all deserved and that it made him clumsy. I thought he was considerate to Margaret, he worked dutifully on the conference Welch asked him to write. He lacks confidence; he finds the article he has written of poor quality when it doesn’t seem that bad.
More than confidence, Jim lacks a strong belief in what he’s doing. Contrary to his peers, he’s not convinced by his own importance. He doesn’t take himself seriously and has a hard time considering academic life as worth it. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t simply quit in order to do something else. Anything sounded better for him that this life. Welch seems to be spreading obstacles along the road to see how high Jim will jump. In appearance, he’s trying to make up his mind about the renewal of Jim’s contract. In reality, his mind is set but he enjoys power, like here, when he’s asked Jim to prepare a new class for the Fall:
The getting together of the syllabus had been, of course, Welch’s idea; on receipt of it, the candidates for Honours in History were to ‘see whether they were interested’ in studying this new special subject, in preference to the old special subjects taught by the other members of the Department and examined in one of the eight papers required for B.A. Clearly, the more students, within reason, Dixon could get ‘interested’ in his subject, the better for him; equally clearly, too large a number of ‘interested’ students would mean that the number studying Welch’s own special subject would fall to a degree that Welch might be expected to resent.
Isn’t it a minefield? Whatever Jim does, he displeases Welch.
I have a hard time making up my mind about Jim. James, Jim, Dixon, Dickinson, who is he really? Sometimes I pitied him as he was so obviously outside of his comfort zone and Welch did seem like a bore. At other times, he did such silly things as getting drunk at the worst moment. I couldn’t help thinking he was bringing it all to himself. I could understand why he got on other people’s nerves but also why Margaret and Christine are so fond of him.
Kingsley Amis depicts the academic world as a society with pedantic scholars who try to mix with artists more for the style than for the art. When I first read about the French names of Welch’s children I wondered where he got the idea to pick such names for his sons. Thanks to a previous discussion, I already knew that Michel sounded effeminate. (It’s like Laurence for me, I never think of a man when I see that name.) But Bertrand! That must be one of the most difficult French names to say in English. Two Rs and a “an”. It reminds me of the poor French kids named Brian or Ethan; it can never be said properly. Well, we learn later that Mrs Welch has a thing for everything Gallic.
The university is a world of sharks where one needs to publish articles to be accepted and where rules may be bent to have a promotion. I’ve never been to university, I don’t have a clear idea of how it is organised in France. However, novels by David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Philip Roth and now Kingsley Amis all draw the same picture. The temples of culture are not always civilised place to live in. This is an atmosphere you expect in the corporate world but not among scholars who are intelligent and supposedly above that kind of petty details such as advancement or competition.
I’ve had a lot of fun reading Lucky Jim. Amis is extremely funny and has a great sense of style. Here’s Jim coming back to the Welches after a long moment at the local pub:
He broke off, panting; it was hard work walking up the dry sandy track to the Welches’ house, especially with so much beer distributed about his frame.
And now Jim the morning after:
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
I felt bad for him, poor thing. Dixon’s head is a funny one to be in. His imagination runs wild as in a cartoon.
As he left the bar with Christine at his side, Dixon felt like a special agent, a picaroon, a Chicago war-lord, a hidalgo, an oil baron, a mohock. He kept careful control over his features to stop them doing what they wanted to do and breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride.
Jim has a great sense of humour, self-deprecating sometimes but also often at the expense of other people. But lots of it remains safely tucked in a corner of his brain and that’s the reader’s privilege to know what runs through his head. In lots of ways, he’s childish and he shies away from conflicts. During this journey of uncertainty, Jim also learns to accept confrontation as a positive outcome to clear the air, he learns to fight for what he wants and to live under pressure.
For the anecdote, I also loved the stylistic onslaught of Britishness in sentences as this: ‘Upon consideration I feel it incumbent upon me to doubt it. I have miscellaneous concerns in London that need my guiding hand.’ Isn’t that a solid brick of politeness? Ever tried to sneak around a wall of English politeness built out of these verbal bricks and have a British admit that he won’t be doing the job you want him to do? It took me half an hour of rephrasing sentences just this afternoon.
Lucky Jim is a very agreeable read and I sided with Jim all along the book. With his humble background, he doesn’t have the keys to open the doors of academia without a struggle. What he’s facing would have been a nightmare to me. The depressing topics to study, the obligation to lick your boss’s boots to achieve anything, the undermining done by colleagues and the smug students, I would have left running.
For more information about this novel, read Guy’s review here.
PS: Here’s a little challenge to end this post. Read this sentence I expect you know his book on medieval Cwmrhydyceirw and please tell me how to pronounce the last word.
Time for our weekly Gary quotes. Today I’ve chosen two quotes from Les Cerfs-volants. (1980). It’s Gary’s last book and I don’t think it’s been translated into English. The title means Kites. It’s a story of love, hope and war from 1930 till after WWII and from Normandy to Poland.
Like last week’s quote, Erik McDonald helped me with the translation. The quotes I picked are short but triggered exchanges about their translation. I found it fascinating that we both struggled with the same words or expressions and that we had so much hesitation to translate such short passages. It gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be to translate a book; the exchanges between writers and translators must me interesting and I wonder how translators of dead writers do to make all the choices they have to make every sentence along the way.
|Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque.||I understand how you can die of love because sometimes it’s so powerful that life can’t stand it and it shatters|
Our problem was about the translation of “elle craque”. I had initially written “it breaks down”
Erik commented: I would suggest “bursts,” or perhaps “breaks apart” or “splits open” or “shatters,” if “craquer” sounds like a metaphorical use of the physical meaning (pants splitting, for instance). “Breaks down” works for “craquer” in the sense of “be unable to resist,” but in this short phrase I would take “break down” to mean “stop working,” the way a car can break down.
I answered:I had trouble with “craquer”. I went for “breakdown” because of the word “mourir” at the beginning of the sentence and also because “craquer” is a word you use for “to have nervous breakdown”. Perhaps “breaks apart” is the best or “falls apart”? Or “shatters”? It’s difficult because “craquer” means both mental and physical. You can use “craquer” for “pants splitting” as well. So maybe “shatters” is the best, eventually. (I’m writing and thinking at the same time)
In the end, I settled for “shatters” but it’s not exactly the same meaning as “elle craque”. For me, “to shatter” is more violent than “craquer”. What do you think?
The second quote is the following:
|Le rêve a touché terre et ça fait toujours des dégâts. Même les idées cessent de se ressembler quand elles prennent corps.||The dream has landed and that always causes damage. Even ideas stop seeming like themselves when they take on flesh and blood.|
This is a recurring theme in Gary’s work, how good or nice ideas can become ugly when someone tries to put them into practice. I had first translated “a touché terre” by “has landed” and “prennent corps” by “embodied”
Erik changed them into “run aground” and “take on flesh and blood”. I agreed immediately about “take on flesh and blood”, I knew “embodied” sounded strange but I couldn’t find anything better. However I wasn’t so keen on “run aground”.
Here are Erik’s arguments: “Run aground” sounds like a ship metaphor: the ship gets into water that’s too shallow and hits bottom. That would cause damage. I first took “toucher terre” to be an airplane metaphor, in which case “has landed” or “has touched down” would work, but it would then be unclear what causes the damage.
And this is my answer: I prefer “has landed” because in French you don’t use that for ships. (You’d say “échouer”) and because Gary was an aviator. Airplane metaphors are more probable. And dreams are in the sky. (Day dreaming is « avoir la tête dans les nuages », “to have one’s head in the clouds”) What causes the damage? A dream is not supposed to land to remain intact. It can’t land without crashing and being damaged. That’s what he means.
I wanted to share our exchanges with you because I found it interesting that we had so much trouble translating passages as short as these. I hope you enjoyed this and I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions.
Thanks again for your help, Erik.
See you next week with quote from Lady L.
The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)
We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.
Lisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.
The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.
When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang. In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence
‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’
I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:
Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.
I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.
And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.
Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…
Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.
A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.
|Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit »||To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”|
Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:
|Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi.||When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.|
Isn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.
Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.
She needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.
Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.
She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.
An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:
|D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté.||By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.|
I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.
I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.
On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:
|Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite.||The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.|
Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?
All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.
The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!
I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.