Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.
Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- House of Flowers
- A Diamond Guitar
- A Christmas Memory.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.
I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.
I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.
That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.
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.
L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).
I’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.
L’âge heureux. (Happy days)
There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.
When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.
After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.
Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:
|J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie…||I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…|
A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.
Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.
|Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question.||Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.|
Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.
Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.
L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.
|Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient.||Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.|
L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…
If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..
In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.
It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.
I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.
Il padre degli orfani by Mario Soldati. 1950. The orphans’ father. French title : Le père des orphelins.
I’ve mentioned this before but I like to discover new writers through Folio’s 2€ collection. They publish short texts by writers in a 100 pages format. Either the book is composed of short stories or it’s a novella. For me, it’s an opportunity to read someone I’ve never tried without starting with a long book. I picked up Il padre degli orfani because its cover caught my eye. Mario Soldati (1906-1999) is an Italian writer and film maker. His most famous book is Le lettere a Capri, published in 1954. Il padre degli orfani is included in A cena col commendatore, a book composed of three stories (La giacca verde, Il padre degli orfani and La finestra)
We’re in Italy in the 1950s, not far from Milan. The narrator has received a letter relating that his friend Antonio Pellizzari, director of the Scala had quit his functions to start and run an orphanage in his villa in the countryside near Milan. The narrator has known Pellizzari for a long time and although they are friends, he judges him as rather cold, selfish and living a private but scandalous love life. He never married. The narrator wonders what prompted this abrupt change in his friend’s attitude and interests. He decides to go and see by himself. When he visits the orphanage, Pellizzari is rather happy to see him and show him the place. The boys are well-kept, Pellizzari is very committed to his new mission and he hired nuns and a priest to educate the children. He takes care of their schedule, outings, games…The narrator is impressed by Pellizzari’s work, his dedication to his cause but is still puzzled at the sudden change. Deep inside, he doesn’t believe that a man can change that much at that age.
Pellizzari explains with eyes full of tears how a poor and sick little boy on a train moved him so much that he decided to help him. When he eventually looked for him, it was too late, the boy was dead. If Pellizzari had come earlier, he could have purchased the medicine the boy needed and he would have been saved. The orphanage is a way to redemption. Still, the narrator remains sceptical. Just when he’s about to leave and grant his friend the benefit of the doubt, he notices his cufflinks on a side table. The narrator knows that these are his cufflinks as they are a family jewel that was stolen from him a couple of months before. It’s unlikely that his friend has the same cufflinks as him, which means they are his. When he asks his friend where he got them, Pellezzari obviously lies. The narrator confronts him and eventually drops the subject but he’s intrigued and this outright lie confirms that he shouldn’t trust his friend’s good intentions.
The novella focuses on Pellizzari, the narrator and the cufflinks. Who is Pellizzari? Is he genuinely interested in these children? Is his interest selfless? When the narrator describes him in all the years he’s known him, he seems like an arrogant man, not the devoted Christian he is in his orphanage. Has he really changed or has he just switched from one role to another? His lie about the cufflinks ties him to his past and tips the narrator off: Pellizzari is not to be trusted.
It’s an interesting questioning about who we are, who we are in the eyes of others and who we’d like to be. Aren’t we all playing roles from time to time? Pellizzari caught himself in his game. He’s always reinventing himself and for now, he’s set on being a Good Samaritan. The narrator would like to unmask him but is it worth it? Isn’t he actually doing a good job with these children? Does it matter if he does it for the wrong reasons?
And what about the narrator? What pushes him to dig into his friend’s life, to probe Pellizzari’s motivations as if he were an insect under a microscope? Why is he so eager to find flaws in this man? Is it jealousy?
The novella tackles important themes like identity, good conscience and more importantly our capacity to change for the best. Can a selfish man turn into a saint? Are we able to change deep inside? While I think it’s a well written and intriguing story, I liked it but nothing more.
Do you know Mario Soldati? As a film director maybe?
Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 1890 French title: Faim. 146 pages. Made into a play entitled Ylajali by Jon Fosse.
The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had any reason to rejoice over the coming day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.
I started to read Hunger before going to the theatre to see its theatre version but I didn’t manage to finish on time. Hunger was written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse made it into a play, Ylajali. I’ll start with the novella and will then talk about the play.
Hunger is a first person narrative where a young aspiring writer relates his struggling life in Kristiana, Norway. It is based upon Hamsun’s own experience of poverty. The novella is split in four parts, each of them referring to a time of hardship for the narrator.
We follow the young man’s wanderings, his attempts at selling articles to earn money. We see how hunger affects his brain, how people start to see him more and more as a tramp. We witness how he clings to his dignity, how he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s poor, famished and desperate. It prevents him from asking for help but it also prevents him from falling into pieces. Reading this novella was almost unbearable and the reader sees this young man’s life spiral into poverty. Hunger holds on him, a bearable touch at the beginning, an iron claw in the end. Hunger grips him and Hamsun describes very well how it impacts the narrator’s body and his mind. It starts with physical pain:
It was three o’clock. Hunger began to plague me in downright earnest. I felt faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively.
Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later in the day.
But then, as the time of hardship stretches to months, he is malnourished and suffers from the consequences of his lack of food for a long period of time:
The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervous strain died a hard death.
Or later in the book
Hunger lodged once more in my breast, and I had not tasted food since yesterday evening. This, ’tis true, was not a long period; I had often been able to hold out for a couple of days at a time, but latterly I had commenced to flag seriously; I could not go hungry with quarter the ease I used to do. A single day made me feel dazed, and I suffered from constant retching the moment I tasted water. Added to this was the fact that I lay and shivered all night, lay fully dressed as I stood and walked in the daytime, lay blue with the cold, lay and froze every night with fits of icy shivering, and grew stiff during my sleep.
Hamsun describes hunger with painful realism and my heart reached out to this poor man. No one can stay indifferent to passages like this:
The only thing that troubled me a little, in spite of the nausea that the thought of food inspired in me, was hunger. I commenced to be sensible of a shameless appetite again; a ravenous lust of food, which grew steadily worse and worse. It gnawed unmercifully in my breast; carrying on a silent, mysterious work in there. It was as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.
From the start, the narrator tells us that hunger affects his thinking abilities. At the beginning of the book, he’s a little worried:
I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum—my head grew light and I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I was conscious that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.
As the hunger settles in, he feels that his mental capacities are more and more impaired. His mind gets out of control. He goes from worried to frightened as he feels madness getting to him.
My madness was a delirium of weakness and prostration, but I was not out of my senses. All at once the thought darted through my brain that I was insane. Seized with terror, I spring out of bed again, I stagger to the door, which I try to open, fling myself against it a couple of times to force it, strike my head against the wall, bewail loudly, bite my fingers, cry and curse…
His situation worsens. Sometimes he manages to sell an article and has a little money for a few days. All of his possessions have been pawned. (By the way, in English you say to go to my “Uncle’s”, in French you go to your “Aunt’s”). He doesn’t have any money to clean himself and his appearance starts advertising his poverty:
Meanwhile my clothes commenced to steam. Hunger put in a fresh appearance, gnawed at my breast, clutched me, and gave small, sharp stabs that caused me pain.
He sinks further into poverty. As his living conditions deteriorate, he stops clinging to his principles, his dignity. Right and wrong don’t have the same importance when you need food and shelter.
Conscience, did you say? No nonsense, if you please. You are too poor to support a conscience. You are hungry; you have come on important business—the first thing needful. But you shall hold your head askew, and set your words to a sing-song.
At the beginning, he would lie to hide his situation, to be seen as a gentleman. He was ashamed to show he had no money, no prospects. The more he has to live through this, the less he cares about his appearance. He can’t afford to be proud anymore and he accepts treatments of him that would have revolted him a few months before. Hunger shows the slow dehumanisation of a young man.
Nevertheless, Hunger is never miserabilist. I was very moved by the resilience of this young man. He keeps writing, assailed by inspiration from time to time. He writes frantically in parks or in his lodgings. Writing transports him somewhere else.
Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal.
But, as a freelance writer, his bread depends on his capacity to deliver sensible and interesting articles or stories. But how can he write well when his thinking process is impaired by hunger? It can only spiral out of control as his capacities to earn money are hampered by his living conditions which keep degrading if he doesn’t sell articles…
Despite his miserable conditions of living, he’s still able to see beauty around him. This quote comes from the beginning of the book:
If only one had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.
He’s still optimistic; he hasn’t been filthy poor for too long. He’s sure it won’t last, the reader isn’t too surprised by his attitude. But when days turn into months of hardship and he says…
The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark, gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch to myself.
…I find him incredible. Despite his terrible situation, he isn’t blind to the beauty of his surroundings. Hope is his dope. It gives him strength and the reader witnesses how he clutches every tiny hope to make money. Once, he wants to sell the buttons of his coat, he’s so sure they’re worth something and it’s enough to keep his mind positive for a while.
The novella pictures his ups and downs, his attempts at getting out of his predicament. It portrays a young starving artist who refuels on his own, driven by hope and inner strength. Any feeble spark of hope makes his day better. He always hopes for the best and overcomes his despair. He does wish to die sometimes but he holds to his positive attitude. That’s probably why it’s so moving.
Of course I thought about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Hunger affected me more. Perhaps it’s because Orwell’s days felt more like a journalistic experiment. I knew he could have turned to his family and put an end to this time of his life. This young man was in it for good and I felt a lot of compassion for him. I also thought about Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. This young man and Arturo have something in common: their faith in a better future, their need to write, their ability to stay positive. There’s something about the narrator’s ramblings that made him a kindred spirit of Arturo’s and of Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge.
So how do you make a play out of this intimate confession?
Jon Fosse chose to set aside the starving-artist part of the novel. The play is set in a public garden in autumn and a man, any man, you, me is there, trying to survive. The young man has no defined occupation, he’s unemployed. When Jon Fosse leaves behind the reference to writing, he makes his play universal. Anyone could be sacked, fail to find a new job and fall down like this young man.
The play was directed by Gabriel Dufay, who also played the role of the young man. The setting was a park in autumn, with a lamppost. A pianist was on stage, playing music from time to time, lifting the atmosphere which could have been heavy, given the topic. It gave back the tone of the book which avoids the pitfall of miserabilism. The actor impersonated the young man and two other actors played the role of the different men he speaks to in the book and Ylajali, the young woman he fantasises about. Gabriel Dufay was more than excellent. He was gripping, full of energy and showing exactly what the narrator was in the book. Hopeful, nice, extravagant. He showed the claws of hunger grasping the young man’s brain. He showed the slow degradation of the social status of this man. The first night in the park with policemen hovering, the shoes with holes, the cold that seeps into the bones. The hunger which weakens the man’s body, makes him dizzy and nauseous.
The book overwhelmed me, the play punched me in the stomach. We were out of words when we went out of the theatre. I thought “I’ll never look at homeless people the same way” but I know it’s not true. Feelings like this are fleeting. I’d need to act upon it if I really wanted to keep that silent promise I made to myself. Otherwise the emotion subsides; life goes on and the feeling is just stocked somewhere in my memory.
Needless to say I warmly encourage you to read Hunger if you haven’t read it yet.
Sleeping patterns by J.R. Crook. 2012. Published by Legend Press. Not translated into French. (It would suit Les Editions de Minuit, though)
I rarely receive solicitations from writers or publishers to read their books and I don’t complain about it. Indeed, I’m not comfortable with the idea or the feeling of someone expecting a billet from me, and of course, a glowing one. Otherwise, why bother sending free copies of books? I don’t want to feel guilty about writing a negative billet. Of course, I’m not conceited enough to think that a negative billet on Book Around The Corner will ruin the book’s chance of success; I just think about the writers who put something about themselves for us to read and well, I suppose negative billets aren’t agreeable to read. So, when I received an email from J.R. Crook asking whether I’d like to read his book, I wanted to refuse right away. I decided to go and have a look at Litlove’s review of his novel, Sleeping Patterns. The review is entitled In praise of “Difficult books”. I thought “Ooh, not good.” I browsed through it and spotted a reference to experimental fiction and Roland Barthes and it made me cringe. “Definitely not good” was the next thought. I emailed the writer, warning him that I probably wasn’t the right reader for his book, having a hectic history of hit-and-miss with experimental fiction. But he was brave enough to send it anyway.
So Sleeping Patterns? I’m supposed to write a summary of the book and I won’t. It would ruin everything for someone who would want to read it. Let’s say it opens with an introduction by Annelie Strandli, a.k.a Grethe. She’s a character of the book and she explains that the author, J.R. Crook, is dead. She received Sleeping Patterns by the post, chapter after chapter. The table of contents lists chapters in the order Grethe received and read them, ie not in the chronological order of the events. I was intrigued.
I started to read, not knowing what to expect. The chapters are in a strange order, the characters pop in and out; most of the events happen in a residence for students in London. Their lives are intertwined and one of the characters is Jamie, the author of the novel. It reminded me of Short Cuts by Robert Altman and of Money by Martin Amis, because he’s also in the story as a writer. I was about to take a sheet of paper to write the names of the characters and map out the links between them but I stopped. I spend ten hours a day in an office, thinking rationally; there is no room for the irrational in my job, believe me. I was about to slip into my usual and well-experienced thinking pattern when I decided against it. I thought it would be healthy for me to give up the rational for a moment, to let myself be drifted by the book, catching what the writer wanted me to catch when I was reading a specific chapter, hoping that the confusion would dispel as I progressed in my reading. I was right.
I read Sleeping Patterns in one sitting, not able to put it down. I was in the perfect mood for it, the rain outside my windows mirroring the rain in the book. At a point, the novel questions our ability to daydream, an activity I enjoy but can rarely indulge in because I don’t have time for this, except when I’m on holiday. That’s why I love the beach. It’s a place where adults are authorized to lay down and daydream.
It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. You don’t go out of the atmosphere and have to re-enter it after picking the book again. You have all the details in mind and it’s easier to reconcile the pieces of the jigsaw and see the interactions. There are multiple layers in the book but it’s not confusing as the story between Grethe and the aspiring writer Berry Walker remains the life-line of the narrative. You wander a bit, don’t go from point A to point B in a straight line but you remain on the main path.
I didn’t find Sleeping Patterns difficult to read or difficult to understand. I think that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein by Marguerite Duras is a lot more difficult to read than this. (Same thing for a more conventional narrative as The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst.) After making a conscious decision to forget about the usual construction of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The chapters felt like memories or flashbacks from dreams. After Proust, everyone knows that memories don’t come in chronological order or sorted in a logical or rational way. They come unexpectedly and dreams aren’t always consistent, are they?
I’m happy I decided to go past my initial wariness and that I gave this novella a chance. Changing of thinking pattern brought a bit of fresh air, I should do it more often. If I have a cheeky message for the author, it would be this one: Lots of people who read know nothing about literary criticism and theories. They just enjoy reading and appreciate a good style. Scaring them off with references to highbrow literature thinkers doesn’t do any justice to your book. Don’t burden your writing with these heavy shadows, it deserves better.
Silk by Alessandro Baricco. French title: Soie 1996
I’d heard of Silk before and as I was in an Italian literature mood, I figured I’d try it. According to the blurb at the back of my edition, it’s a cult novel by one of the most gifted Italian writers of his generation. Hmm. Not my kind of literary religion then.
The novel is set between France (the Vivarais, in Ardèche) and Japan around 1860. Let me tell you the thin plot. Hervé Joncour lives in a village whose main industry is silk. When European silkworms die from an unknown disease, Hervé Joncour is sent to Japan to bring back larvae for the business to survive. The villagers pay for his trip and he needs to come back with living larvae.
Silk is hard to describe. Hervé Joncour goes back and forth between France and Japan. Discovering Japan is a life-changing experience, probably but nothing is said. You just assume. It’s a novel with a strange character you don’t get attached to. He’s always called Hervé Joncour, never Hervé. It gives the impression of a man who never loses his tie and walks with a broom in his back. There are some descriptions of Japanese customs but you watch them without a clue, just like the main character.
The style is ristretto like an Italian coffee. I guess it’s supposed to be powerful. It didn’t work for me although I’m usually a good audience for this. I love short sentences with an unusual use of the language. The writer needs to be very good for me to enjoy paragraph-long sentences. Short books composed with short sentences can hit you like a fist. But it’s the prerogative of excellent writers as it is hard to say a lot in a few pages. Here, the effects seem fabricated. For example, each time Hervé Joncour travels, Baricco writes the same paragraph to describe his itinerary, like in fairy tales. Great idea on paper but it sounded fake like a trick learnt in a writing class. See:
|Il passa la frontière près de Metz, traversa le Wurtemberg et la Bavière, pénétra en Autriche, atteignit par le train Vienne puis Budapest et poursuivit jusqu’à Kiev. Il parcourut à cheval vingt mille kilomètres de steppe russe, franchit les monts Oural, entra en Sibérie, voyagea pendant quarante jours avant d’atteindre le lac Baïkal, que les gens de l’endroit appelait : mer. Il descendit le cours du fleuve Amour, longeant la frontière chinoise jusqu’à l’Océan, resta onze jours dans le port de Sabirk en attendant qu’un navire de contrebandiers hollandais l’amène à Capo Teraya, sur la côte ouest du Japon||He crossed the border near Metz, walked through Württemberg and Bayern, entered in Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, rode twenty thousand kilometers through the Russian steppe, crossed the Ural mountains, entered in Siberia, and traveled forty days before reaching the Baikal lake that local people called: sea. He flew down the Amour river along the Chinese border till the Ocean, stayed eleven days in the Sabirk harbor until a ship of Dutch smugglers brought him to Capo Terya, on the West coast of Japan.|
I didn’t buy the Japanizing paraphernalia either. I found it a bit clichéd, the landlord, the geisha, the secret traditions. I also thought the double silent love story really hard to believe. Two women silently pining for dull Hervé Joncour? Come on!
I suppose it’s a go/no-go kind of book, like a Paulo Coelho. Either you fall for it or you don’t. Well, I didn’t but I understand that some do. I felt no emotion when it is clear that its aim was beauty and emotion. I expected better than that from such a praised writer. Has anyone read it?
Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino. 1966. French title: Une âme perdue. Not translated into English.
Il me semble que je ne pourrai aborder aucun autre secret, que rien d’autre ne m’arrivera, sinon la répétition plus ou moins identique de cette histoire, la seule que le monde des adultes a su m’offrir en guise d’apprentissage. It seems I will never be able to take another secret, that nothing will ever happen to me other than the repetition more of less identical of this story, the only one the world of adults gave me as a coming-of-age experience.
Tino is 17. It’s Turin, the first week of July in the 1960s. Tino is an orphan who usually lives in a boarding school. Now he’s staying at his aunt Galla’s house for a week because his taking his maturita. (Baccalauréat in French, A-Level in English). Tino is a good student, he’s not really worried about the exam. He’s a sensitive teenager though and aunt Galla’s house makes him nervous. This novella is the journal of this decisive week, the week he finishes high school, enters adulthood with forceps and without anaesthesia.
Indeed, Aunt Galla and her husband Uncle Serafino are an odd pair. She’s the typical 1960s housewife:
Tante Galla voue une véritable adoration à son mari. Elle ne l’appelle jamais par son prénom, mais par son titre d’ingénieur, elle le suit, le surveille, le regarde de bas en haut tel un gros chien fidèle, toujours prêt à lui faire fête, qui jappe et agite les breloques que son maître lui a attachées au cou. Aunt Galla worships her husband. She never calls him by his Christian name, only by his title, engineer. She follows him, hovers over him, watches him from down to top like a big faithful dog, always ready to greet him eagerly, a dog who yelps and shakes the charms her master hung on her neck.
I can easily imagine her waiting for him to come back from work, holding his slippers and the evening paper. She has no mind of her own, she sees life through the adoring eyes of the obedient wife. But Tino doesn’t share his aunt’s blinded admiration for Uncle Serafino:
Oncle Serafino ne m’a jamais semblé être un homme.Comment m’expliquer? On dirait un être humain encore inachevé, un acteur arraché à son masque, à ses fards, à ses déguisements. Ou alors un homme qui brûle secrètement de sortir de lui-même et qui n’exhibe sa personne, les fragments minuscules de son cocon mortel dans lequel on l’a enfermé, qu’au prix d’une douleur et d’une humiliation constante. To me, Uncle Serafino never seemed to be a man.How can I explain? He looks like an incomplete human being, an actor broken off from his mask, his make-up, his costumes. Or a human being who secretly burns to come out of himself and who only shows his self, the minuscule fragments of his mortal cocoon in which he has been locked at the price of a constant pain and steady humiliation.
Not keen on meeting Uncle Serafino, are you? From the start, the reader is caught in the strange atmosphere of the household. Tino knows that Serafino’s twin brother has been locked in a room in the top floor of the house for the last twenty-five years. He’s the professor and only Uncle Serafino takes care of him. He takes into account all his needs: he bathes him, buys him clothes, brings him food, distraction and even hires a prostitute every week. When Uncle Serafino is at work, Aunt Galla spies on her brother-in-law through the peep-hole. Tino is invited to have a look too and he almost feels sick. The scene is poignant and a bit chilling. I thought “That’s the sequel of The Metamorphosis, although the professor isn’t a beetle. But it’s what Gregor Samsa would be after twenty-five years locked in a room, hidden away from the outside world”.
The house plays a role in the story too. It’s well-described and I saw the painting by Henri Magritte, L’empire des lumières. A strange feeling comes from this house full of corridors, unused spared rooms filled with broken objects and detritus. One description also reminded me of the room Malte Laurids Brigge used to go to in his family house. It’s disturbing. The garden is unkempt, the veranda is rusted, plants have grown wild and hide the door from the garden to the street. It’s like a beast that swallows things and human beings and doesn’t gives them back. Aunt Galla seldom goes out and never receives anyone. Tino is tempted to lock himself in his room at night, especially now that he knows that the professor’s room is right above his. Poor sleepless Tino.
L’heure de dormir avait tourné comme un aliment aigre. Pour éviter le lit, pour réprimer toute régurgitation de peurs et de pensées, j’ai repris mes livres et ouvert une page ça et là.
Bed time had turned sour like damaged food. To avoid my bed, to repress any regurgitation of fears and thoughts, I grabbed my text books and opened a page here and there.
I thought Arpino’s style excellent. Like here, he has a way to make you feel Tino’s emotion and angst.
De nouveau, le silence.Je ferme les yeux. Mes paupières ne me protègent pas de la lumière, le sommeil chemine dans mon corps mais se dissipe une fois parvenu à la hauteur de mes tempes. Cependant, je suis si fatigué que la peur n’a plus de prise sur moi: on dirait qu’elle m’a abandonné; et puis, ce n’est plus cette peur qui m’assaillait le cœur et les nerfs, c’est une peur dilatée qui stagne dans l’air de la chambre, dans toutes les fissures de cette maison. And again, the silence.I close my eyes. My eyelids don’t protect me from the light, sleep walks along my body but dispels once it reaches my temples. However, I’m so tired that fear has no hold on me: it seems it abandoned me. And also, it’s no more this fear that assailed my heart and my nerves, it’s a dilated fear that stagnates in the air of the room, in all the cracks of this house.
It reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, the unsettling mixture of detachment and terrible circumstances. I haven’t read a lot of Italian literature but it seems to me that heat is always an important side character. Here it is too. It distorts Tino’s perception, it slows his mind, it disturbs his sleep and makes him tired and thus more vulnerable to events.
I won’t tell you the secret of this house but it’s lurking. It’s the story of a teenager who came to the big city full of expectation, willing to see the world and who faces disappointment and ugliness. There is no fairy tale, no gold, only lead. He is thrown to the other side of the mirror, to the world of adults, without clues and there is no coming back.
It’s only the fourth of Arpino‘s novels to be translated into French. It’s not available in English, sorry, but another of his books, Scent of a Woman was translated by Anne Milano Appel.
The Good Anna by Gertrude Stein. 1909. Translated into French by Raymond Schwab. (La brave Anna)
I’ve been to the exhibition Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… The Stein Family, in Paris. It tells the story of the Stein family and their incredible impact on arts at the beginning of the 20th Century. I thought it was a good opportunity to discover Gertrude Stein as a writer. Wandering in the museum library, I came across The Good Anna, a novella excerpted from the collection Three Lives.
The Good Anna relates the life and death of an American servant of German origin.
The good Anna was a small, spare, German woman, at this time about forty years of age. Her face was worn, her cheeks were thin, her mouth drawn and firm and her light blue eyes were very bright. Sometimes there were full of lightning and sometimes full of humor, but they were always sharp and clear.
She lives a simple life, has a simple but domineering mind. She likes to run her master’s house her own way. This is why Anna always chooses bachelors or spinsters as an employer. She selects fat and lazy women who won’t interfere in her ways. She can do as she pleases. Anna is stubborn, full of principles, scorns the people and animal she loves and don’t behave according to her standards. Her set of rules emphasizes on chastity, hygiene and hard work.
The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline
She’s a caretaker though but she can only express her concern through tough love and rough advice. Her life is at other people’s service. Her mistresses, her friends, her family benefit from her energetic work and thrifty demeanor. She’s the kind of generous woman who meddles with your life when she cares for you. She’s the personification of the phrase Hell is paved with good intentions. If you’re an independent and free mind, you feel guilty if you hold a grudge against her because she means well but she gets on your nerves.
The story reminded me of A Simple Heart by Flaubert and I think the reference is intentional. On the one hand, A Simple Heart is a novella included in a volume entitled Three Tales just as The Good Anna is a part of Three Lives. On the second hand, Gertrude Stein nudges the reader in that direction when one of Anna’s employers gives her a parrot. But unlike Félicité, Anna never gets attached to the parrot, preferring her old dog Baby.
The story isn’t new but it’s interesting to read about a servant who’s obliging but not servile. Anna knows her temper and is lucid enough to get around the problem and choose the appropriate masters. I couldn’t help thinking: if Anna had been a man, what kind of life would she have had with such a character?
I’ve learnt at the exhibition that Gertrude Stein’s style was influenced by her relationship with painters. She makes an abundant use of adjectives like touches of paint on a painting. Matisse painted with large and colorful strokes. Stein depicts characters and situation with verbal strokes made of adjectives.
An earthly, uncouth, servile peasant creature old Katy surely was. She stood there on the white stone steps of the little red brick house, with her bony, square dull head with its thin, tanned, toughened skin and its sparse and kinky grizzled hair, and her strong, squat figure a little overmade on the right side, clothed in her blue striped cotton dress, all clean and always washed but rough and harsh to see.
It’s not unpleasant but a little raw, straightforward. Fauve?
Picasso painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, de-structuring the usual perspective. In the meanwhile, she was making attempts with the structure of phrases.
|Miss Mathilde passait l’océan chaque été et restait absente plusieurs mois.||Miss Mathilda every summer went away across the ocean to be gone several months.|
I’ve read the novella in French, in a 1954 translation by Raymond Schwab. The sentence puzzled me and I wanted to know how the English sounded like. Doesn’t it sound unusual in English too? Anyway it’s more comprehensible in English than in French. And that one?
|Elle ne comprenait pas ce qu’Anna voulait dire par ce qu’elle avait dit.||She did not understand what Anna meant by what she said.|
In other times, the phrases sounded strange, but only in French, which means the translation isn’t that good.
|Maintenant tous les emballages étaient faits et dans quelques jours Miss Mary devait aller dans la nouvelle maison, où les jeunes gens étaient prêts à la recevoir.||All the packing was now done and in a few days Miss Mary was to go to the new house, where the young people were ready for her coming.|
And I’m not even speaking of translating names and including long forgotten French references such as Uniprix, which always irritates me. I see the point of translating nicknames but changing Peter into Pierre sounds unnecessary and even disturbing.
I enjoyed reading The Good Anna but I’m not in a rush to read another book by her. In any case, I’ll read it in English, that French translation was too bad. I knew she was a writer but couldn’t name one of her books, so now I can. I’m more impressed by her influence as an art patron than by her literary talent. However, I’m glad I‘ve read it and I’m more than grateful for her impact on painting and support to painters.
The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) 189 pages.
Alexandros Papadiamantis is one of the greatest Greek writers of his time. His work is mostly composed of short-stories and a few novels, among those The Murderess. I came across this author when I researched books for my EU Book Tour. How happy I am to have started that whimsical project! I would have never found this book on my own and it’s a real gem.
The Murderess is set in a rural island in Greece, the ones you imagine when you think about that country: sparkling turquoise sea, white houses, chapels, sheep and steep paths in the mountains. Alexandros Papadiamantis excels at describing the landscape, the scent of wild flowers and herbs under the sun, the pure springs, the shepherds with their sheep.
The main protagonist is Khadoula, also named Francoyannou or Yannou. She’s around 60. When the novel begins, she’s staying up at nights at her daughter’s house to watch her newborn grand-daughter. The deliverance has been difficult, both mother and baby are weak. During her sleepless nights, she starts thinking about her life:
Et là, à force de réfléchir et de rappeler en son esprit son existence entière, elle découvrait qu’elle n’avait jamais fait que vivre dans la servitude.
Jeune fille, elle avait été la domestique de ses parents. Une fois mariée, elle était devenue l’esclave de son mari – et pourtant, par l’effet de son propre caractère et de la faiblesse de l’autre, elle était en même temps sa tutrice. Quand ses enfants étaient nés, elle s’était faite leur servante; et maintenant qu’ils avaient à leur tour des enfants, voici qu’elle se trouvait asservie à ses petits-enfants.
And then, thinking hard and calling back in her mind her whole existence, she discovered she has only lived in servitude.
As a young girl, she had been her parents’ maid. Once married, she had become her husband’s slave and however, due to her own character and the weakness of his, she had also been his tutor. When her children were born, she had become their maid. And now that they had children too, she was enslaved to her grand-children.
Francoyannou was raised by a mean mother and a weak father who gave her as a dowry the less valuable of all their assets. Their avarice or perhaps simply their lack of love and generosity settled their daughter in poverty and obliged her to work hard to earn a living and build a house. They also married her to a simpleton. Her husband was so stupid he couldn’t calculate the amount of his wages and she had to interfere either to make sure he got paid correspondingly to the work done or that he didn’t drink their money. On this island, all the valuable men emigrate and are like dead to their families. They don’t write, they don’t come back and they never send money. Francoyannou’s two older sons emigrated and thus are of no support. She had to work hard to earn the dowry she gave to her daughter Delcharo, the one who just had a baby. And “what for?”, she thinks when she sees her loud and incapable son-in-law. She knows she can’t afford the same dowry for her two other daughters; they’ll have to be spinsters.
Looking back on her life, she doubts her life was worth the effort. She comes to a simple conclusion: being a woman is a curse, having daughters is a malediction. She looks at her grand-daughter and thinks that if she died now, her parents would be freed from raising her and sacrificing for her dowry. If she died now, she wouldn’t have to go through that life of servitude, she’d be an angel in the Kingdom of God. If Francoyannou helped fate and smothered the baby, it would look like she choked to death. One thought leading to the other, Francoyannou becomes sure it is the best solution. She kills the baby. She feels empowered by her action. For the first time maybe, she leads her life instead of reacting and adjusting to events and other people. It’s exhilarating. Will this baby be her only victim?
Francoyannou is a complex character. She’s a respected member of her community for her capacities, her compassion and the help she provides to others. Indeed, Francoyannou knows all kinds of herbs and works as a midwife. She can provoke abortions and wishes she could find a sterility herb. She’s everywhere, compassionate, healing neighbours, helping with laundry, working all the time to make money and survive. She’s also very religious and superstitious. She’s certain that Jesus sent her signs, approving her lethal deeds. She’s not crazy, she’s practical. Her compassion makes her cross the line.
Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote a fantastic novel on the condition of the women of that time. They aren’t really considered as citizens and yet do all the job, running households, working very hard and helping each other. They are never thanked or respected for it. Papadiamantis denounces the side-effects of emigration. It is a catastrophe for this island as it empties the native land from the most valuable men. Only the lazy, the stupid and the drunkards remain, making bad husbands and fathers. Only the shepherds are pictured as nice men. I also wonder why these emigrants never came back or sent money. Usually emigrants send money back home, helping the local economy. It was the case for Italian emigrants in America or Algerians in France.
Papadiamantis also questions old customs and the yoke they put on families. Dowries are above their means and yet mandatory for your daughter to get married. It costs them everything and prevents them from enriching from one generation to the other. As a consequence, having too many daughters is a curse. I had never heard of such a custom in a European country at the beginning of the 20th C and not among poor people. For me the question of dowries was linked to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. I’ve heard of such customs in India though.
Papadiamantis also depicts very well the parallel economy driven by poverty. Women have no profession but do many small jobs to earn money or get paid in nature.
Despite her horrible actions, I could understand and pity Francoyannou. It’s so desperate. Of course, murder is condemnable but Papadiamantis shows very well the net of obligations that led her to this horrible conclusion: Girls are a burden for their families and will live as servants all their life. Girls’ lives aren’t worth living. Sad and chilling. I highly recommend it.
Here is another review by Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes.