Cheese by Willem Elschott. 1933. French title: Fromage (Translated from the Dutch by Xavier Hanotte)
|Pour aborder les problèmes sérieux, le lit conjugal me paraît l’endroit le plus approprié. Là au moins, on est seul avec son épouse. Les couvertures amortissent les voix, l’obscurité favorise la réflexion et puisqu’on ne peut pas se voir, aucune des deux parties n’est soumise à l’émotion de son interlocuteur. Là, on aborde toute ce qu’on n’ose pas vraiment dire à visage découvert, et ce fut donc là que, bien allongé sur mon côté droit, après un silence inaugural, j’annonçais à ma femme que j’allais devenir négociant.||To tackle with serious issues, the conjugal bed always seems the most appropriate place. There, at least, you’re alone with your wife. The blankets cover the voices, the darkness makes thinking easier and since you can’t see each other, no party is subjected to the emotions of the other. There you can deal with anything you can’t say face to face. So this is where, lying on my right side and after an inaugural silence, that I disclosed to my wife that I was becoming a merchant. (My translation)
Last year I visited Brussels and of course ended up in a bookstore. I wanted to read something Belgian that wasn’t a comic book. That’s where I bought Cheese by Willem Elschott, attracted by the title and the quote by Le Monde saying “C’est Woody Allen au pays du gouda. Un véritable regal!” (It’s Woody Allen in the land of Gouda cheese. A real treat) The sole mention of Woody Allen would have sold me the book. The cheese did the rest.
The other day Max told us about his days as a pick-and-mix employee. I had mine as a fromage à la coupe employee. It’s working in a supermarket and sell cheese that you cut on demand for customers. That’s probably a French thing. While I was fulfilling my school obligation to have a sales internship, I learnt several things about cheese: Roquefort leaks, Munster leaves your fingers stinking and Holland cheeses are bloody difficult to cut, especially mature Mimolette. But back to the book.
Frans Laarsmans works as a clerk at General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerp. When his mother dies, he strikes an acquaintance with Mr Van Schoonbeke, a friend of his brother Dr Laarmans. Frans becomes a frequent visitor at Van Schoonbeke’s house where he mingles among bourgeois from Antwerp. They’re out of his league, he struggles to keep up with them and Van Schoonbeke pushes him to become the sales representative of the Dutch firm Hornstra in Belgium and Luxemburg.
|C’était sans doute un peu cavalier de sa part, car à mon avis, personne n’avait le droit de voir en moi l’homme de la situation avant que je ne m’y sois vu.||It was without a doubt a bit cheeky from him. In my opinion, no one had the right to see the man of the situation in le before I’d seen myself as such. (my translation)
A little pushing from Van Schoonbeke and here’s our Frans loaded with ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses to sell in his sales territory. The poor man doesn’t even like cheese. The novel relates with a great sense of humour the adventures of a clerk in the land of commerce. Frans is our narrator and his candidness shows that he’s totally delusional about the world he lives in. Frans is completely at loss as how to start the business, cover the territory. He knows nothing about selling, visiting clients, setting up a sales plan and shipping cheeses. The Edam whole cheeses are heavy and he’s barely able to lift one. He has no client database and knows nothing about sales techniques.
This new experience as a cheese merchant after a 30 year time as a clerk will be an eye opener. Frans is a funny character but not always likeable. He loves his wife but despises her…on principle, because she’s a woman. He’s not much impressed by his teenage children even he’s a loving father. He didn’t think much about his former job but will discover a side of his colleagues he never imagined. His wife is a lot less stupid than he thought and his children are supportive in his new career.
In appearance it’s light and funny. Yet it shows in a comical way all Frans’ flaws and it lashes out on the bourgeois society in Antwerp who need to puff up their members to respect them. Status is a virtue in itself. Without Van Schoombeke’s shame of Frans being a simple clerk, he wouldn’t have suggested that he started a business. It was written in the 1930s but so many details are still true about people avid search for status and about business practices.
Bref, I had a lot of fun reading this little gem and I have a new incentive to put a photogenic grin on your face : “Read Cheese !”
PS: The English cover is a lot better than the French. It represents the book: Frans overwhelmed by a huge quantity of cheese.
The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)
|François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ».||François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)|
You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.
Eveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?
It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.
Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.
Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.
So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?
In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.
Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.
The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.
Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.
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.