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.