No Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson – A great polar

February 17, 2019 3 comments

Not Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson (2015) French title: Sans lendemain. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I discovered Jake Hinkson at Quais du Polar and here’s the short biography he gave them for the festival’s website: I was raised by Christian fundamentalists in the mountains of Arkansas. I used to smuggle forbidden crime novels into Bible camp. If Jim Thompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel, I would be their offspring.

Now that you aware of this, you won’t be surprised that Hell on Church Street was a disturbing story set in a Christian fundamentalists’ community in Arkansas and that No Tomorrow is also (mostly) set in Arkansas and that a fundamentalist preacher plays an important part in the story. No Tomorrow starts like this:

The person being warned against going to Arkansas is Billie Dixon. We’re in the summer 1947 and she works for a B-movies studio in Hollywood. She’s in charge of selling or renting their films to local theatres in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. She’s trying to sell films in a part of the Bible Belt.

As you can imagine, Billie Dixon doesn’t take this friendly advice and drives to Stock’s Settlement, Arkansas. The name of the town itself sounds like rural America. She discovers that the town is under the rule of a preacher, Henshaw. He is against cinema and Claude Jeter, the owner of the only movie theatre in Stock’s Settlement is out of business. There’s no way he can rent films to Billie’s employer.

She decides to go and meet Henshaw in a futile attempt to convince him that films are harmless entertainment and that he should allow them in Stock’s Settlement. This is how Billie Dixon meets her femme fatale, Amberly Henshaw. She’s the preacher’s wife and seems imprisoned in her religion-driven life. Bille and Amberly are attracted to each other and have one-afternoon stand.

It will be enough for Billie to come back to Stock’s Settlement to see Amberly again and get entangled in her predicament. Clearly, the preacher is in the way of their relationship and how convenient could it be if he died?

Imagine a lesbian affair in 1947 in Arkansas, a place where homosexuality was a criminal act at the time. (According to Wikipedia, homosexuality was a criminal act in Arkansas until 2002. In France, it was decriminalized in 1981.) Imagine the small town atmosphere and the contrast between Billie’s Hollywood life and Amberly’s life in Stock’s Settlement, a place where they’d rather have a mentally challenged elected sheriff flanked by his sister as a secretary than actually elect the sister as sheriff, something impossible because she’s a woman.

No Tomorrow is a great reading trip, taking you in the realm of classic Hollywood, neo-noir, with murders, road trips and femmes fatales. I think that the French cover reflects the atmosphere of the book, a polar that crime fiction aficionados will probably like. I don’t know if the designer of the American cover actually read the book. It totally lacks the vintage atmosphere that is at the core of Hinkson’s novel. If you saw the two covers in the bookstore, which one would draw your attention?

I read No Tomorrow in one sitting, like you watch a good movie. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France in 2018 and Jake Hinkson is published by Gallmeister. As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is outstanding. She always manages to transfer the American language vibe into French.

Highly recommended.

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 22 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis – Insightful

February 3, 2019 10 comments

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (2018) Original French title: Qui a tué mon père.

Ta vie prouve que nous ne sommes pas ce que nous faisons, mais qu’au contraire nous sommes ce que nous n’avons pas fait, parce que le monde ou la société, nous en a empêchés. Parce que ce que Didier Eribon appelle des verdicts se sont abattus sur nous, gay, trans, femme, noir, pauvre, et qu’ils nous ont rendu certaines vies, certaines expériences, certains rêves, inacessibles. Your life proves that we are not what we do but in the contrary, we are what we haven’t done because the world or society was in the way. Because what Didier Eribon calls sentences have descended upon us, gays, trans, women, black or poor and these sentences have made some lives, some experiences or some dreams unreachable to us.

Who Killed My Father is a short non-fiction book by Edouard Louis, the young author of The End of Eddy. It was published on May 3rd, 2018, the exact date is relevant. Edouard Louis is also a graduate of EHESS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Sociology is his territory.

In Who Killed My Father, he comes back to his complicated relationship with his father and his social background. We understand that his father had to stop working because of a work-related accident, that his back is wrecked and that his life has been even tougher than what is described in The End of Eddy.

This short non-fiction opus is a description of the social violence done to his father and by extension, to a large part of the working class. He describes the impact of public decisions on social benefits from his father’s perspective. Through snippets of life, we see what political decisions make on the life of a man broken by hard working conditions. He gives specific examples, gives the names of the politicians who promoted a particular measure and throws them back what this or that decision entailed for the recipients of social benefits or for poor workers.

This is his father. He’s a representative of an important part of the population whose life conditions are degraded after liberal capitalism won the economic sphere and politics became a synonym of managing short-term finances.

Describing how his father was forced to take a job that was not compatible with his health condition, he rocks the boat of the generally admitted law that any job is better than no job. It becomes an excuse to accept with jobs with appalling working conditions. At the Davos summit, Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director mentioned her meeting with poultry workers in the US who had to wear nappies because they had no toilet breaks. I didn’t ven know it was legal. Shocking, right? But not surprising when you’ve read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison.

The end of Who Killed My Father is the following:

Le mois dernier, quand je suis venu te voir, avant que je parte, tu m’as demandé : « Tu fais encore de la politique ? » — le mot encore faisait référence à ma première année de lycée, quand j’avais adhéré à un parti d’extrême gauche et qu’on s’était disputés parce que tu pensais que j’allais avoir des ennuis avec la justice à force de participer à des manifestations illégales. Je t’ai dit « Oui, de plus en plus. » Tu as laissé passer trois ou quatre secondes, tu m’as regardé et enfin tu as dit : « Tu as raison. Tu as raison, je crois qu’il faudrait une bonne révolution » Last month, when I came to visit, before I left you asked me: “Are you still involved in politics?” – the word still referred to my freshman year of high school, when I subscribed to an extreme-left political party and when we argued about it because you thought I’d end up in trouble with the law with my participation to illegal demonstrations. I told you “Yes, I am. More than ever”. You let three or four seconds pass, you looked at me and finally said: “You’re right. You’re right, I think we need a good old revolution”

Publication date: May 2018. Beginning of the Yellow Vests movement: November 2018. Genuine participants to this movement: people like Edouard Louis’s father.

I read Who Killed My Father before the movement started. It stayed with me because it hit me right in the face. Edouard Louis sometimes irritates me, and certainly, he’s got his own issues. But I think it’s good for the country to have thinkers who come from the working class and who understand things that are oblivious to the ruling bourgeoisie because this reality is simply not part of their quotidian.

I wondered what Edouard Louis thought of the Yellow Vests movement and I found a great article here at The Inrocks.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

Bookish news in my small world

January 26, 2019 20 comments

Over the last few weeks, I have gathered miscellaneous bookish things I wanted to share with you. They caught my attention during my daily life activities and stayed with me.

Literary events

Angouleme BD festival

This weekend is the Festival de Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême. It’s the 46th edition of this festival dedicated to BD, a French acronym that covers comics, graphic novels, manga… The Grand Prix of the Angoulême festival has been awarded to Rumiko Takahashi, the Japanese author of mangas. Did you know that France is the second market in the world for mangas? (After Japan, of course) 18 million of mangas were sold in France in 2017 and it represents 38% of the BD sales in France. We are unique in the Western world for this and it started with my generation. We watched manga cartoons on TV and we were hooked.

 Fête du Livre de Bron – a festival for contemporary literature.

It’s organized from March 6th to 10th, 2019. Oliver Gallmeister will give a lecture, Nature Writing, une tradition anglo-saxonne. I hope I can attend this as I’m curious to hear this wonderful publisher of American literature.

Quais du Polar – March 29th – March 31st.

I have my subscription to Quais du Polar! Nordic Crime will be celebrate during the 15th edition of this cime fiction festival. I received my badge, my two free books and now I need to browse through the writers that will be invited and see if I have one of their book on the shelf already.

Translations

Good news! Il reste la poussière by Sandrine Collette is now translated into English. It’s published by Europa Editions and it’s entitled Nothing But Dust. See Claire’s review here.

Other great news, La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will be available in English in September. It will be The Godmother, in a Coppola sense, not the Disney one. It will be published by Old Street Publishing.

I also stumbled upon a German translation of Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I hope it’ll make it into English one of these days.

Economy and Literature.

When literature takes interest in economy and vice versa.

I’ve started to read the number 79 of the magazine L’Economie politique as it is about literature and economy and how the two interacts. Some articles are more difficult than others, I’m not done yet. I didn’t know that Robinson Crusoe was used in economy theories. I enjoyed the article about writers and the literature and book market. I’m looking forward to reading the one about economy and Zola.

I’m not going to post a billet about it. Sometimes I struggle to understand the content in French, so writing a summary of it in English is insuperable.

When the French tax law for 2019 favors independent bookstores.

When browsing through the tax changes voted last December, I stumbled upon an article about new tax exemptions for independent bookstores. Chain stores are not in the scope of this law and I’m happy our deputies voted texts to protect our network of independent bookstores.

 

America – A French magazine

America is a magazine founded by François Busnel and Eric Fottorino. It started when Trump was elected as president and it is meant to last the four years of his presidency. Each magazine has a theme to make us discover America. François Busnel is best known in France as the presenter of the weekly literary live TV show La Grande Librairie. It’s a famous TV program in France, one that managed to gather 841 000 viewers on December 11, 2018 and keeps getting high ratings for that kind of show.

America includes long interviews of writers, reportages by French and American writers, a chronology of events in Trump’s America, beautiful illustrations and pictures. It’s a gorgeous magazine, the right mix of long articles and news in brief, of contemporary writers and older ones, of literature, cinema and TV.

This quarter’s number is about race in America, it opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and includes a long interview by Russel Banks, a text by James Baldwin and other reportages and interviews.

Silence, on lit!

Quiet! We’re reading, that’s the meaning of Silence! On lit. It’s a charity devoted to developing reading in schools. The idea is simple: everyday students read at the same time during 15 minutes. The middle schools (collèges) have arranged their schedule around this new reading time. Any reading material is allowed: books, magazines, BDs…Anything. The whole school gets quiet during 15 minutes as all the students in all the classrooms are reading what they chose to read. The repetition helps improving at reading. It’s a real success where it’s implemented. New readers emerged and for the others, it’s a quiet time to settle down after other activities and be ready to learn something else after.

It’s a charity, and of course, they need money to buy more books for school libraries because they need a bigger stock of books if all the students read at the same time and want to borrow something from the library. I like their idea a lot, because 15 minutes is not long and I think that their small steps approach is interesting and takes reading down from its pedestal of intellectual activity.

Libraries Without Borders

Libraries Without Borders is a French charity whose aim is to help alphabetization and promote access to culture and education through libraries. They work locally in 30 countries.

In France, they were recently involved in La nuit de la lecture. (Reading night). Libraries Without Borders gave book bags to a group of migrant children. French children from Alsace prepared personalized book bags for each child, as a welcome to France and the French language gift. For my Australian readers, have a look at what they do for Aboriginal communities. (Here)

Why this billet? you might ask

I know there are tons of initiatives to foster reading, to improve literacy or to build bridges between communities. There are also tons of book festivals everywhere in France. All the events, actions and news I shared are just drops in this ocean of literary-oriented activities. But they were the drops that brightened the world news I heard every day.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 25 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

My 2018 reading year in twelve books

January 6, 2019 36 comments

In 2018, I read or started a total of 55 books, not a lot compared to other bloggers. It’s stable from one year to the other, I guess that one book per week is all I can manage. I abandoned five of them either because I didn’t like them or because they were too difficult to read. It was a good reading year, but not outstanding.

After showing you some of my 2018 bookish moments and wrapping up my year of reading Australia, allow me to share my twelve favorite reads of the year.

Best atmospheric crime fiction: The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

I loved being in New Orleans with Dave Robicheaux and I want to go to Louisiana now.

Best companion book: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud retells the story from Camus’s famous classic The Stranger from the Algerian perspective and gives a thought-provoking vision of colonization and post-colonial Algeria. A punch-in-the-gut book, important to read along the original.

Best political crime fiction: Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu

I hope, I really hope that Spada will be translated into English because it shows the underbelly of political communication and how the exploitation of a crime in the media transform politicians into pyromaniacs who set the country on fire.

Best oxymoron book: The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

A banker’s speech that will convince you that indeed, no one is more anarchist than this bourgeois banker. Incredible. Funny as hell.

Best coming-of-age novel: The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

I’m not sure it’s really a coming-of-age novella, since I’m not good at putting books in neat literary boxes. The Poor Man’s Son gives a good vision of life in poor Algerian villages during the French colonization. It’s based on the writer’s own experience.

Best almost-feminist book: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sad story of two sisters, one who follows the expected path of marriage and motherhood and the other who tries to break free of this yoke.

Best African-French book: Small Country by Gaël Faye

Gaël Faye relates his own story as a child in Burundi when the civil war starts in Burundi and during the genocide in Rwanda. Poignant.

Best crazy serious book: The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis

How a doctor who wants to cure madness turns a city into a madhouse inside and outside his psychatric ward. Voltaire would have loved this. It’ll make you laugh and think.

Best Australian literary fiction: I, For Isobel by Amy Witting

Also a coming-of-age story, I guess. Isobel is trying to find her independance and shake off her childhood to become her own person. It’s a well-drawn story of a young girl who loves to read in a family who doesn’t value books and tries to smother her personality.

Best I-want-to-give-it-to-all-my-friends book: The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

I loved The Tin Flute for the accurate and loving depiction of working-class neighborhoods in Montreal during WWII. It’s really a shame that there is no recent English translation of it. English speaking Canadians are missing out on an excellent book.

Best end-of-my-world book: The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Poor Trotta lives through the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and cannot recover from it. Neither could Roth. Don’t read it as historical fiction to learn historical facts but more to see what history does to a man.

Best book to raise awareness about a sensitive topic: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss

Very brave indigenous Australians share with us their personal experience of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. They come from the whole country, from various backgrounds and are of all ages. It helps the reader understand what racist barbs and ingrained prejudices do to the people who receive them right in their faces. Powerful.

I’ve already talked about my project to read American literature in 2019 in my Happy New Year billet. I will read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia in May. Join us if you want to.

For the rest, I hope to read more Australian lit and books from the TBR. I really need to read more from it than I buy books otherwise I’ll end up in the same position as this year: the TBR is as high as the end of the year as it was at the beginning. Only its composition has changed… Oh well, there are worst things in life!

To live without reading is dangerous. You’d have to believe what people tell you.

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