The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

October 7, 2018 21 comments

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. (1976) French title: Easter Parade. 

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If you had any hope to have Richard Yates cheer you up with his Easter Parade, he crushes it with the first sentence of his novel. The said Grimes sisters are Sarah and Emily. After they parents got divorced, they went to live with their mother Esther and only met their father on weekends. The Easter Parade feels like a long-term documentary about the destiny of two sisters raised by parents who failed them.

Their father is a ghost figure working in a small position at a newspaper, a job he puffs up in order to look better in the eyes of his daughters. Their mother doesn’t do motherly and thinks she belongs to a better social class that the one she belongs to.

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.”

Her nickname gives her away. She yearns for style and class but doesn’t have it. This means that the girls are raised by a delusional woman who has a deceptive idea of their place in the world. Pookie lives in a world where fish need bicycles; in other words, her daughters need to get married. She pushes them in this direction, as would have done any other mother of that time.

It’s exactly what Sarah does, marrying a dashing young neighbor and settling into an unhappy marriage. We’ll follow her grim life over the decades, mostly through Emily’s eyes. Yates pays more attention to Emily. She’s brilliant enough to get into Barnard College on a scholarship. She doesn’t settle down with a man, working in an office in Manhattan and going from one failed liaison to the other.

As mentioned before, neither of them finds happiness.

This is where writing a billet months after reading a book becomes handy. A couple of months after The Easter Parade, I read I, For Isobel by Amy Witting.

And it struck me that Emily and Isobel’s stories have lots in common. Both have been raised by a mother who first wore the trousers in their marriage and then had to raise their children on their own. Both Isobel and Emily have a sister they love but have no affinity with. They work in an office and on their own in the city. They love to read and have intellectual abilities that single them out in their families.

One distressing thing Emily learned in college was to feel more intelligent than her sister. She had felt more intelligent than her mother for years, but that was different; when it happened with Sarah she felt she had betrayed a trust.

I think Isobel felt more intelligent than her mother and sister as well and that her mother knew it. It fueled her resentment towards her daughter. Pookie just knew she didn’t understand Emily. Isobel and Emily are bright and they have an intelligence that doesn’t agree well with the average fate of women in their social class. They cannot be satisfied with what’s ahead of them.

Isobel and Emily aren’t interested in a career as a housewife. They’re not ready to get married, raise kids and be their husband’s sidekick. They have this intellectual side, this interest in books that opened the doors to another world, a world of knowledge. It’s what happens to Isobel when she meets a group of students at a café and this is how Emily feels at Barnard:

School was the center of her life. She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment.

They have higher expectations than their sisters because their intelligence tells them that there’s more to life than being a wife and a mother. And in their time and in their social class, it was usually impossible to have a career, be married and have children. And as a consequence, they have to choose and their choice is their freedom and they’re like fish out of water in their social class.

The most striking difference between the two stories is the ending. There’s hope for Isobel but not for Sarah. I, For Isobel was written by a woman who started to write later in life and there’s probably a lot of her personal experience in Isobel. She’s gentle with her character.

I disliked how Yates ended The Easter Parade for Emily, for me it was a letdown. And I couldn’t help wondering if being a man made him write such an ending. It felt like a cliché to warn women who dare to go out of the traditional way. ‘See what happens when you try to live like a man’.

If you’ve read The Easter Parade, how did you feel about it and the ending in particular?

There are a lot of things to explore in this short novel. It questions happiness, how to recognize it, how fleeting it is, like a parade. It also tells us how parents influence their children with their behavior, their vision of life. Sarah and Emily had flawed parents who were unhappy with their life, for different reasons. Even if it’s true because our parents shape us, we are not doomed to replay the same mistakes than our parents or be unhappy because of bad wiring in our childhood. I am more optimistic than that or maybe I want to be because I don’t want to think of the unintentional baggage I’m loading my children with.

My billet is long enough, I won’t spend too much time on raving about Yates’s style. It’s terrific, exactly the kind of writing I love. With a few strokes of his brush, you can see a character, like here: His wife Edna was pleasant and plump and drank a good deal of sherry. It’s also very visual and I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Hopper’s paintings when I read this description:

So they went to the main house without her. It was built of white clapboard too, and it was long and ugly—three stories high in some places and two in others, with black-roofed gables jutting into the trees. The first thing that hit you when you went inside was the smell of mildew. It seeped from the brown oil paintings in the vestibule, from the creaking floor and carpets and walls and gaunt furniture of the long, dark living room.

The bittersweet tone of the book, the clever picture of an era through the lives of two sisters all wrapped in a precise literary style make of The Easter Parade a highly recommended book.

For another vision of The Easter Parade, see Jacqui’s review here and Max’s review here.

PS: Once again, I’ll call a book cover a disaster. It’s more Angela’s Ashes than The Easter Parade.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 30 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 32 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

September 2, 2018 31 comments

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa (1922) French title: Le banquier anarchiste. Translated from the Portuguese by Françoise Laye.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa is a novella in which a banker explains to his audience why he is a true anarchist. It has been on my TBW (To Be Written) since April. Why? Mostly because I didn’t know how to write about it. So, it’s Catch 22. I can’t write about it properly but if I don’t, I’ll break my cardinal rule which is “write about all the books you read”.

I feel that if I start allowing myself to skip a billet, other books will be left behind as well. Where does that leave me? I still can’t write a passable billet about The Anarchist Banker but I can’t procrastinate anymore.

Solution? A short cut.

Read this witty, incredible novella where a banker will demonstrate with a lot of self-assurance that he is the only genuine anarchist in the world. If anarchist banker wasn’t such an oxymoron, the reader could believe in the banker’s reasoning.

He demonstrates that anarchism is a good system but since it’s impossible to implement, in the end the only possible system is the bourgeois system.

Pessoa has a fantastic sense of humour. His tone is both light and serious, the man totally convinced by his brilliant reasoning. He’s so ridiculous in his beliefs that it enhances the comedy of situation. This is something that could have been written by a philosophe from the Age of Enlightenment, like Montesquieu.

It is also a fascinating book to read when you think about politics and politicians. It makes you realize how a politician can convince you of something, step by step. He unfolds a reasoning in which each step holds some truth, he asks you to validate each step and one step after the other, he leads you to a path you would never have followed if you’d seen the whole journey on the map right from the start. It’s subtle and frightening and we’ve all heard politicians start with an assertion you cannot refute and then build something totally fallacious from it.

That’s what could happen to the reader here if the constant irony wasn’t a lifeline that reminds you that this reasoning is flawed.

The Anarchist Banker is also a masterful demonstration of how an idea can become the roots of a dictatorship, how radical changes in a society cannot be implemented because it’s impossible to do so everywhere at the same time and successfully. So the new system must be forcefed to the population and only an authoritative system can do it.

I really can’t tell you more about The Anarchist Banker. I highly recommend it as a masterpiece of literature but also as an educational read about all those politicians who want to attract voters through simplistic thinking.

Literary Escapades: Australia

August 26, 2018 27 comments

Regular readers of this blog know (or have guessed) that I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Australia this summer. This is not a travel blog, so I won’t share details about my trip except the bookish ones. Reading Australian literature before visiting helped a lot during my stay, I had a better understanding of what I was seeing. Since I was with my non-bookish family, I didn’t specifically seek out literary places. I just took note of what I stumbled upon and visited bookstores along the way.

There’s a Writers Walk in Sydney, near the bay. It’s made of plaques on the ground with the name of the writer and a quick bio. I didn’t look at all of them but they were mostly Australian writers and foreign writers who stayed in Australia. To be honest, I’d never heard of most of them.

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores when I’m abroad. When I’m in a non-English speaking country, I can only watch which writers are on display. Here I came with the idea to get myself some Australian books. I visited bookstores when I had the chance and was very disappointed for the first two thirds of my trip.

At first, all the bookshops I found had books I don’t read. Lots and lots of mainstream fiction I’m not interested in and even the crime fiction section was a letdown. Literary writers have little room in these stores. Tim Winton and Peter Carey seem to do alright but otherwise, lots and lots of colourful cheesy covers with embossed letters. Yes, you see those in your mind eye. One of those sold new and second-hand books that were called Pre-loved books. I like that concept.

And, the horror, these books were expensive. 20 to 30 AUD, which means 13 to 19 euros for a paperback. In France, paperbacks cost from 5€ (classics in the public domain) to 12€ (fancy editions or small publishers)

I eventually found a bookstore in Alice Springs that sold Australian literature, Red Kangaroo Books. By then, I had adjusted to the local prices of books. I tried to focus on buying books I couldn’t find in France or in French. After reading Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the SeaMarie Munkara’s personal story, a book I really recommend to everyone, I decided to try her fiction, A Most Peculiar Act.

After seeing the cover, my children asked me if I was now into horror books. And I have to admit that it looks like a book by Stephen King with a psychopath doll, don’t you think?

I’d heard about Growing Up in Aboriginal Australia on Lisa’s blog. It is a collection edited by Anita Heiss in which fifty Aboriginal Australians relate their personal experience about growing up as an Aboriginal Australian. I should be interesting.

The good thing about traveling so far is that you get a 30 kg allowance of luggage. Yay! More room for books! I ended up in a bookshop called Readings in the Carlton neighbourhood in Melbourne. It was their flagship, according to their website. It’s the size of my favourite bookstore in Lyon and they had a large enough section of Australian literature. I stayed a moment there, browsing through books before deciding upon four new additions to my TBR.

I wanted to read the Anita Heiss but couldn’t get it in France, so I knew I wanted to buy it in Australia. I’m lucky they had it at Readings because Aboriginal writers seem hard to find. (except at Red Kangaroo Books) I’ve already read Madeleine St John and I enjoyed her Women in Black.

I remembered reading about Tony Birch on blogs, Blood was listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the blurb sounded good. We’ll see how I like it. Five Bells appealed to me, it’s published by Penguin so I expect a certain literary quality.

This was my experience with bookstores and I didn’t go out of my way to find them during my stay since I’m the only one obsessed with books in my family. There are probably incredible bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne that I didn’t see, they aren’t on the touristy paths, that’s all.

Seeing the price of books, I sort of felt relieved for Australian readers to encounter so many libraries. At least, there’s a way to read without depleting your wallet. The reading room in the State Library in Melbourne in stunning:

They have sculptures from children books in the forecourt. I didn’t recognise the characters, they were from Australian books but I find it nice that the entrance of this intimidating building is made to speak to children and not only to bookworms. Well, literary nerds have their corner with the James Joyce Seat of Learning.

It looks like a lectern to me, I can understand how Ulysses can be a bible to some but still. There’s a stone from Joyce’s house in Dublin embedded in the desk, like a relic in a church, which enforces the Catholic vibe. I thought it was a little weird, especially since Joyce never set a foot in Australia.

Another way to have free access to books is to check out Street Library boxes. There’s one in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

And according to their website, there are tons of them in Australia.

This initiative exists in lots of countries and I love it. For France, you can check out the website Boîte à Lire. One of these days, I’m going to set one up in my street.

I also bought the literary number of The Big Issue. It’s one of those magazines that homeless people sell on the street. Several Australian writers are involved and donated either their time and/or their stories. It’s the first time I’ve seen one with a fiction edition and it’s a great initiative.

My literary escapade in Australia wouldn’t have been as good without a stroll in Melbourne’s CBD with Tony, from Messy Booker. Thanks for taking us to the lanes with street art and explaining what the references were and for pointing out William Barak’s face on one of the city’s skyscrapers. We would have missed this without you and it was lovely meeting you.

And last but not least, we loved having lunch with Lisa and The Spouse on our last day. I’m happy we had the chance to meet IRL, as it’s customary to say. It is always a great pleasure to meet online friends in person. I’m always surprised at how easy the conversation flows but I shouldn’t be because blogging is real life too and the love of books a strong enough connection. So, if you’re in Lyon, don’t hesitate to contact me.

And for the rest of my blogging life, I’m late with everything: writing up the two last billets of last season’s Book Club (The Eastern Parade and Small Country) and the two billets for Portuguese Lit Month (The Alienist and The Anarchist Banker). I didn’t have much time or energy to read at the end of my busy days. I didn’t have time to read other people’s reviews, unfortunately. I’ll try to catch up but I expect to be burried at work in the next months.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 11 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

August 8, 2018 16 comments

The Dinner by Herman Koch. (2009) French title: Le dîner. Translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin.

I didn’t know what to expect with The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I only knew that it had been on my virtual TBR for a while after reading Guy’s review. (See here)

The Dinner is like a tragedy in five acts, from Aperitif to Digestif and from funny to horrible. Paul is our narrator. He’s married to Claire and they have a diner party at a fancy restaurant with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Claire and Paul have a 15 years old son, Michel. Serge and Babette have three children, Rick, Valérie and an adoptive son, Beau. Michel, Rick and Beau are around the same age.

Paul and Claire are not happy to spend their evening with Serge and Babette. Paul describes them as fake and boring and we soon discover that Serge is a famous and rising politician, that he’s going to run for prime minister in a few months.

Paul talks us through the evening. The Aperitif is hilarious with all the sarcastic comments he makes about the restaurant and Serge but there’s already something weird with Michel. With the Entrée come awkward and tense conversation between the two couples and more irritated remarks on the restaurant’s waiter. Memories of a weekend in Dordogne, France at Serge’s house pops up in Paul’s mind. He’s still funny, mocking and we know that Michel, Rick and Beau did something wrong.

The Main Course reveals more bits of Paul and Claire’s life and we start seeing the children under a new and terrifying light. It’s clear that Michel and Rick did something unforgivable. Dessert is when everything unravels and Digestif just pushes the story to an end.

I won’t tell more about the plot otherwise I’d ruin another reader’s fun. Paul is a very unreliable narrator. Someone we like at the beginning of the book before realizing how horrible he is. In a way, The Dinner reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton.  (another recommendation from Guy, btw)

The reader starts rooting for Paul and Claire who sound like a happy and stable couple. Serge and Babette seem as ridiculous as Paul wants us to see them. And then our loyalty shifts. It’s a rollercoaster trip with lots of ups and downs, and the nausea at the end too.

Koch leads the show with maestro. Everything is perfectly orchestrated and I think it’d make a wonderful theatre play. Paul’s caustic tone and propensity to digress is funny and full of clues about who he is. It starts with good-hearted laugh and ends with a forced laugh but there’s a lot of humor in The Dinner.

I thought that Koch was quite hard on his fellow Dutch citizen. He openly makes fun of fancy Dutch restaurants. He also has hard words about Dutch people who bought a house in Dordogne (or in Ardèche) and destabilized the real estate market, resulting in a rise in prices that makes it expensive for the locals to settle down. (The same thing could be said about British people, btw) He also exposes how ambiguous the French locals may feel about the Dutch tourists invading campsites with their caravans full of Dutch food to avoid buying anything locally.

I also wondered about the characters’ names. They sound so French that I thought the translator changed them. But I downloaded a sample of the English edition and they are still named the same. So why? Claire is actually short for Marie-Claire. Babette is a nickname for Elisabeth. Serge and Paul are very common and could be Dutch too but Michel is clearly French. And all the French Michels I know or have heard of were born between 1920 and 1960. Think: Michel Berger, Michel Blanc, Michel Platini, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Foucault, Michel Legrand, Michel Rocard…So it was hard for me to picture an adolescent named Michel. Sorry. But that’s on me, it probably wouldn’t affect another reader.

Do I recommend The Dinner to other readers? Yes. It’s a good summer read. It’s also a good Book Club read because it provides a lot a material for plot discussion and also a debate about the moral dilemma imbedded in the story.

Other reviews: Lisa’s and Marina Sofia’s.

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