Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 18 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

German Lit Month : Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner

November 11, 2017 12 comments

Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner (2003) French title : Lune de glace. Translated from the German by Stéphanie Lux.

As I’m now embarked in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner will be my only contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month.

Ice Moon is the first instalment of the crime fiction series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, a Finish police officer. Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives half the year in Finland with his Finnish wife. This explains the Finnish setting of his books. We are in Turku, a city located in the South-West of Finland. It opens with a heartbreaking scene: Kimmo Joentaa is at the hospital where his young wife is dying of cancer. The first moments of the book are dedicated to her death and the devastation that invades every nook and corner of Kimmo’s being.

At the same time, a woman is discovered dead in her sleep. The police station in Turku is in a turmoil and a bit overwhelmed with the investigation. Against his officer’s wishes, Joentaa decides to go back to work soon after his wife’s death, partly to be occupied and tame his sadness and partly because he wants to solve this crime.

The book alternates between Kimmo’s and the murderer’s point of view. The reader knows from the start who did it and reads through the race between the police and the murderer. Will the police catch him before he commits other crimes?

I’m not too fond of books were the murderer has a mental illness or is obviously unbalanced. I think it’s an easy device. I prefer crime fiction books that either explore the evil inside of us or show how a bad decision can lead you to crime. I’d rather read about perfectly sane murderers who act badly out of greed, to protect themselves or whatever but who are not pushed by a mental illness. I think it’s more interesting to question our dark side than to read about a “crazy” serial killer. This side of Ice Moon didn’t appeal to me but it’s more a question of preference in terms of crime fiction in general than a problem with the book itself.

I was more disturbed by Kimmo Joentaa as a character. His grief consumes his days and his nights. He tries to cope with his wife’s death, with his solitude in their home. He’s a difficult man to understand. His wife grounded him in an unhealthy way. He didn’t seem to be a whole man before her and now that she’s gone, his balance is challenged. There are some disturbing passages where Kimmo enters into a weird connection with the murderer that helps him understands the criminal’s motives and modus operandi and it made me ill-at-ease. I’m not sure I want to be in Kimmo’s head for another book.

All in all, it’s well-written even if it’s cold, maybe due to the setting, maybe due to the original language. Books translated from the German often seem a little cold and uptight to me, I can’t explain why. Plot-wise it holds together but it didn’t quite work for me. It felt as weird as its book cover. There’s another review by Guy here.

Have you read it? If yes, did you like it?

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

Saturday literary delights, squeals and other news

October 28, 2017 23 comments

For the last two months, I’ve been buried at work and busy with life. My literary life suffered from it, my TBW has five books, I have a stack of unread Télérama at home, my inbox overflows with unread blog entries from fellow book bloggers and I have just started to read books from Australia. Now that I have a blissful six-days break, I have a bit of time to share with you a few literary tidbits that made me squeal like a school girl, the few literary things I managed to salvage and how bookish things came to me as if the universe was offering some kind of compensation.

I had the pleasure to meet again with fellow book blogger Tom and  his wife. Tom writes at Wuthering Expectations, renamed Les Expectations de Hurlevent since he left the US to spend a whole year in Lyon, France. If you want to follow his adventures in Europe and in France in particular, check out his blog here. We had a lovely evening.

I also went to Paris on a business trip and by chance ended up in a hotel made for a literature/theatre lovers. See the lobby of the hotel…

My room was meant for me, theatre-themed bedroom and book-themed bathroom

*Squeal!* My colleagues couldn’t believe how giddy I was.

Literature also came to me unexpectedly thanks to the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière. A couple of weeks ago, I came home on a Friday night after a week at top speed at work. I was exhausted, eager to unwind and put my mind off work. LaBaconnière must have guessed it because I had the pleasure to find Lettres d’Anglererre by Karel Čapek in my mail box. What a good way to start my weekend. *Squeal!* It was sent to me in hope of a review but without openly requesting it. Polite and spot on since I was drawn to this book immediately. LaBaconnière promotes Central European literature through their Ibolya Virág Collection. Ibolya Virág is a translator from the Hungarian into French and LaBaconnière has also published the excellent Sindbad ou la nostalgie by Gyula Krúdy, a book I reviewed both in French and in English. Last week, I started to read Lettres d’Angleterre and browsed through the last pages of the book, where you always find the list of other titles belonging to the same collection. And what did I find under Sindbad ou la nostalgie? A quote from my billet! *Squeal!* Now I’ve never had any idea of becoming a writer of any kind but I have to confess that it did something to me to see my words printed on a book, be it two lines on the excerpt of a catalogue. Lettres d’Angleterre was a delight, billet to come.

Now that I’m off work, I started to read all the Téléramas I had left behind. The first one I picked included three articles about writers I love. *Squeal!* There was one about visiting Los Angeles and especially Bunker Hill, the neighborhood where John Fante stayed when he moved to Los Angeles. I love John Fante, his sense of humor, his description of Los Angeles and I’m glad Bukowski saved him from the well of oblivion. It made me want to hop on a plane for a literary escapade in LA. A few pages later, I stumbled upon an article about James Baldwin whose novels are republished in French. Giovanni’s Room comes out again with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou and there’s a new edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two books I want to read. And last but not least, Philip Roth is now published in the prestigious La Pléiade  edition. This collection was initially meant for French writers but has been extended to translated books as well. I don’t know if Roth is aware of this edition but for France, this is an honor as big as winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which Roth totally deserves, in my opinion.

Romain Gary isn’t published in La Pléiade (yet) but he’s still a huge writer in France, something totally unknown to most foreign readers. See this display table in a bookstore in Lyon.

His novel La Promesse de l’aube has been made into a film that will be on screens on December 20th. It is directed by Eric Barbier and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Nina, Gary’s mother and Pierre Niney is Romain Gary. I hope it’s a good adaptation of Gary’s biographical novel.

Romain Gary was a character that could have come out of a novelist’s mind. His way of reinventing himself and his past fascinates readers and writers. In 2017, at least two books are about Romain Gary’s childhood. In Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, Laurent Seksik explores Gary’s propension to create a father that he never knew. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my TBR.

The second book was brought in the flow of books arriving for the Rentrée Littéraire. I didn’t have time this year to pay attention to the books that were published for the Rentrée Littéraire. I just heard an interview of François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny, a book shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. And it’s an investigation linked to Gary’s childhood in Vilnius. *Squeal!* Stranded in Vilnius, Désérable walked around the city and went in the street where Gary used to live between 1917 and 1923. (He was born in 1914) In La promesse de l’aube, Gary wrote that his neighbor once told him:

Quand tu rencontreras de grands personnages, des hommes importants, promets-moi de leur dire: au n°16 de la rue Grande-Pohulanka, à Wilno, habitait M. Piekielny. When you meet with great people, with important people, promise me to tell them : at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka street in Wilno used to live Mr Piekielny.

Gary wrote that he kept his promise. Désérable decided to research M. Piekielny, spent more time in Vilnius. His book relates his experience and his research, bringing back to life the Jewish neighborhood of the city. 60000 Jews used to live in Vilnius, a city that counted 106 synagogues. A century later, decimated by the Nazis, there are only 1200 Jews and one synagogue in Vilnius. Of course, despite the height of my TBR, I had to get that book. I plan on reading it soon, I’m very intrigued by it.

Despite all the work and stuff, I managed to read the books selected for our Book Club. The October one is Monsieur Proust by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret. (That’s on the TBW) She talks about Proust, his publishers and the publishing of his books. When Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, Proust had five luxury copies made for his friends. The copy dedicated to Alexandra de Rotschild was stolen during WWII and is either lost or well hidden. The fifth copy dedicated to Louis Brun will be auctioned on October 30th. When the first copy dedicated to Lucien Daudet was auctioned in 2013, it went for 600 000 euros. Who knows for how much this one will be sold? Not *Squeal!* but *Swoon*, because, well, it’s Proust and squeals don’t go well with Proust.

Although Gary’s books are mostly not available in English, I was very happy to discover that French is the second most translated language after English. Yay to the Francophonie! According to the article, French language books benefit from two cultural landmarks: the Centre National du Livre and the network of the Instituts français. Both institutions help financing translations and promoting books abroad. I have often seen the mention that the book I was reading had been translated with the help of the Centre National du Livre.

I mentioned earlier that the hotel I stayed in was made for me because of the literary and theatre setting. I still have my subscription at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon and I’ve seen two very good plays. I wanted to write a billet about them but lacked the time to do so.

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The first one is Rabbit Hole by Bostonian author David Lindsay-Abaire. The French version was directed by Claudia Stavisky. The main roles of Becky and Howard were played by Julie Gayet and Patrick Catalifo. It is a sad but beautiful play about grieving the death of a child. Danny died in a stupid car accident and his parents try to survive the loss. With a missing member, the family is thrown off balance and like an amputated body, it suffers from phantom pain. With delicate words and spot-on scenes, David Lindsay-Abaire shows us a family who tries to cope with a devastating loss that shattered their lived. If you have the chance to watch this play, go for it. *Delight* On the gossip column side of things, the rumor says that François Hollande was in the theatre when I went to see the play. (Julie Gayet was his girlfriend when he was in office)

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The second play is a lot lighter but equally good. It is Ça va? by Jean-Claude Grumberg. In French, Ça va? is the everyday greeting and unless you genuinely care about the person, it’s told off-handedly and the expected answer is Yes. Apparently, this expression comes from the Renaissance and started to be used with the generalization of medicine based upon the inspection of bowel movements. (See The Imaginary Invalid by Molière) So “Comment allez-vous à la selle” (“How have your bowel movements been?”) got shortened into Ça va? Very down-to-earth. But my dear English-speaking natives, don’t laugh out loud too quickly, I hear that How do you do might have the same origin…Back to the play.

In this play directed by Daniel Benoin, Grumberg imagines a succession of playlets that start with two people meeting up and striking a conversation with the usual Ça va? Of course, a lot of them end up with dialogues of the deaf, absurd scenes, fights and other hilarious moments. Sometimes it’s basic comedy, sometimes we laugh hollowly but in all cases, the style is a perfect play with the French language. A trio of fantastic actors, François Marthouret, Pierre Cassignard and Éric Prat interpreted this gallery of characters. *Delight* If this play comes around, rush for it.

To conclude this collage of my literary-theatre moments of the last two months, I’ll mention an interview of the historian Emmanuelle Loyer about a research project Europa, notre histoire directed by Etienne François and Thomas Serrier. They researched what Europe is made of. Apparently, cafés are a major component of European culture. Places to sit down and meet friends, cultural places where books were written and ideas exchanged. In a lot of European cities, there are indeed literary cafés where writers had settled and wrote articles and books. New York Café in Budapest. Café de Flore in Paris. Café Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon. Café Central in Vienna. Café Slavia in Prague. Café Giubbe Rosse in Florence. (My cheeky mind whispers to me that the pub culture is different and might have something to do with Brexit…) It’s a lovely thought that cafés are a European trademark, that we share a love for places that mean conviviality. That’s where I started to write this billet, which is much longer than planned. I’ll leave you with two pictures from chain cafés at the Lyon mall. One proposes to drop and/or take books and the other has a bookish décor.

Literature and cafés still go together and long life to the literary café culture!

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro

October 27, 2017 9 comments

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro (2012) French title: La main de Joseph Castorp. Translated from the Portuguese by Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues.

I’m a little embarrassed with this billet. Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro is not available in English. The original is in Portuguese and it’s been translated into French, Dutch and Italian. If anyone stumbling upon this entry has read it, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought about it. Because I’m totally baffled by it.

João Ricardo Pedro throws us head first in a family history. It opens with a murder in an isolated village in Portugal. Celestino is found dead and his friend, the doctor Augusto Mendes recalls how Celestino came to the village decades before. From there we wander into the doctor’s family tree and the history of Portugal. We discover how he came to live in this isolated village and how he met his wife, we hear about his son Antonió and his wife, his grandson Duarte. We go back and forth between the village and Lisbon. We are rolled around from one decade to the other with no real way to understand where we are apart from some light clues about Duarte’s age or an allusion to a historical event. Or maybe there are clues obvious to a Portuguese reader that I totally missed.

It left me puzzled, unable to set the story straight in chronological order in my head. On top of that, there’s a mystery around Duarte’s love for the piano, weird friendships and a vague link to Austria. I was totally lost.

Sure, the novel mentions major political events for Portugal in the 20th century. We guess that this family has been hit by the Salazar dictatorship (Duarte’s mother never talks about her dead parents) and has been deeply affected by the long colonial war in Angola. But it’s so messy that I got lost. I felt like walking in circle in a forest with no clue of how to make sense of what I was reading. Duarte is a very strange character that I couldn’t understand and till the end, I remained outside of the book, reading with a mind hovering over what I was reading but never immersed in the story. I never felt I was there with the characters but still wanted to know how it would end.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel from a literary point of view, it just didn’t work for me. It left me with the disagreeable feeling that I missed a major clue to understand it all. So I’d be grateful for explanations from readers who have read it. It’s almost German Lit Month, so Licht, mehr Licht, please!

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 15 comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

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