The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

June 23, 2019 Leave a comment

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen (2002) French title: Le Brodeur de Huê Translated by Sylvie Servan-Schreiber.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen was our Book Club read for May. Kien Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Kien Nguyen left Vietnam, spent some time in a refugee camp in the Philippines and arrived in the USA in 1986. He became a dentist and The Tapestries is based on his grandfather’s story. It’s his second novel.

The Tapestries opens on a wedding day, in the Hue citadel, in 1916. At the time, Vietnam was a French colony named Indochina. Ven is getting married to a groom she has never seen since a matchmaker organized the wedding. She is given away by her grandfather to the rich Nguyen family. She will discover that her groom, Dan, is seven years old. She’s 23 and has been chosen by her in-laws as a free nanny.

Soon after the wedding, Master Nguyen is accused of treason and hung. Ven manages to save Dan. The Judge Toan who was in charge of arresting the whole family takes the opportunity to confiscate all the Nguyen’s wealth. Their beautiful estate is ransacked and Ven and Dan will have to find a way to survive. Ven decides that the best place to hide Dan is to have him hired in the lion’s den as a servant.

We’ll follow the fate of these two ill-matched spouses, Ven’s devotion to Dan, Dan’s romance with his enemy’s daughter, his resilience and his newfound happiness in the art of embroidery.

I guess it’s supposed to be an ode to a beautiful romance, a fresco of the end of the Vietnam empire and traditional way of life, a picture of the French colonization and imperial Vietnam, before WWII and the long years of war against the French (1946-1954) and the Americans (1955-1975)

It could have been an excellent novel but for me it was a tedious read. The characterization wasn’t subtle enough. The bad were very nasty. Ven was very devoted. Dan was very good. The romance was corny and implausible, even if it’s supposed to be true since it’s based on Nguyen’s grandfather’s life. I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories where a character has to hold a grudge to honor their family. I’m with Gandhi, An Eye for an Eye will make the whole world blind. And Dan seemed to agree with that too.

Then I thought that the writing was clunky. The descriptions of the Vietnamese customs and landscapes were interesting but they showed it was a book intended for Western readers. They wouldn’t have been part of a real Vietnamese book. To make a long story short, it was a disappointment.

I find that books set in a country but written by authors who have emigrated are hard to pin down. Sometimes they are not written in the author’s native language, like Aki Shimasaki’s, Gao Xingjian’s or Peter May’s novels. I always wonder if their vision of their native country is distorted by their emigration and their new country. Do they romanticize their native country? How in touch are they with it and its current atmosphere? The Tapestries is a historical novel, how does Nguyen view the history of Vietnam and what’s the accuracy of what he describes?

I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re really looking for an easy read with a touch of exoticism but you could have that with the Calhoun series by William G Tapply.

Has anyone read it too? If yes, did you like it?

Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost and Dark Tiger by William G. Tapply – Three soothing crime fiction books

June 16, 2019 7 comments

Bitch Creek (2004), Gray Ghost (2007) and Dark Tiger (2009) by William G. Tapply. French titles: Dérive sanglante, Casco Bay, Dark Tiger. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni and François Happe.

A lady working for the publisher Gallmeister recommended William G. Tapply to me. I started with Dark Tiger, then went on with Bitch Creek and felt compelled to read Gray Ghost. In three months. I never read three books by the same writer in three months, unless they’re a trilogy.

These three books are the beginning of a crime fiction series and reading them in the right order would be reading Bitch Creek first, then Gray Ghost and finally Dark Tiger.

Set in Maine, the recurring character is Stoney Calhoun, a fly-fishing guide / “amateur” sleuth. Calhoun is in his late thirties and five years before the action of Bitch Creek, he lost his memory in a lightning strike. He woke up in a hospital with no memories. He doesn’t know anything about his past. He assumes that he used to work for the government since they gave him a hefty sum after his accident, but they never told him what he used to work on. He has no clue about his personal life either, just that heading to Maine and settling in an isolated cabin in a rural area felt right. He now works at a fishing equipment store, takes clients to fishing trips and makes fishing flies for the store to sell. He’s involved with the store owner, Kate Balaban. However, their relationship poisoned by guilt since Kate’s husband, Walter, is slowly dying in a nursing home. Walter is aware and OK with Stoney and Kate’s relationship but it’s not easy anyway.

In Bitch Creek, Tapply sets up the décor and the characters for his new series. We get acquainted with Maine, Stoney, his dog Ralph – named after Ralph Waldo Emerson – and Kate. Calhoun is a competent fly-fishing guide and he loves his quiet life in his cabin, with his dog and Kate. He gets the occasional visit from a mystery man who ensures that he has not regained any memories.

When his best friend Lyle is murdered during a fishing assignment that he filled in for Calhoun, Stoney starts poking around and investigating. He discovers that he has buried knowledge of police work, he knows what to do and not do, he has muscle memory for fights. He is a great help for the local sheriff who investigates the murder.

In Gray Ghost, Stoney is out on the water in Casco Bay with a client when they discover a dead body on one of the bay’s island. He’s roped into participating to the investigation again, officially seconding sheriff Dickman. Forgotten skills resurface again, giving him pieces of his past.

In Dark Tiger, a government operative was found dead in the north of Maine at Loon Lake. The mysterious visitor bullies him into taking a position as a fishing guide at Loon Lake and investigate the death of their agent.

I loved the Calhoun series. Honestly, I’ve never been fishing in my life and I don’t see myself doing it any time soon. I’m urban, I work as a corporate executive. As my work life turned into an out-of-control high-speed train, I felt drawn to Tapply’s books and that probably explains why I read the three in three months. Tapply was a New Englander and passionate about fishing. He knows what he’s writing about and the reader can feel it. Bitch Creek is where Stoney’ cabin is set, Dark Tiger and Gray Ghost are fly-fishing baits.

Tapply has an intimate knowledge of fishing trips and of the New England countryside. As a European, I was sometimes disoriented by the names of the cities in Maine. Dublin, Madrid,  Portland don’t conjure up images of rural Maine. Tapply gives the right amount of descriptions in his books, frequent enough to take you there and learn about the landscape and the history but not too long and too erudite to bore or lose you on the way. He took me there with his words, like Craig Johnson takes you to Absaroka country in Wyoming.

Being with Calhoun in Maine was so far away from my daily life that it provided an easy and immediate escape. It soothed me. Calhoun is a very likeable character who lives a slow life, takes time to enjoy the creek around his house, spends his time in quiet places where he can catch fish. He doesn’t fish for catching preys, photograph them and brag about the size of the fish he caught. He fishes as a communion with nature. I enjoyed visiting him and witness his touching and humorous relationship with his dog and his on-and-off and yet deep relationship with Kate. (I think dog lovers will enjoy these books too.) Stoney feels real. He’s a placid, reasonable man who enjoys his solitude, a few genuine relationships in his life and tries to live a tranquil down-to-earth life. I guess he allowed me to hop off the high-speed train for a few hours.

I’m sad about Tapply’s untimely death in 2009. There will be no more episode to this series and no Calhoun comfort read for me.

As usual, the Gallmeister books have gorgeous covers and outstanding translations. I’m repeating myself I know, but what can I say, it’s a repeating performance on their side. Not surprisingly, I much prefer the Gallmeister covers to the American ones. The Gallmeister illustrations show both the crime setting and the fishing theme of the series and the American ones give off a creepy vibe that I didn’t feel in the books, even if the crimes were horrible.

I’ve seen that Tapply had written another series, the Brady Coyne mysteries. Has anyone read it? Is it worth exploring too?

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 9 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 8 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

June 2, 2019 15 comments

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) Available in French.

I never read women’s magazines, mostly because I find them vapid. I’m more of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) person as far as waiting rooms are concerned. A few weeks ago, I forgot my book at home and flipped through Grazia and stumbled upon a fascinating article about Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. I knew I had to read this and indeed, I devoured it in one sitting.

Nomadland is a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder who spent three years living on and off with vandwellers, people who left their brick-and-mortar homes to live in an RV. They move from place to place and survive on seasonal jobs. The seasonal jobs consist in working at campsites or amusement parks in the summer, at an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush or harvesting sugar in Minnesota. Bruder had her own RV, and moved around with them.

We follow Linda, a sixty-four-year-old woman who just finished to prepare her tiny RV and leaves her family to work at a campsite in California. She and her friend Silvianne will work there the whole summer. Through Linda and her friends, we slowly discover the parallel world of vandwellers, the horrible working conditions of these seasonal workers, their annual gathering in Arizona during the winter, in a place named Quartzsite.

There are three sides to Nomadland, and none of them will leave you indifferent.

The most emotional one is discovering this nomadic community, hearing about the personal stories of the people Jessica Bruder met. Most of them are old and should be enjoying retirement but their pension is not high enough for them to do so. They have to work. Some are broke because of the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their house due to a foreclosure. They lost their pension because all their money evaporated in the crash. They had health issues, went through a divorce or lost their job. They had what we call in French, des accidents de la vie, the ones that are covered by social benefits in Europe.

I felt a lot of respect for the people she met. They endure difficult living conditions because no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, living in an RV is hard. It’s tiny, it’s cold during the winter, it can break down and if you’re a city, you need to be invisible. I enjoyed the part about Quartzsite and the RV’ers reunion. It’s full of workshops to help people live better in their RV.

They stay positive, feed their hope for a better future or have decided that this way of life was best for them. They bonded. Some have blogs and Facebook pages. They live on the edge and I couldn’t help wondering what would become of them. They’re all ageing. What happens when they get sick and can’t work anymore? Where are they going to live when they are too old to move around in such a small space? Who will take care of them?

The most infuriating side of Nomadland is reading about working conditions at Amazon. Let me tell you something: besides kindle books, I will never buy anything from Amazon again. Never. The working conditions described here are despicable. We’re talking about exploiting people with an unequaled cynicism. (By the way, in Europe, the unions of 15 countries had a meeting on April 29th, 2019 to fight together for better working conditions at Amazon in Europe. Their slogan was “Treated like robots by Amazon. We are humans, not robots”)

I’m talking about inhuman working conditions regarding the environment, the stupidity of the job to be done, the cadences to be kept and the general management of employees. Their working conditions is the cost of your receiving your parcel on time.

By cynicism I mean: offering free painkillers in the breakrooms because employee ache everywhere; publishing recommendations in an in-house magazine for new employees about getting in shape before coming to be sure they’ll hold on; exploiting the easy RV’ers workforce through their recruitment site Amazon CamperForce and get tax credits for it. Here’s one story about a CamperForce experience:

When Barb and Chuck showed up in Quartzsite for the first time, they were still recovering from their three-month stint at CamperForce. Like their coworkers, they’d faced a triple trial there. First came physical exhaustion. (“Muscles I never knew I had are shouting at me after ten hours of lifting, twisting, squatting, reaching,” Barb reflected.) Then came Kafka-style madness. (After forty-five minutes spent hunting for a bin with enough room to stow a product, Barb had to repeat “breathe, breathe” to stay sane in the warehouse, which she nicknamed “Amazoo.”) Last came flat-out survival: the stress of subzero temperatures in an RV built for warmer climes. (The rig’s water supply got cut off after a filter froze and burst. Then its pump broke. Chuck lost a day of work getting repairs done.)

And the lovely Linda ended up with a repetitive motion injury from using the handheld barcode scanner. It left behind a visible mark, a grape-sized lump on her right wrist. Even worse was what she could not see: a searing pain that radiated the length of her right arm, from thumb to wrist, through elbow and shoulder, ending in her neck. Lifting an eight-ounce coffee cup or a cooking pan was enough to trigger an agonizing jolt. She believed it to be a bad case of tendonitis, but knowing that hadn’t helped abolish the affliction. A year after, she still hadn’t recovered from it. I have lots of quotes and all of them made me really angry. How can they treat people that way? Farm animals have better working conditions than that.

Now, are you going to fatten Jeff Bezos with your next Christmas shopping?

The most educational side of Nomadland was the questioning about poverty and how a rich country as America has come to this. Jessica Bruder doesn’t give lectures but peppers her story with facts and analysis. To sum it up, several factors concur to the problem: rents have increased a lot faster than wages, the American retirement-finance model showed its limits during the 2008 crisis (where is your pension when the financial markets collapse?) and all this is a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims. I’ll add wild capitalism that pushes on the selfishness button we all have in us and a criminal laissez-faire of politicians. Some things cost nothing on the country’s budget: regulations about loans, about the minimum wages, about retirement plans and protect people from corporate wolves.

But this is not a blog about economy or politics, it’s a literary blog. Why should you read Nomadland? Besides the informative content, I thought that Jessica Bruder’s writing was engaging. She writes well and wants us to share her experience. She went all in, living in an RV herself and her comments about how that felt were invaluable. She did more than interviewing vandwellers. She shared their lives, earned their trust and opened our eyes on a parallel world. I hope that Linda is doing well, I’m rooting for her and her projects. Her resilience and optimism are commendable and Jessica Bruder gave her a voice.

Rush for this book, it’s a gem.

PS: This book is in the Beach and Public Transport category, not because it’s fluffly but because it’s so well-written that it’s easy to read.

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson – Boston crime

May 30, 2019 2 comments

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson (2013) French title: Cassandra. Translated by Laurent Bury.

The Hard Bounce is Todd Robinson’s debut novel and he was at Quais du Polar a couple of years ago. In France, he’s published by Gallmeister.

Boo and Junior have never left each other’s side since they were sent to St Gabriel’s Home for Boys, an orphanage in Boston. Now adults, they still live in Boston and decided to put their 470 pounds of muscles and ten grants of tattoos in good use: they founded their own security company. They are in charge of the security details at The Cellar, a Boston nightclub and they are competent bouncers, intimidating but not necessarily violent.

When they are asked to look for Cassandra, the DA’s missing daughter, they have to go out of their comfort zone. They were never hired for that kind of job before but the DA doesn’t want the police to get involved to avoid bad PR.

Is Cassie just a rebellious runaway teenager or did she fall into bad hands? Will Boo and Junior find her alive? And what does Cassie’s story stir in Boo’s past that makes him want to find her, no matter what?

The Hard Bounce has a great sense of place, Boston is almost a character in the story. Boo and Junior explore its back alleys, flirting with legality sometimes and but always committed to doing their job.

Boo is our narrator and through the story, he takes us to meet the team at The Cellar, all outsiders who have found a new family at the club. We discover Boo’s past and the strength of the friendship between him and Junior. They look out for each other, they are their own family unit.

Boo has a wonderful voice, a mix of street talk and wit that makes the book alive and the reader eager to find out what will happen next. The story was engaging in itself but I rooted for Boo who is a true softie under his muscle. I have the French translation but downloaded a sample of the original on my Kindle to give you a taste of Boo’s storytelling.

In the following passage, Boo meets Kelly Reese for the first time. She works for the DA and is the middleman between Boo and Junior on one side and their employer on the other side. She’s just arrived The Cellar to hire Boo and Junior:

Everything about her screamed “out of place”. Her dark, curly hair was cut in a perfect bob. Most of our regulars looked like their hair was styled by a lunatic with a Weed Whacker. She was also in a dark blue suit that looked like it cost more than the combined wardrobe of everyone else in the bar.

Whether your collar is blue or white, in Boston, you stick with the crowd that shares your fashion sense. The city’s got a class line as sharp as a glass scalpel and wider than a sorority pledge’s legs. The old money, reaching back generations, live up Beacon Hill and the North End. They summer in places like Newport and the Berkshires.

They see me and mine as a pack of low-class mooks. We see them as a bunch of rich bitch pansies. Kelly Reese’s collar was so white it glowed. Still, it didn’t keep me from checking out her ass as she walked up the stairs ahead of me. Ogling knows no economic boundaries.

That’s on page 19 and I was hooked. Maybe you will be too.

PS: I think that with the American cover, The Hard Bounce looks like a romance novel.

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

May 26, 2019 16 comments

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. 

I have attended a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. It takes the visitors through a part of the history of black French people from the French Revolution to the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on black models in painting and takes detours through literature and other arts. I rented the audio guide because I knew that some of the paintings were commented by Lilian Thuram and Ab El Malik. Thuram is a former football (soccer) player who won the World Cup in 1998. He’s bright, articulated and fights against racism. Abd al Malik is a rap singer, one with excellent lyrics.

The exhibition has three main sections: one from the Revolution until the abolition of slavery, one about blacks and art in the 19th century, one about the beginning of the 20th century.

The slavery times.

In 1794, the young French Republic abolished slavery in the colonies. Actually, it was only applicable in Saint Domingue, French Guyana and Guadalupe. It remained enforced in La Martinique (then occupied by the British) and at the Mascareignes (now La Réunion & Mauritius). It was never legal in the Nouvelle France. (Québec, Acadia and Louisiana). First black députés were at the parliament.

Napoléon 1st re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802 and abolished the slave trade in 1815. Nothing changed during the Restauration (Monarchy) and in 1848, the Second Republic abolished slavery in France for good this time. 250 000 slaves were emancipated. That’s for history.

Some artists like Géricault or Verdier used their art to fight against slavery. See Le châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies.

This is such a normal scene for the colonies that a white woman is there with her child. The banality of it makes it even harder to contemplate. Verdier wasn’t allowed to show his painting at an official exhibition.

Some like Biard put their painting at the service of government propaganda. See here, Biard’s Abolition de l’esclavage.

The black characters on the painting acts like they are thankful. This painting shows the official vision of the abolition of slavery. It’s a gift when it’s not. It’s abolishing something that is inhuman and should not exist.

When preparing the exhibition, researches were made to find out the identity of the black models featured on the paintings. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings were changed because their original title is offensive now. The captions keep the history of the titles until the one chosen for the exhibition. If possible, it now relates to the models’ names. See this this painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. It was first intitled Portrait d’une négresse, then Portrait d’une femme noire and now it is Portrait de Madeleine.

The changes in the title feels right as long as we keep their historical thread. We see how society changed and where we come from. Just changing the name would erase the truth. When it was painted, her identity to the white world was not Madeleine. Her name didn’t matter. She was “just a nigger.” As Romain Gary pointed it out, racism is when people don’t matter. It is symbolic and important to give this woman her rightful name, her identity and her position as an equal human being in our eyes.

The 19th century after 1848.

Literature has its place in the exhibition as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover was black and Manet painted her.

She was his muse and a recurring presence in The Flowers of Evil. She’s the black sun in his poetry.

I noted down several literary works featuring black characters: La négresse et le Pacha by Théophile Gautier, Le capitaine Pamphile by Alexandre Dumas, Toussaint Louverture, poème dramatique by Lamartine, Bug Jargel by Victor Hugo, Ourika by Claire de Duras. In 1921, René Maran was the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt with his book Batouala. Véritable roman nègre. I’m tempted to read the Dumas because I like him as a writer and he was proud of his black heritage, despite the jibes and he wrote is Capitaine Pamphile as a statement.

And there was a display table about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was successful in France when it was published.

The 19th century is also the century of French colonization of parts of Africa. Cordier made gorgeous bronzes to celebrate the beauty of African people

Including one entitles Aimez-vous les uns les autres. (Love one another)

And at the same time, there was a horrible film taken at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1897. It was a human zoo representing an African village with actual Africans displayed in this fake village.

The early 20th century.

WWI brought more black people in France. The Senegalese tirailleurs, soldiers from African colonies were enrolled in the French army. The Harlem Hellighters, an African-American infantry regiment of the US Army were detached to the French army and wore French helmets during WWI.

It bothered me that the Senegalese tirailleurs and the Harlem Hellfighters were put together on the same wall. It’s not the same. The Senegalese tirailleurs are colonial troops who were sent to fight for a country that wasn’t theirs. They didn’t ask to be colonized and live under French rule. They got into this war because of the colonization.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought in France because the USA entered WWI. They were serving their country. To put them on the same wall as the Senegalese tirailleurs is like saying that, like them, they were fighting for a cause that wasn’t theirs. It denies the fact that these African-American troops had rightful American citizenship.

The arrival of 200 000 African-American soldiers in 1917-1918 for WWI brought jazz to France and it was the beginning of an African-American community in Paris. The exhibition branched out to show black artists in circus, in theatre or on shows like Josephine Baker. It reminded me of another exhibition The Color Line, about segregation and African-American artists.

It also focused on the concept of négritude by Aimé Césaire, it met the Surrealists’ political causes and was concomitant to the Harlem Renaissance movement. I loved to hear about Matisse and how his visit to Harlem influenced his painting.

The exhibition ends with a new reading of Olympia by Edouard Manet, first by Matisse:

and then by Larry Rivers in I Like Olympia In Black Face.

If you’re traveling to Paris soon, the exhibition lasts until July 21st and it’s worth the visit.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live the Musée d’Orsay with two new books bought at the bookstore of the exhibition. Slavery Told to my Daughter by Christian Taubira and Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, Jimmy being James Baldwin.

 

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:
%d bloggers like this: