The anti-Maria Chapdelaine?

August 17, 2016 8 comments

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Blais_EmmanuelFirst day in Montreal and I was in a bookshop. Being abroad and being able to browse through books that are all in French is so unusual that I feel compelled to mention it. That’s where I got A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. Published in 1965,  it won the Prix Médicis in France. A prestigious prize. I’d heard of Marie-Claire Blais and this one seemed a good one to start with.

Emmanuel is a new born in a household of peasants in Québec, probably at the beginning of the 20th century, although it’s not clearly defined. He’s something like the sixteenth child of the family. His grand-mother Marie-Antoinette is the only one who takes care of him, his mother doesn’t seem interested in him. Gradually, we discover the dynamics and the living conditions of the family. There are so many girls that they are seen as a collective entity rather than individuals. The mother has lost several children and the reader feels that she doesn’t have the energy to take care of this one or perhaps she’s afraid to get attached in case he dies too. One child, Jean Le Maigre is slowly dying of tuberculosis. His favourite brother, Le Septième, runs wild. Their sister Heloïse was thrown out of the convent because she was too exhalted. The father is a brute. The mother is ignorant of her sexuality. The Catholic church has an overwhelming power on the life of these peasants. The priest is everywhere. Children are sent to religious schools where some of the teaching priests are pedophiles. The classic theme saint or whore is present. The church meddles in the people’s sex lives, telling the women they have to accept conjugal duty. As a result, the mother’s sex life is more a succession of rapes than a relationship and she’s constantly pregnant. Neither she or her husband imagine for one minute that they should stop having children because the priest told them that they should accept babies as they come. The priest even pushes as far as saying that they are lucky to lose so many children because God claims them.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book at all. All the religious stuff put me off and made me angry. Strangely, the rates on Goodreads seem split between readers. Good rates come from Anglophones and bad ones from Francophones. I wonder if the translation did something to it or if Anglophones fare better with this hateful mix of poverty and religion. It still puzzles me.

Then comes the beauty of blogging. As I was writing my billet about Maria Chapdelaine, I started to make a connection between the two books. It feels like A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a pamphlet against the idiotic conservatism of Hémon’s book. Instead of glorifying the life of the peasants of the era, Blais shows us another picture. These people were dirty poor. The children didn’t have time to go to school and when they went, they were taught by country teachers with no diploma. They had land but could never make a decent income out of it no matter how hard they worked. The church held people’s minds in an iron fist and used their power in a way that created more problems than it solved. It’s bleak, bleak, bleak. Violent. Desperate. Hopeless. And the winter is crushing. Life in the countryside is made of hunger, cold, ignorance and poverty. The condition of women is appalling: they work, they lay children, they are under their husband’s thumb.

From what I understand, the 1960s were a big change in Québec. Like in most Western countries, you might say. In 1959, Jean Lesage was elected and started the Révolution Tranquille. Major social changes were implemented and the Catholic church started to lose their power. Blais’s book was published in 1965. Considering its context and my reading of Maria Chapdelaine, I can’t help thinking it was written against Hémon’s classic tale of the Canadian settlers. It doesn’t make me like it more but I understand it better. Another novel with an agenda. One was trying to write a edifying tale and the other tries to take this fairy tale down. It makes me think of statues going down after a revolution.

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

August 10, 2016 26 comments

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1913) French original title: Maria Chapdelaine.

hémon_chapdelaineMaria Chapdelaine is a classic from Québec, written by Louis Hémon. It was published in France as a feuilleton and was supposed to inspire young French people to move to Québec. It is a rural novel, the story of a peasant family in Québec, in Péribonka, on the bank of the Lac Saint Jean.

Maria is 18 and three young men want to marry her: François Paradis, a trapper, Eutrope Gagnon, a fellow pioneer and Lorenzo Surprenant who emigrated to Massachusetts to work in a factory. Each represents three possible futures.

Maria Chapdelaine is a book with a purpose not a literary entreprise. It describes the life of early settlers near the Lac Saint Jean. Maria’s story is just a prop to describe their life and fate. It could be compared to My Antonía by Willa Cather except that Cather is a gifted writer and her characters are far more complex than Hémon’s.

For this reader, Maria Chapdelaine has no interest from a characterization and plot point of view. It was still interesting as a testimony of life at the beginning of the 20thC by the Lac Saint-Jean. It shows the typical harsh life of the settlers. It depicts the long winters, the short and brutal summers and as often in peasant novels, the dependency on the whims of the weather. It is hard work in isolated places. The men and women work, work, and work and the outcome is not a given. Hémon describes the family’s life. In the summer, they font de la terre meaning that make land. Basically, they take the trees out, clean up everything (trumps, roots,) to be able to cultivate the land. Tough job. The women make preserve and prepare diner for the men. In autumn, the women caulk the walls with newspapers to prevent the wind from entering into the house. The men stock up wood. In winter, the two older sons go away to work as lumberjacks. The rest of the family stays in the house, with the father briefly going out to take care of the animals. The only distraction is when their only neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon, comes to visit. And the occasional trip to the church but that’s not too often because it’s too far away. From what I gathered of the history of Québec, it’s accurate and a good testimony of the times.

Personally I don’t see how Hémon hoped to entice young French people to leave cozy and temperate France to come and clear land in Québec. I totally see why Lorenzo Surprenant left for the USA.

The tone of the book is a vibrant plea for simple and rough life of peasants and the benefits of Catholicism. Maria expresses a naive faith in God, in the Catholic church and the local priest has a real hold on people’s lives. I thought it was too much and that Hémon wrote as a sanctimonious conservative. Not my cup of tea. Plus I don’t particularly like rural novels that glorify agriculture and describe urban life as miserable and corrupt. As I always say, if working in fields were that gratifying, please explain to me why there was such a massive rural exodus in Europe after WWII.

The only literary merit of the book is the language. Not that Hémon’s prose is imaginative, it’s as plain as his characters. Hémon wanted to show his land and his people. Their identity is intimately linked to their native language. They are a francophone community surrounded by Anglophones. In his attempt at picturing the rural community of the time, he gives back their Canadian-French or Québécois. And that was fascinating to me.

It’s probably outdated, like the French from the early 20th century is. But still. Some words sound old-fashioned, coming directly from the 16th or 17th century. Some words are a literal translation from the English, like vue animée for motion pictures instead of cinematographe used in France. I also noticed une couple d’heures for a couple of hours where a French would say quelques heures. Sometimes, Hémon uses English words, saying une fille smart or un foreman instead of un contremaître, or des hommes “rough”. What puzzled me was une job. In French from France at the time, nobody used the word job in French. It came in the 1980s, I’d say. In France we say un job, masculine, not une job, feminine. I don’t understand how “job” became feminine in Québecois. The notion is covered by words in masculine form: un travail, un emploi, le labeur, un boulot, un métier. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear the reason behind this.

All in all, I’m glad I read Maria Chapdelaine more to read in Québécois and about the life by the Lac Saint-Jean because I was travelling there. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s meant to be in my pantheon of books-you-must-read-before-you-die. I hope it’s not a mandatory read in Canadian schools, that’s not a way to warm students to literature…

135_Pointe-Taillon

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

August 7, 2016 23 comments

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.

fitzgerald_bookshopThe Bookshop was our Book Club choice for July, along with Rendezvous in Venice, so my billet is a bit late but I didn’t manage to write it before going on holiday. 

Although it was published in 1978, The Bookshop starts in 1959 and is set in Hardborough, a small seaside town in East Suffolk. Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who intends to open a bookshop. Hardborough is still a very rural town who needs the basics…

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Florence’s idea comes as a surprise to her fellow villagers. She decided to purchase the Old House, a building that has been empty for years and that nobody really wanted. It has a second building that she intends to use as a warehouse.

From the beginning, Florence is against a wall of people who’d rather she abandoned her project. Her opponents are quite vocal albeit polite in surface. After all, you’re in the kingdom of the legendary English sense of understatement. (The word in Hardborough for ‘mad’ was ‘not quite right’, just as ‘very ill’ was ‘moderate’.)

Some think her enterprise is inappropriate for a woman :

 ‘You live by yourself, don’t you? You’ve just moved into the Old House all by yourself? Haven’t you ever thought of marrying again?’

This reminded me of the director of a crèche I met when I was looking for a daycare solution for my daughter. Since the fare depends on your earnings, she had all the documents about our financial situation and she asked me “Given what your husband makes, why don’t you just stay at home?” Hello, flash news, working is not all about the money. And like me, Florence, who used to work before her marriage, liked having a job, colleagues and being out of her house. So she’s rightfully irritated by this suggestion.

Other inhabitants are blunter, like Milo who has a job at the BBC in London:

Milo looked at her more closely. ‘Are you sure you’re well advised to undertake the running of a business?’ he asked.

Mrs Violet Gamart, the Mrs Verdurin of Hardborough, invites Florence to a party with the sole purpose of convincing her to drop her project and let her buy the Old Place to create an art centre. In appearance, she’s in favour of a bookshop but not in the Old Place.

The only genuine support she gets is from the elusive Mr Brundish. He’s like royalty in Hardborough and his opinion matters especially since he doesn’t socialise with anyone. Mrs Gamart would love to have him in her circle of acquaintances but she never managed to get an invitation. Mr Brundish’s open support to Florence only stirs up Violet’s jealousy and her determination to stop this bookshop.

Quaint little Hardborough should be named a viper’s nest. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the village also behaves like a compact social body who will do whatever it takes to expurgate a foreign body that would try to settle. And Florence Green is seen as one of those foreign bodies.

Florence brushes away the warnings and proceeds with her business venture. She’s convinced that things will settle down. Green is the colour of this book: Florence is too green with village politics and with the running of a business. The passages where Florence tries to understand the ins and outs of a general ledger are hilarious. Florence is also a little lost with purchases for the shop. And Violet is green with envy because of Mr Brundish’s attention to Florence.

Will the bookshop and Florence find their place in Hardborough? How will the power games unfold?

I enjoyed Florence’s story and appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald skills at describing the little jibes and the atmosphere of the small close-knit village. She has her way with words like here:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

Isn’t that wonderful?

However, I had trouble connecting with Florence. I found her a bit too nice and a bit spineless. Or perhaps she puts so much trust in human nature that it borders plain naïveté.

What I didn’t like at all was the poltergeist/rapper thing. (Poltergeists are called “rappers” in Hardborough ) We learn at the beginning that they say the Old House is haunted. I thought it would remain a rumour, something to discourage Florence from buying the place. But no. It’s mentioned throughout the book and I don’t see the point. Why was this device needed in the story at all? I’m not too fond of ghost stories and since I couldn’t understand the use of the ghost here, it rather put me off.

But this is a small detail that shouldn’t deter readers from trying The Bookshop. It’s only on me, not a flaw of the novella.

For another review of The Booshop, go here and read Jacqui’s excellent take on it.

Spanish Lit Month: Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría

July 24, 2016 19 comments

Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría (2002) French title: Le rouge sur la plume du perroquet. Translated by Jacques-François Bonaldi. Original Spanish title: El rojo en la pluma del loro.

Chavarria_frenchTango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría is my second read for Spanish Lit Month. I wonder why the English title isn’t the exact translation of the original one, like in French. It is actually The red on a parrot’s feather. It is a cryptic title but it is explained by the end of the book. I’ve had this one on the shelf for a while and Spanish Lit Month was a perfect opportunity to read it and contribute to Richard’s and Stu’s event and add to my #TBR20 project. A way to kill two parrots with one stone.

Aldo Bianchi is an Argentinean from the Italian diaspora in Argentina. He emigrated to Italy during the Argentinean dictatorship and now owns a profitable construction business in Italy. His business brings him to Cuba where he falls in lust with a voluptuous prostitute, Bini. She has a child’s mind in a woman’s body and Aldo appears to be infatuated. His friends Gonzalo and Aurelia are worried about him. They are also Argentinean and live near Aldo in Italy. They knew his ex-wife and his breakup and they are afraid to see Aldo in the claws of a gold digger who could never adjust to Aldo’s life and circle in Italy.

Aurelia organizes Gonzalo’s sixtieth birthday party in Cuba. Aldo attends the party with Bini who eventually meets his friends. But more importantly, he gets the confirmation that Alberto Ríos and Triple-O are one person. And Aldo has a score to settle with Triple-O. He wants justice for the past.

Indeed, Triple-O is from Uruguay and he was a sadistic torturer during the Uruguayan dictatorship and then moved his activities to Argentina. He was trained by the CIA and ran a sinister secret prison in Buenos Aires. He was a brutal torturer, taking pleasure in torturing and killing people. He’s now hiding in Cuba under a fake identity.

But Aldo recognizes him and will plan his revenge thoroughly to be sure he won’t miss him.

chavarria_englishTango for a Torturer unfolds Aldo’s plan to frame and catch Triple-O. It is a fantastic crime fiction novel with the reality of the Condor Operation and the Dirty Wars as a background. I only know the basics about the history of Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s. There were useful footnotes in my paperback and I went to Wikipedia afterwards. Triple-O’s activities are true to life. The details are based upon what really happened even if the names are slightly changed. Chavarría is a former Tupamaro, he knows what he’s writing about.

The book is focused of Aldo’s plan but there are also a lot of descriptions of Triple-O’s life under his Alberto Ríos identity. When you know exactly the extent of Triple-O’s horrific actions, it is unsettling to see him live a normal life. He’s not remorseful at all and he lives a comfortable life out of the money he stole from his victims. All he cares about is being safe and healthy. He knows hitmen are after him for his past but he feels safe in Cuba and enjoys himself. On the contrary, Aldo stills suffers from the aftermath of the torture. He’s successful and rich but never recovered from his past. And honestly, how could he? And this difference in their peace of mind points out the injustice of it all or maybe just shows who’s the better human.

I read that Tango for a Torturer has the same frame as Le Comte de Monte Cristo, a book that Chavarría admires. I didn’t notice it, probably because Cuba is so far away from France that it never occurred to me to look for a French reference. But the two books do have similar storylines.

It could have been a bleak book but it’s not, probably because it is set in Cuba and the setting breathes life into the story. It prevents the book from becoming only a man hunt and a cold revenge. Bini’s character and her family bring Cuba into the plot. Bini is a bit of a scatterbrain. She loves to drive even if she doesn’t have a license and she has her way to make men lend her the wheel. She’s full of life, with no education or manners. She’s dirty poor, her parents didn’t give a damn about her and she had to fend for herself from a very young age. She enjoys sex, goes after men, after what she wants. She’s also very religious and Chavarría gives details about religious beliefs in Cuba. He also describes the landscape, the climate and Havana. All this contributes to turn the book into something more than a classic crime fiction novel.

This is a tremendous read. The plot is well-constructed, it’s educational, lively and it has a purpose. It made me want to read about the Dirty Wars and know more about what happened. It also means that here, in the pages of this crime novel, lies a memorial to all the innocent people who died and disappeared under these brutal dictatorships.

I owe this one to Guy (again!) and his review is here.

PS: This is the second time this year that I read a book linked to Argentina’s history. The other one was Three Horses by Erri de Luca.

 

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 20 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

July 16, 2016 15 comments

Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant. (2003) Original French title: Le Rendez-vous de Venise.

In Rendezvous in Venice, Philippe Beaussant tells a story about art, about family and transmission, about mentoring and love. The first part of this billet is without spoilers and the second part explores the novella a bit farther but includes spoilers.

Part I

beaussant_rdv_venisePierre stumbles upon his dead uncle’s notebook. Uncle Charles was his mentor as an art historian and Pierre was his assistant during the last fifteen years heard of Charles’ life. He thought he knew everything about him. Charles was a bachelor, he appreciated women as works of art but never really as flesh and blood people. Or so Pierre thought. Reading through the notebook, he realizes that a long time ago his uncle had a passionate love affair with a younger woman named Judith, that this love story had its turning point in Venice.

Pierre is stunned. He never knew this side of Charles and he starts wondering whether he knew him at all. Pierre is also involved in art as an academic. He learnt everything from Charles, who was well-known in their academic world. He inherited Charles house and lives there with his old servant. The décor remained untouched. The memories of Charles were to remain untouched and this notebook upsets their careful order.

Rendezvous in Venice is a wonderful little book that masterfully mixes personal stories and art. As Pierre remembers Charles, he brings back their discussions about art and portraits of the Italian Renaissance. It is told with the words of a man who loves paintings and painters, who wants to share his passion with people beyond his inner circles of scholars. And I love academics who reach out to the masses who don’t have their erudition and will never have it but are still capable of finding beauty in a painting by Botticelli. Several portraits are mentioned in the novella, all with a heady mix of reverence and familiarity.

SimonettavespucciThere’s a Proustian atmosphere to Rendezvous in Venice. Anyone who loves In Search of Lost Time will love it too. I will explore this side of the novella in the second part of this billet. The open reference to Proust could be irritating but it’s not. It is done with fondness. It is made of the same deep knowledge and feeling as the references to paintings that I mentioned earlier.

Beaussant knew these paintings and books so well that he could interlink them with his own story without it being awkward. It is made to share something wonderful and not to show off academic knowledge. Rendezvous in Venice is written by someone who wants to uplift you with their knowledge and not put you down with your lack of education.

This is a book to read after a visit to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. This museum was the mansion of a rich couple who were passionate about art, and especially about the Italian Renaissance. The museum displays their collection, in their house and their apartments are furnished for the visitors to see. The mansion is Boulevard Haussmann, not far from where Marcel Proust used to live.

I heard about Rendezvous in Venice on Jacqui’s blog and you can find her review here. Thanks Jacqui, I owe you one. It was a delight.

Part II.

For readers who have read In Search of Lost Time, you will feel Proust at every corner while reading Rendezvous in Venice. The choice of Venice is not a coincidence. If it were just about Renaissance paintings, Florence would have been more appropriate. Venice is a key place for the Narrator in Proust, one he dreams about a lot.

Then, there’s Charles, the uncle who has the same name as Charles Swann. Swann and Odette’s story is told in Swann’s Way. The reader discovers Swann, passionate with paintings and art, seeing in Odette the features of a woman in an old portrait. Uncle Charles also sees Judith that way. Both Charles seem to have the same perfect manners of cultured people.

Page 50 of my edition we are reading extracts of Charles’s notebook and he mentions his memory, the way he plays with names related to Judith in his head. Her way of speaking is compared to a sonata. (J’en dégustais le son, comme on écoute une sonate. or in English, I tasted their sound as one listens to a sonata.) In The Guermantes Way, Proust plays with names of places and people. The Vinteuil sonata is also a pattern through In Search of Lost Time but plays an important role in Swann’s love for Odette.

Page 52, Charles describes in his notebook his attempts at bringing back Judith in his memories. The way he describes his quest is a lot alike Proust’s. It is a way to concentrate in yourself and remember. It is a lot like the passages after the death of the Narrator’s grand-mother or the grief after Albertine’s death. Uncle Charles grieves the death of his relationship with Judith.

A few pages later, Uncle Charles says J’ai compris que notre amour était mortel. (I understood that our love was mortal) which is exactly what happens with Charles in Swann’s Way. Both Charles understand that art is immortal and human love is mortal. They just choose a different path. Swann marries Odette and they have a daughter, Gilberte. Uncle Charles breaks up with Judith after she tells him that she wants a child with him. Judith marries someone else and has a daughter with him, Sarah. If we go further, the love story of the next generation also goes the other way. The Narrator falls in love with Gilberte but nothing comes out of it. Pierre falls in love with Sarah and they have a child together.

And page 80, in the middle of Charles’s notebooks, there it is, the open reference to Proust. The Narrator had dreamed of Venice. The volume Albertine disparue is the one that matches with the tone of Uncle Charles’s notebooks. In this volume, the Narrator mourns Albertine’s death and his lost love and he finally goes to Venice. Uncle Charles has to write about Judith, still mourning their relationship.

Pierre inherited of Uncle Charles’s house and Sarah moves in for a while. Mariette disapprove of the disruption. Sarah is impulsive, different from Pierre. Françoise didn’t like Albertine and hated that she moved in with the Narrator. When Sarah leaves Pierre, Mariette will say:

Mademoiselle Sarah…Son placard est ouvert…Il est vide. Elle a emporté ses affaires? Elle est partie? Miss Sarah…Her dresser is open…It’s empty. She took her things? She left?

Albertine Gone opens with Françoise exclaiming Mademoiselle Albertine est partie! (Miss Albertine is gone) Let’s face it, both servants are happy to see the intruder leave.

The whole novella breathes Proust. Swann and the Narrator’s love for art. Mariette, Uncle Charles’s old servant who sounds exactly like Françoise. Uncle Charles is very ill and bedridden for the last years of his life but still continues to work as an art historian like Proust himself who finished In Search of Lost Time in bed.

There are probably other references that I missed but I shared the ones I noticed with you.

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari

July 12, 2016 15 comments

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari (2012) Original French title: Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome.

ferrari_chuteMatthieu Antonetti lives in Paris with his mother and visits her side of the family in a small village in Corsica for the holidays. Libero Pintus lives in this village. The two boys are the same age and become best friends. Matthieu would love to live in Corsica. After high school, they both start studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. When they learn that the café in their beloved Corsican village is for rent, they decide to drop out of university and run it. The Sermon on the Fall of Rome relates Matthieu’s family history, his personal story and his adventure with running the café with his best friend. Parallel to Matthieu’s story, we read about Matthieu’s grand-father’s life. Marcek worked in Africa in the French colonies. Telling Marcel’s life is a way to relate the fall of the French colonial empire.

Part of the novel is probably based upon Ferrari’s personal life. He comes from Corsica, he studied philosophy in La Sorbonne, he ran a philosophical café in Corsica and he was a teacher in Algier.

It is objectively a great idea for a book. And Matthieu’s story, the portrait of his family, the description of life in Corsica would have been a great novel. Something like Le Soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. Where a regular novelist would probably have limited themselves to telling a story, Ferrari had to brew a literary café with a philosophical flavor. The philosopher du jour is Saint Augustine. Perhaps Ferrari dreamt that Saint Augustine was alive as you or me and it gave him literary inspiration. Who knows?

ferrari_englishSo here we are with Saint Augustine who wrote Sermon on the fall of Rome. And…*nudge nudge and eye roll*…look at the book’s title! And, guess what, the titles of the chapters come from… The City of God by Saint Augustine! And the icing on the fiadone, the last chapter is the actual sermon. Yippee!

There’s probably a highbrow explanation as to how Saint Augustine’s point on the fall of the Roman empire has something to do with the rise and fall of a non-philosophical café in Corsica. I’m sure that literate readers see it right away, this brilliant analogy and all. At least, the jury of the Prix Goncourt did. The Sermon on the Fall of Rome won the prestigious prize in 2012.

But poor old common-reader me closed the book thinking “These highbrow French writers, they always have to intellectualize everything.” It feels as if writing a good novel that “just” tells a good story with well-drawn characters is not enough to take them to the pedestal of being un écrivain. Well, for me it’s enough.

You might wonder why I bought it. I had faith in the publisher, Actes Sud and the blurb led me to imagine that the title of the book was more a whim than actually referring to Saint Augustine that way. My mistake I guess.

Unsurprisingly given all the books in translation he reads, Stu from Winston’s Dad has read and reviewed it. You can find his much more positive review here.

PS: a fiadone is a classic Corsican cake.

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