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Sea, sex and fun: the Narrator goes wild

October 29, 2010 8 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (part II) by Marcel Proust. Also translated as Within a Budding Grove.

Why did I choose such a modern title for this post? Because humanity is immortal and permanent. The Narrator is not so different from all adolescents. He takes liberties with his family, his hormones are raging and restless and he wants to have fun with friends. 

This volume opens with the Narrator’s departure from Paris. The parting from his mother is painful but he will survive it easily. This good-bye also means leaving definitively childhood to become a young man, able to spend a summer away from home. The Narrator’s relationship with his grand-mother is really touching, made of nice attentions and cruel behaviours. He is fond of her but starts to challenge her choices. As all adolescents have experienced it, he is sometimes ashamed of her:

Tandis que j’entendais ma grand’mère, sans se froisser qu’il l’écoutât son chapeau sur la tête et tout en sifflotant, lui demander avec une intonation artificielle: «Et quels sont… vos prix?… Oh! beaucoup trop élevés pour mon petit budget», attendant sur une banquette, je me réfugiais au plus profond de moi-même, je m’efforçais d’émigrer dans des pensées éternelles, de ne laisser rien de moi, rien de vivant, à la surface de mon corps — insensibilisée comme l’est celle des animaux qui par inhibition font les morts quand on les blesse, — afin de ne pas trop souffrir dans ce lieu. While I heard my grandmother, who shewed no sign of annoyance at his listening to her with his hat on his head and whistling through his teeth at her, ask him in an artificial voice, “And what are… your charges?… Oh! far too high for my little budget,” waiting upon a bench, I sought refuge in the innermost depths of my own consciousness, strove to migrate to a plane of eternal thoughts — to leave nothing of myself, nothing that lived and felt on the surface of my body, anaesthetised as are those of animals which by inhibition feign death when they are attacked — so as not to suffer too keenly in this place

Who has never felt that way as a teenager? Some little remarks are spread along the novel, showing that he is no more the nice obedient boy but a young man who wants to do as he pleases. For example, he would not follow his grand-mother’s advice on clothing, when he would not have discussed it before.  

The title of the novel refers to young girls in flower. Who are they? At the beginning, they are all the girls the Narrator passes by during his carriage promenades with his grand-mother and her friend Madame de Villeparisis and who arouse desire in his body and his mind, overwhelmed as he is by the hormonal chaos of adolescence. The sexual metaphor is pretty clear here:

Mais ce n’est pas seulement son corps que j’aurais voulu atteindre, c’était aussi la personne qui vivait en lui et avec laquelle il n’est qu’une sorte d’attouchement, qui est d’attirer son attention, qu’une sorte de pénétration, y éveiller une idée But it was not only to her body that I should have liked to attain, there was also her person, which abode within her, and with which there is but one form of contact, namely to attract its attention, but one sort of penetration, to awaken an idea in it.

The translation is prude as “attouchement”, which has a clear sexual meaning in French, has been translated by “contact” instead of “touching”. Later in the novel, the young girls in flower will be Albertine and her friends. The Narrator relates their afternoons together, and the flirty relationship he has with Albertine and her friend Andrée. Please note that all the girls whom the Narrator fancy have a man name taken in the feminine form –Gilbert/Gilberte, Albert/Albertine, André/Andrée. Proust was a homosexual and I suppose it is not a coincidence.

The whole experience of flirting is not so different from what all adolescents live through. Only technological means differ. It is made of time spent together, stealthy touching and out-of-control imagination. Let’s watch Albertine and the Narrator:

Ainsi un jour Albertine avait dit: «Qui est-ce qui a un crayon?» Andrée l’avait fourni. Rosemonde le papier. Albertine leur avait dit: «Mes petites bonnes femmes, je vous défends de regarder ce que j’écris.» Après s’être appliquée à bien tracer chaque lettre, le papier appuyé à ses genoux, elle me l’avait passé en me disant: «Faites attention qu’on ne voie pas.» Alors je l’avais déplié et j’avais lu ces mots qu’elle m’avait écrits: «Je vous aime bien.» Thus one day Albertine had suddenly asked: “Who has a pencil?” Andrée had provided one, Rosemonde the paper; Albertine had warned them: “Now, young ladies, you are not to look at what I write.” After carefully tracing each letter, supporting the paper on her knee, she had passed it to me with: “Take care no one sees.” Whereupon I had unfolded it and read her message, which was: “I love you.”

The English are the first to use a prudent and timid ‘I like you’ when meaning more when the French will tell a sometimes slightly untruthful “I love you”. And here, for once, in French, it is actually written ‘I like you’ (“Je vous aime bien”) and the translator chose to write ‘I love you’! In French, ‘I like you’ doesn’t mean ‘I love you’ at all but it sure means ‘Let’s be just friends’. The Narrator will understand “I love you” though, with devastating consequences for his ego.

Friendship is also an important part of adolescence. Some friends  share with you that foggy time between childhood and adulthood and some are a way to assert you own choices and leave the family circle. In Balbec, the Narrator befriends with Robert de Saint-Loup, a friend we will hear of all along in the next books and who fits in the first category of friends, the ones with whom you share hopes, disappointments and parties. Robert and the Narrator go out for diner, get drunk, and watch women.

L’attente du dîner à Rivebelle rendait mon humeur plus frivole encore et ma pensée, habitant à ces moments-là la surface de mon corps que j’allais habiller pour tâcher de paraître le plus plaisant possible aux regards féminins qui me dévisageraient dans le restaurant illuminé, était incapable de mettre de la profondeur derrière la couleur des choses. The anticipation of dinner at Rivebelle made my mood more frivolous still, and my mind, dwelling at such moments upon the surface of the body which I was going to dress up so as to try to appear as pleasing as possible in the feminine eyes which would be scrutinising me in the brilliantly lighted restaurant, was incapable of putting any depth behind the colour of things.

Bloch is more the second kind of friends, the ones you do not totally like but are ‘cool’ or help you to indulge in your rebellious tendencies. That is how the Narrator gets acquainted with a Jew, which is as bold as hanging out with punks in the 1980s.  

Illness is what makes of the Narrator a different adolescent, though. Adolescents feel immortal. He cannot afford that feeling. He never really complains about his poor health but sometimes, at the corner of a sentence, we unexpectedly get to see how he suffers:

D’ailleurs, de plus en plus souffrant, j’étais tenté de surfaire les plaisirs les plus simples à cause des difficultés mêmes qu’il y avait pour moi à les atteindre. Des femmes élégantes, je croyais en apercevoir partout, parce que j’étais trop fatigué si c’était sur la plage, trop timide si c’était au Casino ou dans une pâtisserie, pour les approcher nulle part. Pourtant, si je devais bientôt mourir, j’aurais aimé savoir comment étaient faites de près, en réalité, les plus jolies jeunes filles que la vie pût offrir, quand même c’eût été un autre que moi, ou même personne, qui dût profiter de cette offre (je ne me rendais pas compte, en effet, qu’il y avait un désir de possession à l’origine de ma curiosité). Besides, as I grew more and more delicate, I was inclined to overrate the simplest pleasures because of the difficulties that sprang up in the way of my attaining them. Charming women I seemed to see all round me, because I was too tired, if it was on the beach, too shy if it was in the Casino or at a pastry-cook’s, to go anywhere near them. And yet if I was soon to die I should have liked first to know the appearance at close quarters, in reality of the prettiest girls that life had to offer, even although it should be another than myself or no one at all who was to take advantage of the offer. (I did not, in fact, appreciate the desire for possession that underlay my curiosity.)

This quote also gives us a glimpse at the perception Proust has of the dichotomy between body and soul. Due to his illness, the Narrator cannot forget his body, which is often seen as a burden. It puts his mind in chains because it grounds it to earth. Proust will eventually call his body a “fortress” where his mind is forced to live. This notion will be developed in the following volumes and particularly in the last one.  

In the end, Proust has an optimistic look on adolescence:

La caractéristique de l’âge ridicule que je traversais — âge nullement ingrat, très fécond — est qu’on n’y consulte pas l’intelligence et que les moindres attributs des êtres semblent faire partie indivisible de leur personnalité. Tout entouré de monstres et de dieux, on ne connaît guère le calme. Il n’y a presque pas un des gestes qu’on a faits alors qu’on ne voudrait plus tard pouvoir abolir. Mais ce qu’on devrait regretter au contraire c’est de ne plus posséder la spontanéité qui nous les faisait accomplir. Plus tard on voit les choses d’une façon plus pratique, en pleine conformité avec le reste de la société, mais l’adolescence est le seul temps où l’on ait appris quelque chose. But the characteristic feature of the silly phase through which I was passing — a phase by no means irresponsive, indeed highly fertile — is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us then to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we are barely conscious of tranquillity. There is hardly one of the actions which we performed in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to erase from our memory. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but youth was the only time in which we learned anything.

I share his views. Later, compromise is in everything. Our repeated slight renunciations are what we call ‘wisdom’, only to see them in a positive light. We progressively build ourselves a shell to live in and from time to time, the adolescent hidden in the most remote corner of this adult shell shows up and reminds us of whom we really are.

That was a little sad, sorry. I know there are a lot of quotes in this post, but I couldn’t help it. Why paraphrase something that has been so beautifully put? Of course, all I have written about In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is only a tiny part of this novel. The best way to know it better is to read it and, like Alice, let yourself fall in its Wonderland.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

A summer in Balbec

October 27, 2010 10 comments

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers, Part II. by Marcel Proust. Also translated under the title “Within a Budding Grove”

Writing about Proust is not easy, even intimidating. All the flat words you are going to put on his work are like decorating a masterly crafted gold bracelet with fake gems. Well, I’ll live with it.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (II) takes place in Balbec – in fact Cabourg, Normandy. Two years after his break-up with Gilberte, the narrator stays at the Grand-Hôtel with his grand-mother, among a crowd of bourgeois and aristocrats. We find here the pattern of In Search of Lost Time, made of introspection and description of the outside world. In this volume, we follow the narrator in his discovery of Balbec, his new friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup and his new acquaintance with Albertine and her girl-friends. The narrator is still exploring art. We had met Vinteuil for music and Bergotte for literature in Swann’s Way and A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (I). Now, he introduces us to Elstir, who looks like Monet to me.

His first night at Balbec echoes the fearful nights pictured in Swann’s Way, when he was a child at Combray. The description of how it feels to spend a first night in a new room is really true to life and creates a bond with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. To me, the main themes are social satire and adolescence.

Proust excels in social satire. The description of the bourgeois staying in the same hotel is a pure sample of French sense of humour, with its patented hint of nastiness. I don’t know how an author can be more French than Marcel Proust. If Balzac is the painter of the petty, greedy and narrow-minded bourgeoisie, Proust is the one of its ridiculous snobbery. At the Grand-Hotel, bourgeois and aristocrats thoroughly and cautiously avoid melting. The aristocrats ignore the bourgeois and the bourgeois pretend to snob the aristocrats out of choice, not to be obliged to sheepishly acknowledge that they would die to be acquainted with them. Like in Swann’s Way, servants are the only members of the working class. We meet the incredible Françoise again, as she followed her master to Balbec and Proust delights in describing the employees of the hotel, such as the lift, the headwaiter, and their social life. Proust brilliantly dissects the different but coercive set of rules which govern relationships in the working class, the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. His sense of humour blossoms in this scene, where the Princesse de Luxembourg, unexpectedly runs into the narrator and his grand-mother:

Même, dans son désir de ne pas avoir l’air de siéger dans une sphère supérieure à la nôtre, elle avait sans doute mal calculé la distance, car, par une erreur de réglage, ses regards s’imprégnèrent d’une telle bonté que je vis approcher le moment où nous flatterait de la main comme deux bêtes sympathiques qui eussent passé la tête vers elle, à travers un grillage, au Jardin d’Acclimatation Indeed, in her anxiety not to appear to be a denizen of a higher sphere than ours, she had probably miscalculated the distance there was indeed between us, for by an error in adjustment she made her eyes beam with such benevolence that I could see the moment approaching when she would put out her hand and stroke us, as if we were two nice beasts and had poked our heads out at her through the bars of our cage in the Gardens. (NB)

 (NB) What is translated as “The Gardens” are indeed the “Jardin d’Acclimatation”, a garden with plants and animals located in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. It still exists and has a wonderful Japanese Tea House.

 This volume is also a fresh description of the upper classes way of life from La Belle Epoque with their carriage promenades, their games and lunch and diner habits.

Tout au plus nous attardions-nous souvent à causer avec elle [Mme de Villeparisis], notre déjeuner fini, à ce moment sordide où les couteaux traînent sur la nappe à côté des serviettes défaites. At the most we would linger, as often as not, in the room after finishing our luncheon, to talk to her [Mme de Villeparisis], at that sordid moment when the knives are left littering the tablecloth among crumpled napkins.

This is the essence of France, with its several-hour lunches and endless conversations around a table. I can picture it really clearly since our family meetings and lunches with friends still resemble that.  I saw Renoir’s paintings such as Le Moulin de la Galette when I was reading about the narrator’s afternoons with Albertine and her friends.

I don’t remember books where French aristocrats take long walks in the country. For me, sport and outdoors activities have been invented by the British, just like tourism. The bourgeoisie in Proust, as it was noticeable with Odette before, is inspired by the British way of life. It’s fashionable and for example, Odette does her best to say “Christmas” instead of “Noël” and use as many English words as possible. Albertine and her friends do sports and eat sandwiches, which is, the narrator says “a form of food that was novel to me”. This tendency still exists, especially in Paris. The other day, I attended a work meeting where the CFO on stage was struggling not to use English words is his speech. He failed.

What also strikes me in the novel is the casual ostracism towards Jews, shown for example through the episode of the diner at the Blochs’. Anti-Semitism seems a normal behaviour, or at least a widely spread behaviour, just like calling black people “nigger” was accepted at that time. Here is Albertine, about the Blochs sisters:

«On ne me permet pas de jouer avec des israélites», disait Albertine. La façon dont elle prononçait israélite au lieu d’izraélite aurait suffi à indiquer, même si on n’avait pas entendu le commencement de la phrase, que ce n’était pas de sentiments de sympathie envers le peuple élu qu’étaient animées ces jeunes bourgeoises, de familles dévotes, et qui devaient croire aisément que les juifs égorgeaient les enfants chrétiens. “I am not allowed to play with Israelites,” Albertine explained. Her way of pronouncing the word —‘Issraelites’ instead of ‘Izraelites’— would in itself have sufficed to shew, even if one had not heard the rest of the sentence, that it was no feeling of friendliness towards the chosen race that inspired these young Frenchwomen, brought up in God-fearing homes, and quite ready to believe that the Jews were in the habit of massacring Christian children.

 This kind of sentences makes me ill at ease. It reveals anti-Semitism as a commonplace in the French society and warns us that the fertile ground for the Dreyfus Affair is there –not to speak of the shame of Vichy during WWII.

Proust introduces us to new characters that will be important in the following volumes. Robert de Saint Loup will be his best friend, the Baron de Charlus will be the hero of Sodom and Gomorrah and Albertine will be the star of his future love life. He brings his characters one by one, showing how the whole work was already in his head, from the first volumes. 

Like I said before, adolescence is a major theme in this summer in Balbec and will be described in another post.

For other reviews: here are Richard’s first and second posts on this volume and Max’s first and second posts.

A Proustian morning. Thoughts on the 1923 English translation.

October 22, 2010 11 comments

 I’ve just finished reading “A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur”, which is the French title of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I stayed in the mood by spending my morning Boulevard Haussman in Paris. I walked by the building in which Marcel Proust lived from 1907 to 1919. How ironic, it’s a bank now.

I was on my way to the Musée Jacquemart-André, which is a Proustian experience in itself. It is a mansion built in 1875 for Edouard André, a rich banker. He and is wife Nelie Jacquemart were art lovers and collectors – their budget for investing in art was as big as the Louvre’s financial resources of that time. They had no children and upon Nelie’s death early in the 20th century, their mansion became a museum.

The visitors enter the museum through a paved alley leading to a gravelled courtyard. The majestic mansion is then in from of them. You can perfectly picture Madame de Guermantes or the Princesse du Luxembourg arrive here in their carriage.

Inside, the journey in the past continues, with an incredible staircase. In the music room, I imagined Swann surrounded by aristocratic women, listening to the Vinteuil Sonata. In the reception room, I felt the ghosts of couples meeting here, women in gorgeous satin gowns and men in tailored-made black suits. In the private apartments, I admired the rich furniture and envied Nelie Jacquemart’s cosy office located on a balcony. I felt like an intruder in M. André’s bedroom, there was even a log in the chimney, as if he were to come home in a minute.

Well it was a delicious time and a place I recommend for a literary excursion. (They have really good brunches on Sundays, in a Belle Epoque café.)

Posts on A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur will come soon. I found a 1923 translation on line to help me with the quotes I wanted to insert. It is named Within a Budding Grove and was translated C. K. Scott Moncrieff. The link is here. In my opinion, it is not a totally satisfactory translation but it’s free, so I shouldn’t complain. It’s so prude. Sexual allusions are hidden behind more neutral words. The French title literally means “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” It evokes more adolescence that Within a Budding Grove doesn’t it?

The English text made me sigh, it sounds outdated, even to me. Proust’s prose is made of long sentences and he sometimes uses complicated words. However, it’s never pompous or heavy and it doesn’t sound outdated. Of course, a contemporary writer wouldn’t write that way. Nevertheless, it sounds natural and the reader never sees the work he put in his sentences. This translation sounds artificial to me.

I checked on Amazon, there is another translation by James Grieve published by Penguins Classics. It is entitled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which is faithful to the French title. I downloaded a sample on my kindle to have a look at it.

Here is the first sentence in French:

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien Ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbroufeur que le marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé, selon son expression, “puant”.

 Here is the first sentence of the 1923 translation:

“My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home, and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the old Ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the housetops the name of everyone that he knew, however slightly, was an impossible vulgarian whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as — to use his own epithet — a ‘pestilent’ fellow.

 Here is the same sentence, in the 2002 translation:

When it was first suggested we invite M. de Norpois to dinner, my mother commented that it was a pity Professor Cottard was absent from Paris and that she herself had quite lost touch with Swann, either of whom the former ambassador would have been pleased to meet; to which my father replied that although a guest as eminent as Cottard, a scientific man of some renown, would always be an asset at one’s dinner-table, the Marquis de Norpois would be bound to see Swann, with his showing-off and his name-dropping, as nothing but a vulgar swank, a ‘rank outsider’, as he would put it.

 The first translation is really faithful to the French text but sounds strange in English, at least to me. The second one is more modern, with simpler words which do not correspond to the French ones in terms of level of language. The general idea is there and it’s easier to read. Too easy.

None is ideal. The first one is so faithful it becomes bombastic and the second ones simplifies the vocabulary to a point it is almost a betrayal but lighter to read. I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice.

And now I really wonder what  the French translations I read are worth.

Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver ?

October 20, 2010 16 comments

Pacsirta by Dezső Kosztolányi, translated in English as “Skylark” and in French as “Alouette”.

No one is exactly the same after reading Skylark. It took me time to land down in my own life after I turned the last page of this novel. It is so sad and moving.

This novel by the Hungarian author Deszö Kosztlányi has already been beautifully reviewed by Max from Pechorin’s Journal and Guy from His Futile Preoccupations. Please read their excellent reviews to find details on the plot and Kosztlányi’s style. Their English is obviously much better than mine and I share their views.

Skylark is Akós and Antonia Vajkay’s daughter. They live in the provincial town of Sászeg. She’s 35. She’s unmarried. She’s ugly. In September 1899, she leaves her parents to spend a week at her uncle’s, in the country. Skylark opens with her departure and closes on her return. This week of holiday is a catalyst. Something had been boiling for years and after that week, a precipitate named “spinster” is born. The parents eventually admit that Skylark is too ugly to get married. Skylark stops hoping to meet a husband. They all love each other so much that they suffer in silence to protect the each other. Skylark will never unveil what really happened in the country. The parents will never tell her how fun their week without her was. All carry a huge amount of pain.

Skylark is about women and about parenthood.

In 1899, the only reason a woman would definitively leave her parent’s house is marriage, the only way a woman can reach adulthood and independence. Names reveal how insignificant women are at that time. Akós’ wife is named Antonia. Her husband is talked as Akós. She is designated as “his wife”, “the woman”, “the mother” but never Antonia. As a woman, she has no proper identity. She only exists as a mother or as a wife. In addition, Kosztlányi never tells Skylark’s real first name. She will keep her nickname forever. Only a husband would have called her differently.

Like all animals, human parents raise their children with one aim: their future autonomy. Skylark will never leave the family nest, her ugliness cut her wings. It is a handicap; she will never be able to live on her own or find a place in society. She is like a mentally handicapped child you love but will depend on you forever. Her parents will have to take care of her until they die and worry about what will become of her after their death. She’s a burden for her parents and they know it. They never said it aloud to each other before this very week off, because it would have intensified their pain and because they are ashamed of this feeling.

Some events in life create a new version of yourself, depending on how other people look at you. At the beginning of your adult life, you were just yourself. Then you added a “spouse self”, ie who you are as a spouse. When you become a parent, a love storm comes in your existence, creating a “parent self”. In the eyes of your child, you are a parent. When you are with your child, you act like a parent, whatever the age of the “child”. Skylark never leaves her parents. They spend all their time together. As a consequence, the Vajkay never go out of their parent role or identity.

When the children are away, roles shift, and the other selves show up. That’s what happens to Skylark’s parents. They forget hours. They have lunch at the restaurant. They go to the theatre. The mother wants a new handbag. They stop thinking their identity as being “Skylark’s parents”. They are adults and spouses again. I have to say I feel that way too when my children stay a few days at their grand-parents’. My husband and I forget meal hours, eat junk food, go to the cinema and work late without thinking of the nanny. We miss them but also enjoy the temporary freedom.

Skylark’s return announces the winter of her parents’ life. The roles are reversed, Skylark acts like a parent. They erase the traces of their joyful week like teenagers would hurry to tidy the house before their parents come back. Skylark finds her father too skinny: she decides to cook for him to fill out again. In French “to fill out again” is said “se remplumer”, literally “to feather again”. Isn’t it ironical to be “feathered again” by a Skylark?

The town of Sászeg is also a character of this novel. According to the foreword included in my copy, Kosztlányi’s home town inspired the fictional Sászeg. For a modern reader, it is interesting to discover the way of life of provincial Hungary at the turning of the 20th century.

 The translator compared Kosztlányi to Flaubert. I would rather compare him to Maupassant, who has a more compassionate look on people. I noted several references to France throughout the novel: one character reads Le Figaro, the men drink Sylvaner, a white wine from Alsace. The newspaper talk about the Dreyfus Affair – was it such a scandal as to interest the foreign press? Maybe Kosztlányi was francophile.

 Before ending this post, I would like to say how wonderfully Kosztlányi writes. The scenes when Skylark weeps in the train or silently cries in her bed are poignant. The description of life in Sászeg is vivid. The French translation was agreeable to read, except for one detail. I just didn’t like all the “attendu que” (“given that”) abundantly used in some chapters. This locution is typical for court ruling, I had sometimes the impression to read a judgment.

 This novel is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it.

 By the way, Skylark has sisters: Jeanne, from A Life by Guy de Maupassant, Liz Dun, from Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Eleanor Rigby, the one of the song. Hence my title.

“From the day I first saw him, I never stopped waiting. And enduring, for him, with him, against him”

October 17, 2010 5 comments

Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy, read by Fanny Ardant.

At the library, the idea of spending 90 minutes listening to Fanny Ardant’s mesmerizing voice was a pull strong enough to retrieve the CD of Alabama Song from the rack and borrow it. Back home, I realized it was not the entire book but excerpts and I was disappointed. But it was Fanny Ardant and she was worth an abridged text.

Alabama Song is a first person narrative, in which Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife relates her life.

Some people hide to steal, to kill, to betray, to love, to come. I had to hide to write. I was only 20 when I fell under the influence – the spell – of a man who was barely older than me, who wanted to determine my life and went about it in the wrong way.”  

Fanny Ardant’s voice filled the room. 1940. Zelda is in a mental hospital. She’s talking to a “doctor”. She explains who she is, what her life has been. Sentence after sentence, she gives her version of her life. She starts in 1918, when she meets Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery, Alabama. He is beautiful, graceful, delicate, Yankee. Definitely different from her local suitors.

 “The Yankee lieutenant, like I said, has no sweat. He only smells clean, a good smell of new and fine clothes. This man is a plant, one would think, rain on his skin is like a sentimental dew”

The narrative shifts back and forth from memories to present time. She’s telling her life to doctors who always change, she calls one of them “a child”.  It’s not a biography, it’s a novel. Part of the story is real. Part of it is made up. I didn’t search in Scott Fitzgerald’s biography to know which were the invented parts. I didn’t search because it doesn’t matter that Fitzgerald is her last name. This is the story of a free woman born in 1900, a wrong time for a woman to be liberated. That’s why I shall call them Scott and Zelda. They could be anyone.

Is she insane ? One of the doctors points out inconsistencies in her speech. We can’t know, there is no other point of view on the events. She sounds perfectly sane. She describes her poisonous relationship with Scott, how they are symbiotic beings, with a perfect clarity. They need each other to feel alive. She depicts love, fame, alcohol, jealousy, violence. First Scott smothered her with kisses and attention and then, as love vanished, just smothered her. Her family disapproved of her wedding, she married him anayway, without their attending the ceremony. She turned her back to Alabama, to herself.

Zelda is an independent mind who has been restrained by male domination, first by an uptight father, then by a vampirizing husband. He sucked the life out of her. Imprisoned minds escape. That’s what common people and embarrassed husbands call insanity or nervous breakdowns. I thought of Camille Claudel, oppressed by Rodin and her brother Paul. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath and her novel The Bell Jar. They wanted to create. They had to live in the shadow of their lover.

They needed to get married to leave their parent’s house. Zelda says “ If I were a man – if I weren’t bound as a woman to go through it to have a place in society – if I were a guy, I wouldn’t get married”  But getting married meant to free from a father to be attached to a husband. Society expected her to be a wife, a mother and nothing else.  

Zelda’s voice is magnetic through Fanny Ardant’s vocal cords. Her throaty voice is so well matched to Zelda’s broken voice. For she must have had a broken voice: a physical voice damaged by cigarettes and alcohol and a mental voice smashed by her unhealthy relationship with Scott.

This novel got Gilles Leroy the Prix Goncourt in 2007. This could reconcile me with reading literary prize winning books. He writes well, short, imaged, sensual and powerful sentences. His prose is wonderfully served by Fanny Ardant’s reading. 

It is a strange thing to be in your kitchen, pealing and slicing vegetables, preparing apple crêpes in a peaceful domestic bliss and at the same time to hear a woman tell her violent life and its terrifying intimate details. I felt double, one me, guided by an automatic pilot, was making dinner; the other me was there, with her, in this hospital. I was totally absorbed by this story and I think it’s worth reading. 

 PS : I borrowed the book afterwards. The text on the CD is not as abridged as I feared.

A Parisian bookstore

October 13, 2010 11 comments

Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé. Translated as A Novel Bookstore.

I discovered Au Bon Roman by reading Guy’s review on his blog His Futile Preoccupations. It is a book about literature and for literature addicts. The plot is simple: two literature lovers, Francesca and Ivan, decide to open a unique book store in which they would only sell “good” novels. Francesca has the money and Ivan is an experienced bookseller. They select eight writers and ask them to give a list of the 600 best books they’ve read. By compiling the eight lists, Francesca and Ivan determine the books they need to buy to start their business. The eight members of the committee work anonymously and do not know each other. Of course, such a project arouses passionate reactions, enthusiasm and rejection. The construction of the novel is classic: after two members of the committee are assaulted, Ivan and Francesca go to the police. Their telling the story of the shop is a way to relate the genesis of the project and events until the attacks. I won’t reveal more about the plot.

Au Bon Roman is more than a French novel, it is a Parisian novel. The name of the shop sounds like Au Bonheur des Dames, a famous novel by Zola, which takes place in a department store. This literary reference is – I believe – absent from the English title, as well as the notion of “good”, by the way. Moreover, the title starting by “Au” like this links the store to the tradition of Parisian retail stores and restaurants. For example, see this a picture of a café in Paris “Au Père Tranquille”.

The reactions to the book store imagined by Laurence Cossé are typical from the French intellectual small world. It is really plausible. The names of newspapers are disguised but easy to recognize: Le Bigaro for Le Figaro,  Le Ponte for Le Monde – “ponte” means “expert” in a pompous word with a background of bourgeois satisfaction. I wonder how the translator dealt with the critic names such as Lancre (TheInk) or Bonlarron (Goodfellow) and if the names were translated as well.

 Au Bon Roman is not flawless. I noted several inconsistencies or mistakes which bothered me, even if they are not vital. They just show Laurence Cossé’s ignorance of business laws and customs. For example, you cannot know who owns a company by looking at an “extrait KBIS” – The ID card of a company obtained through its registration number. Unless editing obtained a special authorization from Brussels, a 90 days term of payment is illegal in the EU. French people usually pay by credit card or checks, 80% of payments in cash at Au Bon Roman is unlikely. And there is no way you can turn a hairdresser into a book store over a night or two, the administrative authorizations needed would take at least 6 months, especially in a city with historical monuments like Paris. Moreover, Ivan can’t be a 1981 IUFM alumnus since this diploma for school teachers was created in 1989. These are not major slips but they irritated me, Laurence Cossé could have checked. I also thought the love triangle was a clumsy mixing of genres, I was not convinced by the relationship between Ivan and Anis, nor by Francesca’s burning inclination for him.

However, Au Bon Roman had me thinking about the concept of such a store. I was uncomfortable with the idea of someone else’s deciding for me which novels are good. Who can determine what is to be read? There is a kind of disturbing highbrow censorship in the idea. Plus, I’ve just read Fahrenheit 451 and anything about imposing what I should or should not read rings the bell of dictatorial behaviours. I really don’t like when someone tries to teach me what to think, be it openly or through pushy marketing. However, if Au Bon Roman existed, I would still be free to go in another bookstore. So after all, why not such a shop?

 At a moment, Francesca or Ivan points out that Au Bon Roman would not be different from other specialized bookstores, such as the ones only selling science-fiction. Except that “good” is not a genre; it’s a judgement. My first move would be to ask “Define good”. 

Generally speaking, I tend to be terribly suspicious about books praised in the media. In France, writers, journalists, publishers and literary prize members have incestuous relationships. Some writers are in the jury of literary prizes. Some journalists write books. Some writers are publishers. They all stick together, I doubt they are objective. Even if we turn down the idea that they shall push books from friends and colleagues, they all live in the same environment. Doesn’t that influence their judgement? Don’t they all have the same definition of “good” which prevents them from noticing a new talent?

 When I say “This is a good book”, do I mean it has literary qualities or that I liked it? Some books are good but I don’t like them, because despite all their literary worth, they don’t speak to me. Some books I like are not good, they are entertaining and that’s fine with me too. 

The other question raised by this novel is “What’s a good bookstore?” Thanks to Guy’s review, I knew I would find a lot of books and writers references throughout the novel. I listed them thoroughly while reading and will publish the list on my reading lists page. Afterwards, I browsed through the list. I was surprised – and I have to admit sheepishly, it hurt my pride a little – that there were so many French writers I had never heard of. So I decided to carry out a little experiment. Last Saturday, I printed my list and headed to La FNAC (VLAM in Laurence Cossé’s novel) which is the oldest national chain store for books. The idea was to check if the books or writers were on the shelves, to see if I was just ignorant of nowadays French literature or if these books were all like Madame Solario, good unjustly forgotten novels.

I expected to have difficulties in finding these books, since they were supposed to be rare and/or ‘non-mainstream’, but quite the opposite happened. Out of 146 references of books or writers alone, 63 were on the shelves, 54 were not but the writer was present through another of this books. For the remaining 29 ones, neither the book nor the writer was present. Not a bad score for a mass market book store. In addition, Thomas Pynchon – quoted in the novel as opposite to the popular Bernard Clavel – has his last book on the display tables of my supermarket, the temple of mass market.

Things are not as simple as they appear.

Thinking about it, where you live is the key point. I live near a big city, within an easy distance of a well stocked bookstore. There are enough of finicky readers to impose a wider breadth of titles. If I lived in a smaller town, I’d order more books online and be frustrated. Shopping online doesn’t have the same charm as slowly walking in a book store, bending my head to read titles and browsing through novels. 

It turns out from my little escapade that I’m ignorant of today’s French literature. I have to admit I purposely don’t read new French books. Any time I’ve tried, I was disappointed by self-centred whimpering narrators or bleak stories. For example, Annie Ernaux is listed by Laurence Cossé. I knew her by name and looked for her on Wikipedia. She wrote books about her abortion, Alzheimer’s disease, the death of her mother and breast cancer. A cheerful woman. There’s an article about Antoine Volodine in Télérama this week. He’s also listed in Au Bon Roman. Here is what the journalist writes about Volodine’s books “The recurring landscape in which Volodine walks is a ruined world, devastated by a martial apocalypse – hysterical intolerance strikes, exterminations and massacres.” Another cheerful guy. That’s exactly the kind of books I don’t want to read. That’s why I read Jim Harrison or Douglas Coupland and not Annie Ernaux, Antoine Volodine or Cormac McCarthy. Their books may have literary qualities but they don’t appeal to me.

Are they good? Past experience with Van Gogh’s paintings and Dumas’s books show us that people of a time are not always the best to judge the talent of their contemporaries. Let time separate the wheat from the chaff. My reading time is limited, I’d rather discover foreign classic books than read average present French literature.

PS : Tom, from A Common Reader also reviewed this book. Find it here

Three libertarian poets: Prévert, Vian, Desnos

October 10, 2010 8 comments

This week-end, I saw Jean-Louis Trintignant on stage, saying poems from Jacques Prévert, Boris Vian and Robert Desnos.

  It was the first time I ever heard poetry in a theatre. An accordionist and a cellist were on stage too, playing after a succession of poems was finished. I didn’t know accordion could be so beautiful and match so perfectly with cello. But I’m really ignorant as far as classical music is concerned.

These poets were all part of or close to the surrealist movement. The selected poems were eclectic, but war was a recurring theme, as they were written in the first half of the 20th century. I can’t talk about the 30 poems Jean-Louis Trintignant has recited for us, it would be too long. I selected a poem from Boris Vian, which touched me particularly. I couldn’t find a translation, so I wrote it. I left the French text for the Francophone readers and for the Anglophones who can read French.

 

Explaining why a poem reaches something in me is not easy. The words are simple, scarce and yet the images are vivid. He is alive for the love of simple things. There is a lingering sadness behind the words, like in a painting by Edward Hopper.

 The following poem from Robert Desnos was written in a concentration camp, before he died. It was written for his wife Youki.

This short poem is poignant because we know he died shortly after. He also tells in veiled terms how he is affected by his detention. He has become a shadow, and the images of his wife he mentally called to resist are worn out. They don’t work any more. His body is a shadow but so is his mind. The concentration camp is a dark country and his wife lives in the sun, where he hopes to go back. Impressive.

 Jacques Prévert is impossible to translate. There are too many play-on-words and witty use of the French language to satisfactorily translate him.

 The surrealist poets are among my favourite. I wish some poems from Paul Eluard, whom I really like, had been included in the show.

 Jean-Louis Trintignant has a soft voice. He is ageing now – he will turn 80 in December – but his voice is that of a young man. His body is a traitor, as he seemed to struggle to stand up, needing the help of his musicians to take a bow. But he gave life to these poems, including rhythm, breathes, pauses and irony when needed.

 It was a pleasure and an honour to see him.

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