Archive for August, 2011

Doesn’t she look like Odette Swann?

August 31, 2011 15 comments

When I was in Paris I visited the Musée Carnavalet. In the room full of paintings of La Belle Epoque, not far from the reconstitution of Marcel Proust’s room, (See Amateur Reader’s excellent post on this here) I noticed a painting by Louise Abbéma and I thought : “It’s Odette!”

The weight of consequences

August 30, 2011 16 comments

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.


(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

Please, draw me a sheep!

August 28, 2011 14 comments

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

Le mal du siècle Part III: The 20th Century.

August 25, 2011 38 comments

Les Choses (1965) by Georges Perec (1936-1982). 140 pages.

 I decided to read Les Choses (For English-speaking readers, Things: A Story of the Sixties, translated by David Bellos) to try a book by Georges Perec, a French writer who seems more praised abroad than in his own country. So I was curious. In French we say “La curiosité est un vilain défaut” (Curiosity is a flaw) and I have to say it’s true this time. What a boring reading! Ironically, the most interesting part of the book was the transcription of a lecture Perec gave in the Warwick University on May 5th 1967 about literature.

The good thing about Les Choses is that I can say anything I want about the book. Nothing could be a spoiler and ruin someone else’s pleasure as I can’t imagine someone reading it for the plot. I also hurried to write the review in fear that I’d forget at Mach speed everything I read. I interrupted my reading and couldn’t remember the names of the characters when I started again. And there are only TWO character names in the book with very French names, not foreign names impossible to plant in memory. Very bad sign.

Les Choses is the story of Sylvie and Jérôme. They are so linked to each other in the book, forming a global entity that I’m tempted to write Sylvie&Jérôme or Jérôme&Sylvie. They have no individuality. You know, in a couple, you tend to always tell the names in the same order. If you know Sylvie and her husband is Jérôme, you’ll call them Sylvie and Jérôme and it will be the other way round if you knew Jérôme first. The second name just disappears in case of a break-up or a divorce. Here it’s indifferent. They are exchangeable, not one has a leading temper. You don’t prefer one to the other or feel close to them.

So our characters Sylvie and Jérôme are a young couple. We can guess they were born in the late 1930s as they are students in Paris in 1957. (So I deducted from the text). They’re not really devoted to their studies and abandon them. They live on filling marketing enquiries for different advertisement agencies. They go everywhere in France to interview consumers. They don’t want to have a regular job with fixed schedule. They want to live free from any constraint and yet want to be rich. As their mothers were hairdresser and small employee, there is no old money in their families. They’d want to be “rentiers”. They spend time dreaming about all the things they’d like to have and walking on the streets, looking in shops and drooling over fancy clothes, nice furniture.  

They have friends who have the same expectations. They want to have money to buy things. Lots of things. Lists of things (that’s where the BORING starts). Things bringing a bourgeois comfort. Things like Madame L’Express advertises in L’Express, the newly founded newsmagazine. Things they imagine people with inherited wealth have. But they never start to work to make money because they don’t want to work in a fixed frame, with a boss and working hours. They have no intellectual life, they become vaguely interested in politics during the war in Algeria. They’re interested in nothing except things, ie consuming. But all the things they want are above their means. They’re pathetic. Their consuming isn’t joyful, it’s sad and it’s the basis of their couple. So when they have money, it’s fine, when they don’t, they fight. For me it’s rather ugly and I didn’t like them. They’re empty and are like things themselves. 

A few things puzzled me in this book. First, they’re not married in a time where social pressure was still important. Sylvie never gets pregnant, although the pill wasn’t available at this time — The law will be voted in 1967. Second, people coming from the working class and studying at La Sorbonne were usually excellent students pushed forward by teachers. Those were usually hard-working students, most unlikely to abandon their chance to a diploma and a better life.  

By the way, why did I choose that post title? I read Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset last year. I just read René by Chateaubriand. I think these three books have a common point: their hero is bored by life, empty and ill-at-ease in their century. René is the product of the decaying Ancien Régime. When he’s in his twenties, the old institutions are dying and not encouraging ambition. Octave (In Musset) is the product of the beginning of the 19th C in France. He’s in his twenties after decades of important engagement in politics (the French Revolution, the Empire). Contrary to the former generation, he has nothing to fight for. He’s also desperate and throws himself in a life of pleasure. Sylvie and Jérôme are in their twenties in the 1950s and come after WWII, a time when French people had to choose a side and when some of them choose to fight. Sylvie and Jérôme are the other side of the youth, the one that doesn’t follow Sartre and Camus but wants to take advantage of the new consumer society. Except that they don’t have the money for it. I suspect it is partly autobiographical as, like Jérôme and Sylvie, Perec spent a year in Sfax, Tunisia where his wife Petra worked as a teacher (like Sylvie)  

Though I was terribly bored by the book, I think Perec captured a turning point of our society and was very insightful. He describes very well the silent shift from politics and militantism to a more passive youth. Sylvie and Jérôme are ahead of their time. Even their names are ahead of their times. People born in the 1940s are named Gérard, Jean-Marie, André, Gilbert, Michel or Monique, Chantal, Evelyne, Christiane. There will be Sylvies (after Sylvie Vartan) and Jérômes in the 1970s. He caught the powerful undercurrent and though political engagement will be still strong in the 1960s and 1970s, his characters announce the apolitical generation born in the 1970s.  By the way, I was as bored as the characters, which can be considered as a literary achievement too.

In his lecture, Perec talks about the Nouveau Roman and the new current in French literature at that time. Les Choses was written before he joined the Oulipo movement and in reaction to the literature engagée promoted by Sartre and Camus. He says he doesn’t want to write a book which is an excuse to push forward political or philosophical ideas. He failed. Twice. First, he failed because his book is boring whereas Camus or Sartre isn’t, so the alternative he proposes to their literature isn’t convincing. Second, he failed because his book IS full of ideas and also decrypting the society he lives in. Perhaps it was not his acknowledged goal but that’s what I saw 45 years later.

If anyone has read it, please, leave a comment, I’m terribly interested in someone else’s opinion.


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

August 22, 2011 12 comments

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. 1952. Translated into French as Le démon dans ma peau.

Hello Reader and Cyber visitor whose Google spaceship landed here by mistake,

This post starts with a quiz to be efficient and prevent you from losing your time – Isn’t time a precious thing in our century? Someday Time Bonds will be sold on the commodity stock markets like these rights to pollute. But I’m digressing.

Question 1: Do you know Jim Thompson? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to His Futile Preoccupation and read about Thompson there.

If you read this, that means you know Jim Thompson or you don’t want to take my advice, well, it’s your choice. Question 2: Have you read The Killer Inside Me? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to this review.

Still there? Either you’re a) really stubborn; b) brand new to the Internet and you don’t know how to click on links; c) a reader who knows The Killer Inside Me AND wants to know what I thought about it. (pretty low probability) In any case, welcome on board for a chilling journey in Lou’s head, the most psycho of all the characters I’ve met in crime fiction so far. Here’s our man self-analysing:

Plenty of pretty smart psychiatrists have been fooled by guys like me, and you can’t really fault ’em for it. There’s just not much they can put their hands on, know what I mean?

We might have the disease, the condition; or we might just be cold-blooded and smart as hell; or we might be innocent of what we’re supposed to have done. We might be any of those three things, because the symptoms we show would fit any one of the three.

Lou Ford, 29, is Deputy Sheriff in Central City, Texas, the kind of place where everybody knows everything about everybody and where you’re still a stranger even if you’ve been living there for twenty years. The novel was published in 1952 and the action is set in that year too. From the first chapter, you know that Lou is a weird guy, especially when he burns a bum with a cigarette butt for nothing, just on the impulse of the moment. He enjoys hurting that bum and I was already ill-at-ease. In French, I would have said “Lou est un drôle de loulou.”

Lou is the son of the now-deceased doctor of the town. He had a brother, Mike, who spent years in prison for assaulting a little girl. When he went out of prison, he became a building inspector and died in a strange accident on his work place. Chester Conway, the rich man of the town who’s in every business and also in construction, had interest that Mike kept his nose out of his muddy business. Lou knows this and intends to use the information if needed.

Things start to get out of hand when Sheriff Maples sends Lou to have a little chat with Joyce Lakeland who recently settled in Central City and makes money out of prostitution. The aim is to make her leave the town as the local bourgeoisie doesn’t like the idea of a whore making business on their land. The encounter will trigger something in Lou’s mind (what he calls “the sickness”) and put his revenge into motion.

Lou Ford is a sick character. He sounds stupid but he’s manipulative and clever. He spices his speech with ridiculous clichés such as “The boy is father to the man” or “The man with the grin is the man who will win” or proverbs. He does it on purpose, to hide his intelligence. We reader, know exactly what he thinks, even if sometimes we’d rather not:

Hell you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.

Lou could be Nick’s older brother. (Nick is the main character of Pop. 1280, see my review here) The construction of the two novels is very similar but Pop 1280 turns into black comedy when The Killer Inside Me remains serious and chilling. You can’t help wondering how many Lous are on the loose in our streets. It is written in such a way that Lou talks directly to the reader and as Guy pointed out, The Killer Inside Me is both the killer inside Lou and Lou as a killer inside you, reader. It is so gripping that I bought it for a friend who’s a nurse in psychiatric hospital. She’s specialised in schizophrenia, I’m curious to have her opinion on this book.

In both books, Thompson destroys what make the essence of life in small towns: a state of corruption where the rich are like royalty and do what they want, the permanent gossips, the hypocrisy (Lou explains everybody knows who’s sleeping with whom but the rule is to turn your head to the other side). Of course, all these people are pretty religious in appearance and Lou explains “I picked up lots of good lines at prayer meetings” either giving a lesson to those people who forget on Sundays what they do the rest of the week or turning the speech of genuine believers into something dirty.

For Lou and for Nick, an encounter with a woman and dealings with prostitution will start their journey as cold-blooded killers.

Lou and Nick have many things in common. Their mothers died when they were born. Nick’s father used to beat him. Lou’s father didn’t beat him but knew he was unbalanced. Lou could have studied medicine too but that meant leaving to university and Lou’s father wanted to watch him out. He was afraid of what he was capable of if he left. That’s the sad part of the story. Lou’s intelligence is wasted. If he’s really sick, the absence of efficient treatment and of decent solution for him backfired into his killing spree. Who knows what would have happened with proper medicine and if his father had not cut his wings?

Thompson has a disquieting vision of humanity:

How do you know who I am, Johnnie? How can a man ever really know anything? We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.

I’ve read many crime fiction books with more or less horrible murders. What makes this one special is the way you are in Lou’s mind. I can’t help wondering how Thompson’s mind worked for him to be able to create such characters and minutely describe their insanity. I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t a little bit sick too.

A visit to La Maison de Balzac in Paris

August 20, 2011 28 comments

Today I was on my own in Paris for one of those rare moments when I have no societal identity. I’m not a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… These stayed behind and let the woman be for once.

I decided to take a literary tour and start with La Maison de Balzac. It’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a wealthy and bourgeois district in the West of Paris. It’s a beautiful day, rather early in the morning, in a residential area in August: it’s deserted and quiet. When I exit the underground at the Métro Station La Muette, the view is typically Parisian with its Métro sign and its building in pale stones with black iron balconies. I walk a little from the Métro to the Maison de Balzac and on my way I come across a triangular building that is so typical from Paris I almost hear it shout “I’m Parisian” when I look at it.





Of course the area has much changed since Balzac’s times. The street names remind the wanderer that it was a village back then. For example, la Rue des Vignes indicates there was once a vineyard there. Perhaps the Rue Berton (picture) can help us imagine the old streets.  In Balzac’s street, you have now a stunning view on the Eiffel Tower. Balzac lived in this house from 1840 to 1847. (He died in 1850). It was the ex-Foly of a mansion located on the street. As it is build on a hill, the house where Balzac used to live is below. The mansion has been destroyed but the entrance remains.


The house is very modest and Balzac went underground there during seven years: he was bankrupt and he literally hid there from his creditors. The lease was in the name of his governess and the place had two exits to help him escape if needed. He lived there under the name of “M. de Breugnol” and Théophile Gautier was one of the rare persons to know his real address.  

This is where he reviewed La Comédie Humaine and wrote many masterpieces like La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misère des courtisanes or La Rabouilleuse. He wrote to Madame Hanska on February 2nd, 1845:“To work means to get up everynight at midnight, work until 8am, have a fifteen minutes breakfast, work again until 5pm, have diner, go to bed and start again on the morrow”. He worked 15 to 18 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay awake. His coffeepot is in the house.

The apartment is composed of five small rooms and today, they show to the public portraits and sculptures of Balzac, his friends and relatives. A room is dedicated to his long-term love with Madame Hanska. I suppose that many of the furniture and objects presented there were saved by Madame Hanska when Balzac died. They had been married for five months and she died in 1882. She was still living in their house and Balzac was already a master in literature.


One of the room is Balzac’s tiny office, I could only count six footsteps from one wall to the other. It’s really there that he used to work and his table and chair are under our eyes. It was really moving. It wasn’t just any table or any chair. He was attached to them and took them with him any time he moved in a new place. They’ve been with him all the time. The table is rather small and the edges bear the scars of his quill pen where he used to sharpen it impatiently or in the heat of the moment. He imagined most of La Comédie Humaine in that room. Would he have worked so intensely if he hadn’t been locked there? (1)

In another room are shown the ink pads of the characters from La Comédie Humaine.

The publishers inserted illustrations in their Balzac editions. Some dated back to the first edition by Furne but most of them dated back to the early 20th edition. This room also shows a genealogical tree of Balzacian characers. It’s so complex it’s almost impossible to understand. To think he had everything in his head is amazing.

After the visit, I spend some time in the garden. I sit on a bench in Balzac’s tiny garden to write this review on that pink notebook I carry with me all the time to write anywhere at any time. According to the letters he sent to Madame Hanska, Balzac loved flowers and he used to look at his garden through the window.





I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment. The visit was touching, I felt I was paying a tribute to this hard worker of literature. It’s not a cemetery but it was as solemn for me. His writing habits were unhealthy and perhaps led to his untimely death. We owe him that tribute. It was a lovely moment and I hoped I shared it with you.


 (1) Same question for Proust and his illness that kept him in his room. Sachs says that at the end of his life Proust wasn’t even able to go to the cinema.

Literary walk in Paris for my book pals

August 18, 2011 23 comments

I’m currently in Paris and thanks to Caroline’s review, I have Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke. I really enjoy this charming literary guidebook and I noted down some places I wanted to visit.

So today, I’ve been walking in the 5th Arrondissement on the traces of many literary ghosts. I took pictures with my phone, so they’re far from excellent – plus I’m a lousy photographer – but I wanted to thank each of my regular commenter by a personal photo.

For Caroline who made me discover that guidebook and many other books  and who steadily reads everything I write, here is Hemingway’s building Place de la Contrescarpe.

For Guy who also manfully reads all my posts, this is the N°30 rue Tournefort where Mme Vauquer had her Pension.

and also a cinema I believe you’d love to visit:

Do you think this bookseller inspired Laurence Cossé for her Novel Bookstore?

Max, look at this Proustian bookstore where you might love to go when you retire and eventually have all the time you want to read:

Leroy,  this is where Joyce wrote Ulysses.

As you might not be happy with the plaque telling he was a “British writer from Irish origin”, does this street name make up for it?

Sarah, I’m sure you were interested in the place where Joyce wrote Ulysses but here is the Rue Mouffetard, the street in the children’s tales by Pierre Gripari, La Sorcière de la rue Mouffetard. Unfortunately, they haven’t been translated into English.

Amateur Reader, there is a plaque to indicate that Retif de la Bretonne died here:

Litlove and Caroline, I’ve been to 11 rue Tuiller, where Rilke wrote the letters he sent to Lou Andreas Salomé and that will turn into The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte lives there too.

Sorry Himadri, despite my thorough walk in the neighbourhood, I couldn’t find the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Cie.

Richard, Borges stayed rue des Beaux Arts but it’s in the 6th Arrondissement.

I’ve had a lot of fun doing this. If anyone has been forgotten, sorry, it wasn’t on purpose. Many thanks again to all for your messages as it is still difficult and sometimes terribly frustrating to write in English, so encouragements through thought-provoking comments are much appreciated.

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