Archive for January, 2012

Women have plenty of lovers when they have plenty of money

January 30, 2012 50 comments

Miss Mackenzieby Anthony Trollope. 1865. An eponymous French translation has been available since 2010. (!!)

Anthony Trollope. I try to say it aloud. A tricky th too soon followed by a treacherous Tr and my French tongue is in a twist, properly tied. Well, no one said I have to say it aloud.

Miss Margaret Mackenzie is 19 when her father dies after an illness and she then spends 15 years nursing her brother Walter. Walter is a civil servant, a gentleman. Her other brother Tom dropped any claim to gentlemanliness when he started a business with Mr Rubb. He doesn’t pay much attention to Walter and Margaret. When Margaret was younger, Mr Handcock courted her but her brother selfishly refused his consent to her marriage. He would have needed to find a new nurse, how could he spare her? She spends her best years at the service of selfish man who has no consideration for her. She doesn’t even run Walter’s house, he keeps control over everything.

Margaret is 34 when Walter dies and she inherits his fortune. That was unexpected and she decides it’s time for her to live a little. There’s also a sudden change in the attitude of others towards her.

First, Mr Handcock proposes again. Then, her family who never visited her before is now curiously interested in her. Her brother Tom presses her to come and live with them, although he resents Walter’s choice of an heiress. Her cousins Balls, the aristocratic but poor branch of the family invites her to their house. John, the eldest son is about fifty; he’s a widower with several children to support and needs the extra money. He proposes to her too.

But Margaret is clever and if she’s unconscious of her own worth as a person, she’s perfectly aware of her worth as a rich old-maid. She is very lucid and far less weak than her acquaintances and family expect. She refuses Mr Handcock because she doesn’t like him anymore and because he proposed only after he heard of her money. She refuses John Ball because she doesn’t want to abandon her newly found freedom to a life of duty.

She decides to leave London and settle down in Littlebath. To appease his brother’s claims and to have company, she takes her niece Susanna with her. In Littlebath, she meets the Stumfolds:

But Mr Stumfold at Littlebath had very special views, and was very specially known for them. His friends said that he was evangelical, and his enemies said that he was Low Church. He himself was wont to laugh at these names—for he was a man who could laugh—and to declare that his only ambition was to fight the devil under whatever name he might be allowed to carry on that battle. And he was always fighting the devil by opposing those pursuits which are the life and mainstay of such places as Littlebath. His chief enemies were card-playing and dancing as regarded the weaker sex, and hunting and horse-racing—to which, indeed, might be added everything under the name of sport—as regarded the stronger.

Not exactly a funny place, the Stumfold’s salon and Margaret is rather skeptical and find them a little too zealous for her. There she meets Mr Maguire, Mr Stumfold’s second in command. He soon realizes that Margaret would be a good match for him; he’ll be a respectable clergyman, she’ll bring the money. He proposes.

In Littlebath, she also meets Mr Rubb Junior, who comes to her to borrow money for the Mackenzie & Rubb business. She enjoys his company but alas, he’s not a gentleman. The business is far from booming, Mr Rubb would like to catch her money too and starts courting her.

That makes four lovers in less than a year for our Miss Mackenzie.

As to getting away from all her suitors that was impossible. Had she gone to Littlebath there was one there; had she remained with her sister-in-law, she would have been always near another; and, on going to the Cedars, she would meet the third. But she could not on that account absolutely isolate herself from everybody that she knew in the world.

What will she do?

I loved Margaret Mackenzie as a character. She’s torn between belonging to the Stumbfoldian circle – to any circle actually because she craves for company— and her desire to live and have fun. Trollope points out what the society expects from her:

Would it not have been easier for her—easier and more comfortable—to have abandoned all ideas of the world, and have put herself at once under the tutelage and protection of some clergyman who would have told her how to give away her money, and prepare herself in the right way for a comfortable death-bed?

And later, he also shows that her situation would have been different if she were a man and that the society leads her into thinking that she doesn’t deserve better than the quiet life of an old maid:

A man situated in outer matters as she was situated, possessed of good means, hampered by no outer demands, would have declared to himself clearly that it would be well for him to marry. But he would probably be content to wait a while and would, unless in love, feel the delay to be a luxury. But Miss Mackenzie could not confess as much, even to herself,—could not let herself know that she thought as much; but yet she desired to be married, and dreaded delay. She desired to be married, although she was troubled by some half-formed idea that it would be wicked. Who was she, that she should be allowed to be in love? Was she not an old maid by prescription, and, as it were, by the force of ordained circumstances? Had it not been made very clear to her when she was young that she had no right to fall in love, even with Harry Handcock? And although in certain moments of ecstasy, as when she kissed herself in the glass, she almost taught herself to think that feminine charms and feminine privileges had not been all denied to her, such was not her permanent opinion of herself. She despised herself. Why, she knew not; and probably did not know that she did so. But, in truth, she despised herself, thinking herself to be too mean for a man’s love.

I loved Margaret for her goodness and her cleverness. Margaret has the healthiest relationship with money:

What is the use of money if people cannot be happy together with it? I don’t care a bit for money, Miss Todd; that is, not for itself. I shouldn’t like to be dependent on a stranger; I don’t know that I would like to be dependent again even on a brother; but I should take no shame to be dependent on a husband if he was good to me.”

She has a sure way to assess someone’s character and decipher ulterior motives. She’s able to stand for herself; actually, her money gives her the power to stand for herself, it opens up possibilities. In that sense, Miss Mackenzie is a feminist novel. It shows that a woman can be as sensible as a man, that someone can hardly be free without money. Trollope didn’t give her any of the clichéd traits of a female heroin: she’s strong, she doesn’t wallow into romance, she isn’t shallow or hit by a buying spree when she becomes rich. She’s Emma Bovary’s perfect opposite regarding romance and Ondine Spragg’s perfect opposite regarding money.

I loved this novel. Trollope is so funny; I caught myself chuckling all along the book because of his witty look upon his characters. The pages are filled with irony:

Available hypocrisy is a quality very difficult of attainment and of all hypocrisies, epistolatory hypocrisy is perhaps the most difficult. A man or woman must have studied the matter very thoroughly, or be possessed of great natural advantages in that direction, who can so fill a letter with false expressions of affection, as to make any reader believe them to be true.

But I think he was very fond of Miss Mackenzie himself. He sends little daggers at the Victorian society: he makes fun of the evangelist current in the Church of England, mocks the new dining habits à la russe, questions the central issue of gentlemanliness, exposes the ridiculous snobbery of the aristocrats and silently criticizes the enormous place money holds in his world.

Miss Mackenzie is the first book I read from Guy’s Christmas gifts. He knew I wanted to try Trollope and helped me start with an excellent and short one. Thanks Guy. Miss Mackenzie is translated into French but sadly most of Trollope’s novels are translated at all. It puzzles me, I have to say. Which one should I read next?

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

January 26, 2012 18 comments

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt 1996. French title: L’envoûtement de Lily Dahl.

The truth is, Miss Dahl, you can’t know nothin’ about nobody now, can you? Seems to me you yourself could hurt somebody if the time and place was right. That’s so ain’t it? Even them that’s closest to you, you can’t really know ‘bout them. One day you wake up and find out. Folks say ‘It ain’t possible, it can’t happen.’ You live a little longer, and it happens.

This month, our book club had chosen The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. How am I going to review it? Everything I could write will be pale compared to the hypnotic and eerie rhythm of the book. *sigh*

Webster, Minnesota. Lily Dahl, 19, works the morning shift at the Ideal Café. She waitresses the early birds who come for breakfast every day. There are Pete Lund who never speaks, the filthy Bodlers brothers, the unbalanced Martin Petersen and other weirdos or lonely people of Webster.

Well, there’s no law against weirdos, Lil’. This is America. We grow ’em fast and furious.

Lily lives in a small apartment next to the café. Her parents moved away to Florida, she has no family left in Webster. Her neighbour is Mabel, a 78 years-old widow, former English teacher, currently writing her memoirs. The walls are thin as cigarette paper; Lily can hear Mabel move in her bed. The two women befriend despite the difference in age and culture. But as Lily once says to Mabel “You don’t act that old, you know” and the older woman retorts “Well, my inside never caught up with my outside”. Isn’t that a marvelous definition of old age?

Lily’s an aspiring actress; she admires Marilyn Monroe and has her poster on her wall. She plays in the local theater; she got the role of Hermia in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. The play and the rehearsal will follow us along the book, enforcing the dreamlike atmosphere.

Although she’s dating Hank, Lily is obsessed with Edward Shapiro, a painter from New York, settled in the rotten Stuart Hotel across the street. Lily watches him at night, spying on him, trying to know him. One evening, she strips in front of her window with the light on, knowing he’ll be watching her. She sets their relationship into motion and starts an affair with Ed.

This novel puts the reader into a trance, diving them into the atmosphere of this small rural American town. Everybody knows everything about everybody. Gossip is unavoidable, anonymity impossible. Old stories from the past are never quite forgotten and remain with the people. As Lily thinks:

Stupid town, she said to herself, full of long noses sniffing for dirt and those lips yakking about it once they’ve found it.

I couldn’t help hearing the song Marylin & John by Vanessa Paradis. Not that I’m a fan but some way I couldn’t put it out of my mind. It’s about the love affair between Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy. Lily has something of Marilyn Monroe, the same mix of boldness and innocence, of sensuality and youth. In the book, Lily has dark hair (isn’t that strange for someone of Norwegian origin?) but I couldn’t help imagining her with blond hair and a full mouth.

I can’t explain exactly the heavy atmosphere, the feeling that a drama is looming. I felt like reading an old movie, with that peculiar light I can’t describe right. The desert street at night, the shabby hotel and the Ideal Café, far from being ideal contrast with the natural setting of that Minnesota summer, its wild flowers, its heat. Siri Hustdvedt has a thing for inventing tortured and unusual characters. Who is really Ed with his peculiar paintings and his curious way to reach the soul of his models? What does he want from Lily? And what goes through the mind of the strange Martin Petersen with his abnormal intelligence and his bizarre attraction to Lily? Lily isn’t quite herself during that summer, enchanted, she acts out of character. It’s like a LA atmosphere from a Noir crime fiction novel misplaced in the setting of The Little House on the Prairie.

I loved this novel but I can’t review it properly, so I’m very frustrated. I can’t put my impressions into words, except that it’s well worth reading for the story and the style, that Siri Hustdvedt is a talented writer and that it would make an excellent film.

My real life will take over my virtual life.

January 25, 2012 24 comments

I’m starting a new job tomorrow and I’m very happy with it. However, I expect it to be time consuming. It will probably demand studying, take a lot of energy and impair my free time. So handling work, family life and bookish life will be kind of a challenge.

Let’s hope I’ll be a good acrobat.

So, don’t be surprised if I take a long time to answer comments or if I don’t visit your blog as often as I used to. I won’t be able to read as many blog posts as I do now and I regret it. Just be patient!



Categories: Personal Posts

Noir Désir

January 21, 2012 27 comments

Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. 2007. Not translated into English, very sadly.

Jack m’entraînait là où aucune rémission n’était possible, où aucun pardon ne serait accordé, où la survie n’était envisageable qu’à condition de mentir, de se cacher, où les jours toute façon seraient comptés puisque la vérité finit toujours par nous rattraper. Et j’acceptais ce sort. Mieux, j’allais à sa rencontre. Jack was dragging me to a place where no remission was possible, where no forgiveness would be granted, where survival was possible provided that we lied and hid, where days were numbered because truth always catches up with us. And I surrendered to that fate. Better, I was heading toward it.

Our Narrator has no name and relates the events that blew his life away. One year ago, he was married to Laura. They were expecting a baby. They were in love. He was a lieutenant at LAPD, in Beverly Hills, a quiet job according to him. Life was good until June 15th 1990, the day Billy Greenfield got murdered and dumped down on the manicured lawn of a rich man’s house. Billy was a prostitute. Searching his apartment for clues, the Narrator finds a notebook with the names of Billy’s clients. Among them, Jack Bell, a famous young actor. On June 17th, the Narrator pays a visit to Jack, to investigate the murder.

Then things get out of control when Jack and our Narrator fall in love.

Love at first sight, you say in English. It conveys a sweet image of a romantic encounter between a starry-eyed young girl and her righteous beau. Only the French can describe what happens here. Coup de foudre, lightening stroke. It has everything in it: the suddenness, the blinding quality, the violence, the fire, the storm and the destruction it brings in their lives. Coup de foudre.

Besson excels in describing the whirlwind love between the two men. Our Narrator discovers his homosexuality; he recounts his fatal attraction to Jack and their summer of love. The Narrator doesn’t hide or doesn’t try to find excuses. He doesn’t want pity. He takes full responsibilities of his actions and accepts their consequences. With a little hindsight, he deciphers the key moments, the tiny seconds of hesitation, of flawed decision-making. A hand that lingers too long, a look a little too insistent and the wrong words at the wrong moment. Still he doesn’t complain. No should-haves or would-haves here. He quietly unravels the events, not concealing that he had a choice and purposely headed to disaster, blown away by his relationship with Jack.

The LA setting is well-described but you can tell it’s not written by an American author, that he knows the city as a foreigner. Sometimes his comparisons betray his nationality. I can’t imagine an American novelist writing this:

C’étaient des paroles ordinaires, des choses de presque rien, comme en disent les couples qui s’arrêtent sur des aires d’autoroute, le jour des départs en vacances. These were ordinary words, small talk couples make when they stop on a motorway rest area when they go on holiday.

When I read this in French, I see the flow of tourists on the French motorways on August 15th. I see families pick-nicking on wooden benches between the gas station and the children playground, not a couple in California.

Despite this minor flaw, I couldn’t put this book down, Besson is a sensitive writer. He builds his style around short and forceful sentences, creating a plausible flow for a confession. There’s a music behind the words, a gift for little observations.

Je l’ai observée quelques instants avant de me signaler. J’ai toujours aimé observer Laura sans qu’elle s’en rende compte. C’est beau, une femme qui ne fait pas attention, qui se coupe du monde, qui n’est concentrée que sur son geste. I observed her for some time before showing up. I’ve always loved watching Laura, unnoticed. It’s beautiful, a woman who doesn’t pay attention, who shuts the world out, who only concentrates on her movements.


Dans les étreintes, il y a tout ce qu’on abandonne. In our lovemaking lays everything we give away.

An accidental man. The title says everything. Falling in love is an accident. Meeting Jack is an accident, two parallel worlds colliding. Homosexuality is accidentally discovered. The murder is an accident. The Narrator’s life is accidental.

This novel isn’t translated into English, this is why you get my translations for the quotes. If I’m being honest, reviews are far from unanimous. Some hated it, some loved it. I loved it, but I guess you know that by now.

PS: the soundtrack in my head was A l’arrière des taxis by Noir Désir.

Books in English about France in the Nineteenth Century

January 19, 2012 17 comments

When I read La France à la Belle Epoque by Michel Winock, some of you regretted that this book wasn’t translated into English.

When I read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, that wonderful book about everyday life in the nineteenth century England, I said I’d like to read one about France. As I’m rather persistent when I want something –some might even say stubborn– I dropped by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris in order to check the books they could have about everyday life in France in the nineteenth century. It turns out that I didn’t find anything interesting in French but I discovered three books in English you might want to investigate:

– The Pride of Place. Local memories and political culture in nineteenth century France by Stéphane GersonThis one seemed interesting as it develops everything about politics and as the 19thC was a troubled period in our history, it could be useful.

– The World of the Paris Café. Sociability Among the French Working Class. 1789-1914 by W. Scott Haine. I browsed through this one and it takes cafés as a pretext to explain French way of living. I might be worth reading too.

– To Be a Citizen. The Political Culture of the Early French Third Republic by James R Lehning. This one overlaps with the Winock I’ve read. I saw chapters about the role of teachers and school in transforming any child into a French citizen. I mentioned it in my review here.

I checked out, they’re all available on Amazon. Of course, I haven’t read them, so I can’t be sure they’re good. But I think you’re all grown up and perfectly able to decide whether you want to read a book or not.



The novel as a ragbag or can you write fiction about anything?

January 17, 2012 40 comments

I’m not a thorough follower of literature news but I’ve been thinking of Claustria by Régis Jauffret as soon as I’ve heard about this book. Let’s say it right away: I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to. Hopefully nobody will choose it as a birthday gift or feel the urge to lend it to me. Claustria has just been published and critics highly praise its literary value, which I won’t and can’t contest but its concept has been nagging at me ever since I’ve heard about it. Indeed, Claustria is a novel based on the Fritzl case:

The Fritzl case emerged in April 2008 when a 42-year-old woman, Elisabeth Fritzl (born April 6, 1966), stated to police in the town of Amstetten, Austria, that she had been held captive for 24 years in a concealed corridor part of the basement area of the family home, a condominium-style apartment complex built by her father, Josef Fritzl (born April 9, 1935), and that Fritzl had physically assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her numerous times during her imprisonment. The incestuous relationship forced upon her by her father resulted in the birth of seven children and one miscarriage. (Wikipedia)

Claustria intends to describe what happened from inside, imagining the daughter’s feelings, the life of her children who were kept in a cave with only the TV as a window to the outside world. According to the critics, Régis Jauffret really managed to change it into fiction, comparing the situation of this children to men in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Here’s Télérama’s review, Libération’s article and the one published by Les Inrockuptibles. Sorry, everything is in French.

So why does it bother me? Novelists have always done this; after all, The Red and the Black and Madame Bovary are based on true stories too. I’ve read Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti and I wasn’t the least troubled that she used real facts to write crime fiction. However, I was ill-at-ease with David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Seven when I read Max’s review.

What’s the difference? I think it’s because it comes so shortly after the real case and that this case is very public. When Emma Bovary’s story was hardly a few lines in a newspaper in a country where most of the population was illiterate, the Fritzl case was everywhere on TV and in newspapers.

The novelist Régis Jauffret doesn’t hide that his novel has been directly inspired by this affair, so there is no doubt about it. The humorist Pierre Desproges used to say On peut rire de tout, mais pas avec tout le monde (One can laugh about anything, just not with anybody). I think that one can write about everything but not in any form. I can’t help thinking that the novel is a very convenient form. You don’t have to be thorough about what you write. You don’t need to care about accuracy like a journalist should. You don’t need to conduct any proper investigation and ponder what you write. Hey, it’s fiction, remember? How handy.

But this case is so recent that everybody has it in mind and I’m afraid the reader doesn’t distance themselves enough to remember that what they’re reading is fiction. How can Régis Jauffret be sure that what he invented doesn’t become the truth? I believe that it’s too early to become fiction and that any book about this should be an essay or a documentary written by a journalist.

The protagonists are still alive and yet become raw material for a novel. Don’t they have a right to sink into oblivion to move on with their lives? There was an interesting article about TV documentaries that dig into criminal cases. Years after, people have had a fresh start or sometimes are still in prison and their case is brought up again on TV. New neighbors or new friends who didn’t know about their past are now aware of it, sometimes with disastrous consequences. They paid for what they did when a judge sentenced them. Do they have to pay for it all their lives?

Let some years pass by and then write a novel about it. But now? I think it’s unethical and that’s why I’m ill-at-ease. Deep inside, I think writing this novel is wrong. And I was glad to hear a journalist and critic strongly criticizing that approach to the case too. (France Inter, Le masque et la plume) Apparently, writing about news story is a trend in nowadays French literature. They all refer to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. But wasn’t this book writtern after a long investigation and isn’t it tagged as non-fiction?

Categories: Personal Posts

Lullaby by J-M. G. Le Clézio

January 15, 2012 14 comments

Lullaby by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. 1978. Lullaby is a short-story (novella?) included in Mondo and Other Stories.

Reading this was a mother-daughter readalong. My daughter had a school assignment; she had to choose a book, read it and fill in a reading form about it. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in France, teachers are sort of fans of reading forms. Lullaby was on the children book shelves at home, among my children books and books I buy for them from time to time. I try to select literary ones from well-knows writers.

Lullaby is a girl who decides she won’t go to high school again. She lives by the sea and she’s uprooted in this town, but we don’t know why. School is a prison except for physics classes. When she ditches school, she starts taking walks on the smugglers path along the sea. The sea here is probably the Mediterranean, according to the description of the landscape and the wildlife.

Lullaby has a secret, her father is away or gone but we don’t know why. She writes him letters, read his letters, let their words fly into the sky. She seeks for freedom by the sea and a connection with her beloved father too. She melts into the natural elements, the sea, the wind, the scents penetrate her being through all her pores and senses.

Lullaby était pareille à un nuage, à un gaz, elle se mélangeait à ce qui l’entourait. Elle était pareille à l’odeur des pins chauffés par le soleil, sur les collines, pareille à l’odeur de l’herbe qui sent le miel. Elle était l’embrun des vagues où brille l’arc-en-ciel rapide. Elle était le vent, le souffle froid qui vient de la mer, le souffle chaud comme une haleine qui vient de la terre fermentée au pied des buissons. Elle était le sel, le sel qui brille comme le givre sur les vieux rochers, ou bien le sel de la mer, le sel lourd et âcre des ravins sous-marins. Lullaby was like a cloud, a gas, she melted in what surrounded her. She was like the scent of the pine trees heated by the sun on the hills, like the scent of the grass with the honey smell. She was the spume of the waves where the quick rainbow shines. She was the wind, the cold blow coming from the sea, the warm blow like a breath coming up from the fermented earth at the bushes feet. She was the salt, the salt that glitters like frost on the old rocks; or the sea salt, the heavy and acrid salt from the undersea ravines.

As always, Le Clézio’s prose is full of poetry. He was born in Nice and although the coast he describes here has white rocks and Greek houses, I couldn’t help thinking about the Estérel coast between Nice and Cannes. I’ve been there many times and Lullaby’s errands on that smugglers path reminded me of mine on the customs officer path along the sea. I know how she finds her way among the rocks, looking for the best passage, climbing under the sun on the heated rocks. I know the scent of the sun on the pine trees mixed with the salty breath of the nearby sea. I was there with her.

Lullaby is a tribute to the sea whose vastness makes us feel Lilliputian. With her overwhelming presence, the sea shrinks our earthly worries to a speck of dust.  

Lullaby ne pensait même plus à l’école. La mer est comme cela : elle efface les choses de la terre parce qu’elle est ce qu’il y a de plus important au monde. Le bleu, la lumière étaient immenses, le vent, les bruits violents et doux des vagues, et la mer ressemblait à un grand animal en train de remuer sa tête et de fouetter l’air avec sa queue. Lullaby didn’t think about school anymore. The sea is like this: it erases the earthly things because she is the most important thing in the world. The blue, the light were immense, the wind, the violent and smooth noises of the waves. And the sea looked like an animal moving its head and wagging the air with its tail.

I’ve spent hours sitting on these rocks, reading in the sun, watching the turquoise water move back and forth, feeling the wind in my hair. I understand Lullaby’s fascination. My daughter knows that path too, she’s been there several times and she has a lot of fun climbing the rocks, reaching a small beach or going by the sea. She also pictured that place when she read Lullaby and she enjoyed the novella because it brought back vivid images of her holidays. She understood that it’s a story about loneliness and travelling in one’s mind.

Such readalongs are tricky for me. On the one hand, I enjoy reading her books and discussing them with her. It’s an opportunity to share and nourish the pleasure of reading in her. On the other hand, I feel like an intruder. Reading is something personal and you shouldn’t be obliged to talk about what you’ve read if you don’t feel like to. So I’m not asking too many questions, I don’t push too far; I leave to the teacher the disagreeable role of pulling out emotions and analysis from her.


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