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Teen with spirit

June 30, 2012 11 comments

Mentre dorme il pescecane by Milena Agus. 2005. French title : Quand le requin dort. Not translated into English. It means When the shark is asleep.

Chez nous, chacun court après quelque chose : maman la beauté, papa l’Amérique du Sud, mon frère la perfection, ma tante un fiancé.

Et moi j’écris des histoires, parce que quand le monde ne me plaît pas, je me transporte dans le mien et je suis bien

At home, every one runs after something: Mom after beauty, Dad after South America, my brother after perfection and my aunt after a fiancé.

And me, I write stories because when I don’t like the world I live in, I move away into mine and I feel fine.

This is in a nutshell the flavor of this odd little book, Milena Agus’s debut novel. She’s Italian and her other novel Mal di Pietre was a success in France and this is how I discovered her.

Mentre dorme il pescecane is a first person narrative and our narrator is a high school teenager. She tries to figure out who she is and that’s not easy when you live in such a weird family as hers. The father is a militant who’s into helping others but forgets to help his own children. His dream is to immigrate to South America. Meanwhile, he takes trips there for humanitarian purpose. He has a strong and lively personality. He’s the kind of person who always gets forgiven no matter what he does because when you interact with him, he makes you feel special. You know the type?

The mother is a strange and shy little thing. Her family thinks she’s fragile and protects her from everything. Like our young heroin says:

Nous aimons voir le monde derrière une couche de miel et papa dit que nous allons nous faire un diabète du cerveau.

We enjoy seeing the world through honey and dad says we’ll get brain diabetes.

She lives in a sort of fantasy world, shielded against real life, growing flowers on the rooftop and painting. She’s a mousy type with too much sensitivity for her own good.

The brother is a piano lover. He wants to be a professional pianist and spends all his time in his room, practicing, shutting his family out, avoiding the world. He’s bullied at the high school by fellow students and he evades from reality through music.

The aunt is a beautiful woman whose clock is ticking and who does her best to find a husband. The problem is she has a bad taste in men. She’s in love with Mauro the womanizer and tries to forget him by finding other men specimen afraid of commitment.

Our narrator is into a sadomasochist sex relationship with a married man and all the while being quite innocent and candid. She doesn’t enjoy it very much but the physical pain distances her from her other pains. It’s a way to try not to fall in love, not to let feelings take the best of her. All the while, she observes and analyses her strange family with the growing awareness of the adolescent.

We follow all this little world during these month that are worth years. Our narrator observes, keeps a mental scrapbook of her understanding of grown-ups and patches up for herself philosophy of life, her personal guidebook for the future.

The narrator’s voice is funny and unusual, poetic and black at the same time. She’s always moving on, she’s never desperate even when things turn horribly wrong. She’s a mix of candor and realism, of romanticism and cynicism, of acceptance and rebellion. She’s an attaching character, a bit extreme sometimes. All the characters are loveable in their way, even the selfish father or the libertine Mauro.

It’s a coincidence but I’m into teen narrators these days. Tino in Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino, David in Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, Watanabe in Norwegian Wood and now an unnamed girl in Mentre dorme il pescecane. It just happened but it’s nice to read several books like this in a row and compare the voices of the character. All books are first person narrations, either writing as the events happen (Arpino, Agus) or a lot later when a need to tell memories becomes pressing. (Watson, Murakami) The writers managed to either recreate the puzzlement of young adults entering adulthood and understanding what’s behind the facade. The novels are less poignant when the narrator relates something from their past rather than showing their inner minds as the events happen. Contrary to the other books I read, Mentre dorme il pescecane is the only one not constructed around a life changing event that threw the narrator into the world of adults.

Milena Agus’s character is an odd girl, seeking good sun, proper water and enough intellectual and emotional nutriments to be in full bloom. After her, Exit Ghost with its seventy-one-years old Nathan Zuckerman and his incontinence problem is quite a change…How odd too that this book will be sitting on my shelf between the depressing Novel with Cocain by M Agueev and the cult Money by Martin Amis.

Teen without spirit

June 25, 2012 22 comments

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. 1987 French title: La ballade de l’impossible. 

That’s it, I’ve finished Norwegian Wood and I’m ready to write my thoughts about it.

When the books opens, Watanabe is on a plane, approaching Germany. Hearing Norwegian Wood by the Beatles triggers some memories of his youth. The memories flow out painfully.

Watanabe is 18, he’s moving in a student house in Tôkyô for his first year of university. When he was in high school, his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. Watanabe, Kizuki and his long-time girl-friend Naoko were often together, the three of them spending their free time together.

Naoko is also in Tôkyô now and she and Watanabe spend time wandering across the town in companionable silence. When Naoko turns 19, they celebrate together and one thing leading to the other, they have sex. Naoko leaves town and when Watanabe hears from her again, she’s in a nursing home. Naoko is unbalanced, her fragile mind hesitates on the verge of reason, on the verge of craziness, it depends of the day. Murakami describes Watanabe’s life in his student house and his later encounter with a fellow student Midori. She has her share of misery too: her mother is dead and now her father is dying too. She befriends with Watanabe; she craves for attention and Watanabe is hopelessly in love with Naoko. We also meet Reiko, Naoko’s room mate in the nursing house and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s friend at the university.

That’s basically all what happens, which is not a problem per se. I like contemplative books too. This one opens with melancholy and remains on a minor tone all along but I didn’t like it. Melancholy can be beautiful, here I found it flat and grey. This book is grey. Watanabe is numb, boneless. He winds himself up every morning – except on Sundays, he says – does what he has to do, studies, works in a music store, cleans his room, irons his clothes, eats, goes out with a friend, has flings. He’s on automatic pilot.

I know the main issues in this novel are depression, suicide, mental sickness and the difficulty to become an adult. Murakami succeeded in making me indifferent to his characters, in enveloping me in a cloud of grey thoughts, like Watanabe who tries to recover from Kizuki’s death. I felt as distant from him as he is from his life. I felt no compassion and that’s probably what bothers me. I could say it’s a coming of age novel but I’d rather say it’s a bildungsroman. It’s more appropriate as the whole story starts in Germany, as Watanabe studies German and reads The Magic Mountain. All the characters don’t “fit in”. They don’t feel “normal” and some manage better than others to cope with it.

I have difficulties with wimps, be it in real life or in literature. I wanted to shake Watanabe. In the three last Murakami I’ve tried or read (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, South of the Border, West of the Sun and this one), the men are pathetic. They don’t live their life, they put up with it. Even before Kizuki’s death, I imagined Watanabe as a follower, going where his friend went, playing gooseberry with Kizuki and Naoko, never thinking of refusing this awkward situation. He doesn’t have his own goals, his own wishes, his own hobbies.

On the back cover of my French edition, they compare Murakami to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t see why. Fitzgerald’s prose is like champagne, sparkling, light and heady. Murakami’s style is dull in comparison. 440 pages of book and I have no quote to share, which tells everything. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I have the feeling that Murakami writes some Murakami, which is not fair for this book as it’s among his first ones. It’s the others which are repetitions of this one and not the contrary. How can I say it? There’s a feeling of déjà vu, of literary tricks already used — like the stories in the story — , of an atmosphere I’ve already met. It was novelty when I read his other books, it’s not any more. So yes, I’m disappointed, I expected better from someone who receives so much praise. Definitely not reading the long IQ84.

Bellezza organizes a Japanese Literature challenge, this is my first contribution to her event.

Sorry, I’m late

June 21, 2012 16 comments

I was supposed to post a billet about Norwegian Wood today, following the schedule of our book club meetings. Work has been a bit hectic these last weeks; I’m too tired to read Murakami at night. The weekends have been busy and the truth is I haven’t finished the book. I don’t think anyone woke up this morning thinking “I’m looking forward to reading Emma’s billet on Murakami today” so I should let myself off the hook. Who cares? Unfortunately, meeting deadlines is part of my cultural and professional DNA. So I’m uncomfortable with it and I can’t help it, no matter how much rational thinking I put into it.

Anyway. What about Murakami? Hmmm, I might be exhausted but I believe the book would be finished by now if I really liked it. I’m starting to think that Murakami is a literary Depardieu. Excellent but some way he starts writing some Murakami instead of writing books, just as Depardieu plays Depardieu instead of roles now. Do I make sense? We’ll see if I get more thrilled by the second half of the book than I am now.

I hope this billet finds you well and I’ll tell you more about Norwegian Wood by the end of the month.

Categories: Book Club, Personal Posts

Singsong in Wessex

June 15, 2012 14 comments

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy 1872. French title: Quatre Saisons à Mellstock

I’m still on my reading-all-Thomas-Hardy project and Under the Greenwood Tree was the next to my list. The book is set in Mellstock typical village of Hardy’s fictional Wessex. The plot is rather simple: Dick Dewy falls in love with Fancy Day and the whole book is there to answer this important question: Will Dick manage to seduce Fancy and marry her?

Said like this, the erudite reader who shies away from anything romantic is now thinking Dear, that’s not for me. Don’t stop reading this billet now, please. I suspect that the plot is simple on purpose. Actually, the main character of the book is popular music in the English countryside at the beginning of the 19thC. The French title of the book is Quatre saisons à Mellstock, and it makes sense as this novel is composed of four parts, each being a season.

When the book opens, it’s Christmas Eve and the Mellstock’s choir is preparing for their big night out, singing Christmas carols under the villagers’ windows. With obvious fondness, Thomas Hardy describes the local musicians choosing the songs, rehearsing, preparing their instruments, dressing to face the cold night. This choir is also in charge of the music in church every Sunday. Hardy explains that the choir’s world is rapidly changing, local orchestras with fiddles and string instruments are more and more often replaced by brass, organs or barrel organs.

Hardy describes the decline of the Mellstock quire and their replacement by Fancy at the organ, the new vicar and his different way of managing the parish. A new generation is taking over. It is a portrait of rural life, of its villages, its professions now disappeared. (tranter, I couldn’t find the translation of the word and when I eventually got the book in translation, I didn’t know what a roulier was)

Hardy celebrates the country life of his childhood, the popular music he probably enjoyed. Four parts, four seasons like the parts of a popular song. When I was reading, I thought about those songs passed on from one generation to the other. Songs for drinking, songs with political aim, love songs, dirty songs, satirical songs. Each country has theirs, so I’m not going to mention the French ones that went to my mind. I also remembered some bucolic songs by Brassens, like Brave Margot or La chasse aux papillons.

In one chapter Hardy pictures a dance at the tranter’s house. It’s vivid and realistic. Instead of describing graceful young women dancing with propriety, he shows joy, frantic dancing, sweat, breathlessness. Men drop their jacket because they’re too hot. Women’s hairs get undone. I bet all these bodily details were frowned upon when the book was published. People of all ages share the dance floor. I could imagine the musicians growing red from playing buoyantly, the fiddlers moving bows with passion, the sound of the music and its pace increasing to get the dancers crazy.

The plot is as simple as a story told in a popular song. That’s why I think it is simple on purpose, it is a way to celebrate common people’s music, to put forward this part of culture that makes a country as much as the “fancy” music listened to in nice salons of the upper classes.

A word about Dick and Fancy, though. The characters aren’t as deep as the ones in other books by Hardy – at least, the ones I’ve read. There were few ironic comments about life in here but I was happy to find again Hardy’s sharp tongue when it came to describing people:

This was addressed to the young man before mentioned, consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.

or

“Hee—hee—ay!” replied Leaf, letting his mouth continue to smile for some time after his mind had done smiling, so that his teeth remained in view as the most conspicuous members of his body.

Fancy sounds vapid while Dick is a good country guy, solid in his body and in his mind. He’s madly in love with her but has enough insight not to imagine her flawless. She’s intelligent, reasons herself and acts sensibly in the end but on instinct, she’s rather shallow. Dick, young and in love looks at married people through the eyes of young love:

Dick wondered how it was that when people were married they could be so blind to romance; and was quite certain that if he ever took to wife that dear impossible Fancy, he and she would never be so dreadfully practical and undemonstrative of the Passion as his father and mother were. The most extraordinary thing was, that all the fathers and mothers he knew were just as undemonstrative as his own.

Who, as a teenager, has never thought about married couples that way?

I wasn’t able to read Under the Greenwood Tree in English. I started but after a while, I thought I spent so much energy on the language that I wasn’t fully enjoying the atmosphere and the plot. So I read it in French, in a new translation published in 2011. A delight. I wish that the translator, Bernard Tourres read my billet. I thank him for translating this novel so well. He managed to give back the dialect, looking for equivalent words in French patois, like boisson for water-cider. In my French copy, the villagers don’t speak proper French, just as they don’t speak proper English in the original. It sounds like Hardy, it’s excellent.

Do I recommend this book? Not for the psychological development of the characters, not for the plot. I recommend it for Hardy’s ability to describe the country, the people, the customs and the music and for bringing to life a way of living often neglected in literature. One more quote, pour la route:

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The threads of garden spiders appeared thick and polished. In the dry and sunny places, dozens of long-legged crane-flies whizzed off the grass at every step the passer took.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Incidentally, Max from Pechorin’s Journal read it at the same time as me. You can read his thoughtful review here.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

June 11, 2012 17 comments

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. French title: Oh! Les beaux jours!

Obviously, plays are made to be watched in a theatre. Some can be read but I’ve always thought that the Theatre of the Absurd should be watched. It makes more sense, in a way, with the images. This is why I don’t read Beckett’s plays, I’d rather watch them if I have the chance. So far I’ve seen Endgame and a theatre version of Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones). I’m waiting for Godot to come to my city.

So here I was a couple of nights ago, attending Happy Days, very excited to watch Catherine Frot playing Beckett.

In Happy Days, Winnie is trapped up to the waist in a hole in the earth. She can’t move, can’t get out. Her husband Willy lives in a burrow near her. The whole play consists in watching Winnie live her curious life. She wakes up, full of rituals. The spectator feels that she cuts her day into small moments to pass the time, clinging to rituals to keep her sanity. She rejoices in slight happy moments, tries to grasp happiness from any positive event. On a purely rational level, it’s absurd. I watched it on a double channel. On one channel, I was just enjoying the ride, having fun at the comic stemming of the Absurd. On the other channel, I was analyzing, comparing the situation to life in general. There are many serious themes in this play.

Winnie works to find the motivation to keep on living. She tries to remain upbeat, shouts at Willy, claiming his attention. He barely acknowledges her presence, sometimes granting her questions with a grunt but most of the time remaining silent. He never actually talks to her. And she talks, talks, talks. She does it to cheer herself up, to fight despair and loneliness. It raises the inevitable question: how do you go on living when you’re trapped into an uncomfortable situation? In a domineering family, in a loveless marriage, in a mind-numbing job, in poverty? In a life you haven’t chosen? And when you’re ill and there is no cure?

Again, as before in The Tartar Steppe, I thought about Gary’s quest on hope and human strength. What makes us keep on living and fighting for it when it is hopeless or useless? What keeps us standing no matter what? Where do we find the capacity to adapt to terrible situations? The fort in Dino Buzzati’s novel, this hole in that Beckett play, concentration camps in Gary’s quest. Gary sees Hope as the big dope that keeps us standing despite the storm.

Winnie also tries to retain her humanity. She needs to know that Willy is hearing her, not necessarily listening, but at least that he’s within earshot. She couldn’t bear to be alone and have no one to acknowledge her as a human. We need to interact with other people to feel human. Like trumps, she tries to remain clean and part of her ritual is to apply make-up and do her hair. Abandoning that is starting to lose the battle against despair and dehumanisation.

Catherine Frot was Winnie. She looked like a siren ensconced in a huge oyster shell planted in the middle of a desert. Her body is locked in her hole and it restrains her movements. Her mind is still the same but she doesn’t have the same velocity, her body’s possibilities reduced by her condition. Old age, that’s what I thought, the body as a fortress for the mind, as Proust describes it is Le Temps Retrouvé. Your mind remains young and your body fails you.

The décor was fantastic, with great lights. As expected, Catherine Frot was excellent. Her face is really mobile; she can show many emotions with a frown, a lifted eyebrow, a pout. Her diction is perfect, no need to shout to be heard in the distance. I’m happy I had the opportunity to see her in that role and to have her as a middleman to approach Beckett’s work.

Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

June 7, 2012 33 comments

Cakes and Ale : or the Skeleton in the Cupboard by William Somerset Maugham. 1930 French title: La Ronde de l’amour. Out of print.

Recently, a lot of skeletons fell onto me when I opened cupboards at work. As my mind stretched out to grab a healthy dose of humour to ease the stress, reading Cakes and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard seemed to be a sort of supreme irony. It proved to be a great idea, stress-wise and literary wise.

William Ashenden is our narrator. He’s a writer, not an excellent one, according to him. He’s middle aged, a bachelor who lives in a boarding house. He’s surprised when his fellow writer Alroy Kear invites him to lunch. Kear is a very successful writer of honest novels but he’s without the literary gift he’d need to reach immortality.

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.

In our modern world, Kear would be a novelist who dutifully attended creative writing classes, understood the rules and became a good enough craftsman to be widely read. Add to this perfect skills to manage his literary career and you have a pillar of the London literary world.

Ashenden knows that Kear wants something from him to issue such an invitation. And indeed he does. Kear intends to write a biography of Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer that Ashenden happened to knew in his youth. Ashenden befriended Edward Driffield at the time he was married to his first wife Rose. Kear needs writing material about this part of Driffield’s life. Ashenden starts reminiscing about his past and relates the reader how he met and started to see Edward Driffield.

I picked up Cakes and Ale without knowing anything about its background and I sure didn’t expect a satire of London’s literary life. Then Guy, seeing in the Currently Reading pad that I was reading Cakes & Ale, mentioned that Kear was supposed to be Walpole and Driffield, Thomas Hardy. I’d never heard of Walpole before but from the very beginning, Driffield reminded me of Thomas Hardy. Nothing to be proud of, obvious as it is. Driffield came from the village of Blackstable, Kent. He was married twice, once to Rose, a country girl and then to his nurse. His funeral led to a controversy about burying him in a cathedral or in Blackstable.

But I think I should have expected him to sing sea chanteys or old English country airs, you know, the sort of thing they used to sing at fairings—blind fiddlers and the village swains dancing with the girls on the threshing floor and all that sort of thing.

I haven’t read a lot of Thomas Hardy but music and country fiddlers seem to be part of his novels. Now have a look at Hardy’s biography on Wikipedia, and tell me that it doesn’t look furiously like Driffield’s bio. There’s the bio, but there are also the comments on Driffield’s work, that Ashenden doesn’t like:

My own heart sank when he led me into the forecastle of a sailing ship or the taproom of a public house and I knew I was in for half a dozen pages in dialect of facetious comment on life, ethics, and immortality.

Or:

His novels happen to bore me; I find them long; the melodramatic incidents with which he sought to stir the sluggish reader’s interest leave me cold; but he certainly had sincerity. There is in his best books the stir of life, and in none of them can you fail to be aware of the author’s enigmatic personality. In his earlier days he was praised or blamed for his realism; according to the idiosyncrasy of his critics he was extolled for his truth or censured for his coarseness.

Or:

Driffield’s strength lay evidently in his depiction of the class he knew best, farmers and farm labourers, shopkeepers and bartenders, skippers of sailing ships, mates, cooks, and able seamen.

Now tell me this isn’t a description of Hardy’s literary universe. As far as Walpole is concerned, I don’t know if Kear looks like him but Walpole wrote a biography of Trollope and Wikipedia says he was sensitive about his literary reputation and took adverse criticism badly. Reading his biography there, it’s difficult not to see Walpole in Kear. (Thanks Guy for the nudge, I wouldn’t have found out by myself because of my lazy habit not to research the books I read)

But Cakes & Ale is also a meditation about fame and posterity, about writing, talent and one’s public image. Kear is very thorough in the management of his career. He tries to iron out all bad critics, makes himself agreeable in salons, gives lectures in universities, travels in the whole country to meet his readers. He’s far from the myth of the cursed writer pursuing their work locked in their room, whatever the chance of being published. For Kear, literature isn’t a calling but a profession. The second meditation about fame stems from Driffield’s posterity. His much younger wife manages his reputation and his legacy. She magnifies him as a Great Man and doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the image of a literary genius she wants the world to see. She doesn’t want to know all the details of his first marriage, it would hurt what we now call political correctness. Kear wants to write a flat biography, full of praise and intends to leave aside all the anecdotes that could tarnish Driffield’s reputation. She wants the world to worship his memory as people worship saints. She wants him to appear flawless, creating a perfectly dull character instead of accepting who he was and letting the world know the real man behind the writer. And Rose, the first wife, with her free sexuality, her lack of worldly manners doesn’t fit into the picture.

There are also great pages about literature and literary critics, and well it was funny:

I was much concerned and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr. Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Maugham boldly attacks the literary Establishment of his time. (Further, he writes They’d only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.) For me, Ashenden is Maugham himself. He says he’s not a gifted writer but he seems better than he wishes to tell.

Cakes and Ale makes me want to read Hardy’s biography but I don’t feel like discovering Walpole after reading about Kear. He sounds like the English Anatole France, very famous during his lifetime, seldom read nowadays. Maugham’s assessment of Walpole’s literary talent seems accurate.

I had a lot of pleasure reading Cakes and Ale. I thought it was engaging and I’m fond of Maugham’s witty style. I had fun reading his ranting about the literary world. Things haven’t really changed, in my opinion. I was curious to see what Ashenden had to say about Driffield, what kind of dirty secret he knew. And finally, as I have the project to read ALL Thomas Hardy, that this writer (or his doppelganger) was a central character of the book was like a cherry on a delicious cake.

PS: Do you say I took my courage in both hands in English? It sounds very French (Il prit son courage à deux mains) I noticed another expression like this under Maugham’s pen and sometimes I had the impression to hear some French under his English. Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking.

The writer “is the only free man”

June 3, 2012 11 comments

I’m currently writing my billet about Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham. I have tons of quotes but this one is particularly interesting and won’t fit into my billet.

I began to meditate upon the writer’s life. It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Happy meditation.

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