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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

October 26, 2013 23 comments

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín 2009.

book_club_2Brooklyn is our Book Club choice for October. Eilis is in her early twenties, lives in Enniscorthy in Ireland with her mother and her sister Rose. We are in the 1950s, jobs are scarce in her town, her two brothers have already gone to England to work. While Rose is outgoing and self-confident, Eilis is shy and reserved. She doesn’t stand up for herself and lets other people decide for her what is best for her future. This allows Miss Kelly to hire her as a shop assistant when Eilis is qualified as a bookkeeper. This is also why Rose, her mother and Father Flood manage to ship her to Brooklyn. Father Flood is an American-Irish priest who immigrated to Brooklyn. He finds Eilis a job at Bertocci’s, a shop that sells woman’s clothes and lodgings at Mrs Keroe’s. The plans are made, Eilis has to go.

Brooklyn relates Eilis’ story, her life in Enniscorthy, her departure from Ireland and her arrival in Brooklyn and her new start in the USA. I enjoyed the descriptions of her first year in the USA. She had to adjust to a new life, a new town, a new job, a new home, a new climate. She felt homesick in the beginning and Father Flood helped her get into night classes for bookkeeping.

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there.

Coibin_Brooklyn_FrenchI liked reading about the atmosphere in her neighbourhood. Colm Tóibín pictures how the Irish and Italian immigrants bond and are allowed to mix because they have the same religion. They meet in balls and when Eilis starts dating Tony, I enjoyed reading about the outings, the days at the beach and all the social codes around dating at the time. Father Flood takes good care of the new immigrants and Eilis was welcome. He helped her when she felt homesick, Miss Fortini at Bartocci’s showed empathy when Eilis needed some. There was a sense of community and solidarity, as proved by the organisation of Christmases for people whose family was abroad.

As a character, Eilis is a curious mix of strength and weakness. In appearance, she’s pliable but she still tries to do what she wants. She doesn’t see herself very well. She feels plain and average but Tony doesn’t see her that way and the easiness with which she studies bookkeeping and commercial law in the State of New York led me into thinking she’s intelligent. Her intelligence isn’t flamboyant but she has a mind of her own, she’s a good judge of characters and doesn’t derive from her course of business when she has a goal. Her weakness is that she wants to please the people who like or love her. She can’t say no to someone important to her. So she can’t say not to her mother, her sister or Tony.

We see the events through Eilis’s eyes. Colm Tóibín recounts minutely what goes through her mind. We see her fears, her hesitations and her desire to stay in the shadows. She doesn’t like being on stage and she shies away from situations where she could be questioned or singled out or where she could have to justify her actions. It results in her keeping secrets from her relatives and untold secrets are more and more difficult to reveal as time goes by. This tendency puts her in difficult situations. She also tends to look the other way when something unpleasant happens. It’s like she imagines it will disappear if she doesn’t pay attention to it.

The best parts of Brooklyn were the style and the descriptions of Eilis’ feelings as an immigrant. She didn’t leave Ireland because she wanted to. Her mother and sister chose for her and she couldn’t say no, couldn’t find worthy arguments for her to stay. As a consequence, the fear of the unknown isn’t tamed by the excitement of finally doing something she’s dreamt of. She’s terrified to go and see her life take another course than the one she had always imagined:

She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding, days in which everyone looked at her in the rush of arrangements with light in their eyes, days in which she herself was fizzy with excitement but careful not to think too precisely about what the next few weeks would be like in case she lost her nerve.

I enjoyed the style both easy to read and beautiful in its quiet precision but I have reservations about the love story. I’m usually good public for this but I found it took too much space in the novel when it was not the most original quality of the book. However, I’m grateful that Colm Tóibín avoided the pitfall of Irish miserabilism. Yes life was difficult, yes, lots of people had to find a job abroad but his picture of Enniscorthy also includes happiness and warmth of living at home, where one has their bearings.

For other reviews, see Max’s here  this one by John Self And this one at the Guardian’s

Next month, our Book Club reads Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov and as always, you’re welcome to read it along with us.

Barthes for dummies

October 12, 2013 8 comments

Introducing Barthes, a graphic guide by Philip Thody and Piero. 1995.

 Literature is the proof and the assertion of human freedom.

I know this is strange, I’m French and I’m reading a book introducing Barthes in English. It’s not natural, it’s a conscious choice coming from me stumbling upon a graphic guidebook about Barthes at the Tate Modern. I browsed through it, saw no complicated words, liked the drawings and thought “That, my mind can grasp and I’ll finally know why everybody talks about him.”

BarthesIt’s well-done, I think I understood the concepts. Of course, I’m totally unable to assess if it’s faithful to the original thinking of Barthes, if it simplifies too much his works or if it leaves aside relevant part of his texts. Hell, I’ve read this because I knew his name –not from a street plaque, I’ve never encountered a Barthes street— and had heard about him. The only time I tried to read his prose, I couldn’t link the signs with any content. It was filled with too much unknown jargon to be understandable to the philistine I am. Battre en brèche la naturalité du signe doesn’t make much sense to me. Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian –I can invent whatever adjective I want, words are just arbitrary signs— task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work.

So this graphic guide goes through Barthes’ major works in chronological order. I knew some of the titles but had no idea of what they were about. It happens that I’m the Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Barthenism: lots of concepts I partially knew from I don’t know where (Business school probably) and without knowing it came from him. Not that he’d be happy to be associated to anything containing the word “bourgeois” in it.

As it is I agree with a lot of what I’ve read. I don’t believe in Fate, in things being “natural”. Most of what the society wants us to accept as natural is cultural and language is as cultural as anything else. Trying to sell things as natural is a way to keep the society in a stand-still and let the power in the hands of those who already have it. Take women and how convenient it is to talk about maternal instinct and the nature of women that predetermines them to stay at home and nurture kids.

I also agree with the idea of a reader, a spectator setting their mind upon reading a book or watching a play as if it were reality while knowing at the same time that it isn’t. We’ve all experienced this: sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to accept a book as it is. Think of Thomas Hardy. Some readers reproach him for the use of implausible and most convenient coincidences to move the plot forward. When I read Thomas Hardy, I know that it’s implausible but I’ve decided that I’ll believe it while I’m reading the book, just to enjoy the ride. It’s a sort of prerequisite to my reading and I accept them. Just like I accept objectified women in hard-boiled as part of the genre.

Later, Thody explains:

“Barthes’ thinking about literature criticizes the view that an author’s work has to be seen in the context of his life. It rejects any idea that the way to understand a literary work is to find out what the author was consciously trying to do”.

Regular readers of this blog know I don’t really care much about a writer’s biography. I don’t think a reader needs to know about the writer’s life to enjoy and understand a book. I like to approach a novel without prejudice and see it as a stand-alone, apart from the author’s life. The literary worth of a novel is independent of the worth of the writer as a man. Lots of writers would disappear of our shelves if we decided to disregard the works of writers whose life goes against our definition of a good or honourable man. And I think Voyage au bout de la nuit is worth reading despite Céline being anti-Semitic and Emile ou De l’éducation by Rousseau is still widely read even if Rousseau abandoned all his children.

This passage compares Barthes’ view on literature to the traditional technique to study texts and it helped me understand why I hated literature in class. I like Barthes’ vision, a lot. It suits me. And I’ve been doing the exact opposite in class. I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer. This was digging out what the author was consciously trying to do. I was young but I thought it pointless and opposite to what I wanted from literature: pleasure, evasion, knowledge, enlightenment and emotions.

Then, there’s this “The only literature worth writing or reading is the one that is about something. In short, it is content and not form that creates literary value”. It’s a little extreme and I’m convinced that great literature allies content and form. The best plot in the world won’t work for me if it’s poorly written. And a good style isn’t enough. That’s why I struggle with experimental literature that emphasizes more on experiment than on trying to say something. I’m fond of Exercice de style because Queneau doesn’t try to wrap it into what it’s not. I’m less tempted by La disparition by Perec; I can’t help thinking that such a constraint as writing without the letter e had inevitable impact on the quality of the plot. Yet it is tagged as a novel.

Well, this is what interested me in Introducing Barthes. I expected it to be more difficult than that and more distant from my experience as a reader. I hope I didn’t write anything stupid that will make specialists roll their eyes. In my defence, I’ll say that it’s not my line of work, it’s not what I majored in, so be lenient with me and correct me gently in the comment section.

I found this graphic book entertaining and easy to read. It’s aimed at Anglophone readers so it explains many French facts that I knew from my background. For example, if you’re French and you’re reading something about Barthes theories, you don’t need so many details about who Racine was, you already know. It’s like Shakespeare for an Anglophone. And also, there’s one minor slip: the Abbé Pierre fought for downs-and-outs in the winter 1954, not 1952.

Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 23 comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…

Simonsen

If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

Nous sommes jusqu’au bout l’enfant de notre corps. Un enfant déconcerté.

October 4, 2013 32 comments

Le Journal d’un corps, de Daniel Pennac. 2012

Pennac_corpsJe lisais ce livre et je me disais « Jamais je n’arriverai pas à écrire sur ce roman en anglais, je n’ai pas les mots. » Puis je me suis dit que puisque tous les lecteurs fidèles de ce blog lisent le français, j’allais écrire en français pour une fois. Je suis un peu intimidée, à vrai dire. Je n’ai jamais écrit de billet dans ma langue natale. Et le cerveau humain est une chose étrange, il compartimente nos expériences, apprend, stocke et définit des habitudes. Mon cerveau a l’habitude d’écrire des billets en anglais. Cette activité est en anglais depuis le début et pour lui, c’est un peu aller contre nature que de changer de langue tout à coup. Mais ce n’est pas pour parler de mon cerveau ou de mon corps que je saute ce pas aujourd’hui, c’est pour Daniel Pennac.

La vie est un grand théâtre et nous faisons notre petite performance tous les jours, entrant en scène dès le matin, dès que quelqu’un pose les yeux sur nous. Le regard de l’autre fait sortir l’acteur en nous car dès que nous ne sommes plus seuls, l’autre attend quelque chose de nous, un comportement, un retour, une réassurance. Les écrivains aiment à montrer ce qui se cache derrière le rideau de ce théâtre et nous dévoilent les pensées et les sentiments des personnages. Avec son Journal d’un corps, Daniel Pennac a choisi de s’intéresser aux coulisses. Notre corps. Le projet est original, il faut le reconnaître.

Un garçon décide à l’âge de douze ans de maîtriser son corps qui l’a trahi en dévoilant sa peur. Une trouille paralysante l’a envahi et ses sphincters ont abdiqué, une vraie Bérézina dans le pantalon. Cet enfant est le fils d’un combattant de la guerre 14-18 affaibli et finalement emporté par les conséquences des gaz toxiques respirés au front. Le père s’étiole, trahi par son corps. Quelques temps après sa mort et cette déroute intestinale, le fils se prend en main. Nous sommes en 1936 et jusqu’à sa mort, il tiendra le journal intime de ce corps, ce compagnon de route. Le livre est conçu comme un journal intime et aucun événement significatif n’y est consigné s’il n’a pas un impact corporel ou s’il ne peut être décrit via une altération du corps. Nous devinons ce qui se passe dans sa vie car quelques mots furtifs ici et là en dévoilent les grands moments. Après tout, ces grands événements marquants le prennent au corps. La mort de sa nounou, Violette. Sa première amante. La rencontre avec Mona, sa femme, le coup de foudre. Et le voici papa :

Devenir père, c’est devenir manchot. Depuis un mois, je n’ai plus qu’un bras, l’autre porte Bruno. Manchot du jour au lendemain, on s’y fait.

Le Journal d’un corps est un livre drôle qui nous parle de ce qui ne se dit pas, de ce qui ne s’écrit pas. Il n’y a pas d’analyse profonde des sentiments ici, rien que les sensations d’un corps. Certaines me sont familières, comme bailler, sentir la peur vous prendre aux tripes, le vertige, l’eau sur le corps lors de la toilette, la fulgurance d’un mal de dents. Certaines me sont étrangères car je suis une femme ; je ne connais pas le plaisir de se raser le matin. Certaines sensations trahissent les émotions, montrent ce qui se passe sur scène, là où notre homme interagit avec son public, ses collègues, ses employés, sa famille.

J’adore Pennac, ses dix droits inaliénables du lecteur sont dans un cartouche en bonne vue sur mon blog et la série Malaussène est un excellent souvenir de lecture. J’aime son humour, sa chaleur, sa joie de vivre. Il a le verbe gourmand et gourmet à la fois, direct mais jamais vulgaire. (Ponctuation amoureuse de Mona : Confiez-moi cette virgule que j’en fasse un point d’exclamation.) Il marie poésie et trivialité avec un bonheur qui sent l’enfance, les joues rougies par le jeu et l’absence d’arrière-pensée. (Notre voix est la musique que fait le vent en traversant notre corps. (Enfin, quand il ne ressort pas par le bas).) Il ne se prend jamais au sérieux. (Nous pouvons nous gratter jusqu’à la jouissance mais chatouille-toi tant que tu veux, tu ne te feras jamais rire.). Sa force est qu’il ne se contente pas de décrire son corps comme le réceptacle de plaisirs volés, tout y passe, le bon et le moins bon. Cette apparente légèreté, ce badinage sensoriel n’empêche pas Pennac de réfléchir un peu sur la place du corps dans notre vie sociale.

Nous passons notre vie à comparer nos corps. Mais une fois sortis de l’enfance, de façon furtive, presque honteuse. A quinze ans, sur la plage, j’évaluais les biceps et les abdominaux des garçons de mon âge. A dix-huit ou vingt ans, ce renflement sous le maillot de bain. A trente, à quarante, ce sont leurs cheveux que les hommes comparent (malheur aux chauves). A cinquante ans, le ventre (ne pas en prendre), à soixante, les dents (ne pas en perdre) Et maintenant, dans ces assemblées de vieux crocodiles que sont nos autorités de tutelle, le dos, les pas, la façon d’essuyer sa bouche, de se lever, d’enfiler son manteau, l’âge, en somme, tout simplement, l’âge. Untel fait beaucoup plus vieux que moi, ne trouvez-vous pas ?

C’est tellement vrai, on le fait sans même s’en rendre compte. Cette histoire est à la fois universelle et unique. J’ai évoqué précédemment les moments universels. Mais cet homme a également une relation à son corps qui est celle d’un homme de sa génération. On le sent un peu guindé, ce père que ses enfants ne voient jamais en pyjama. A un moment il dit qu’il aimerait lire le journal d’un corps de femme pour entrer dans cette intimité et comprendre –entre autres—ce que c’est que d’avoir des seins. Intriguant pour un homme, je suppose. Il décrit ses petites misères, ses maladies, sa curiosité pour ce corps à qui on ne prête vraiment attention que quand il se manifeste violemment ou avec insistance. Il fait des expériences sur le corps comme bailler en réunion pour voir si son bâillement crée une cascade de bâillements chez les autres participants. Ce roman est jouissif, tendre et triste à la fois. On devine un homme traditionnel, pince sans-rire et généreux. Un homme qui a réussi sa carrière, un mari fidèle, un père un peu distant, un grand-père affectueux. Un homme qui cohabite avec son corps.

J’ai beaucoup aimé ce texte et malheureusement, il n’est pas traduit en anglais pour l’instant. Il est sorti en 2012, il le sera peut-être plus tard. C’est certainement un bon livre à acheter pour quelqu’un qui souhaite ré-apprivoiser son français. C’est un journal, composé de petits moments ; il permet une lecture décousue, hachée.

Voilà, ce billet s’achève et pour tout dire, écrire en français n’est pas simple. L’anglais n’a pas cessé de vouloir s’imposer au français, tellement c’est devenu ma langue d’écriture dès que cela touche à la littérature. Mon esprit change de langue dès que j’envisage de restituer mes impressions sur un livre. J’ai dû effacer quelques anglicismes (et non, on ne dit pas compartimentaliser en français !) ou des faux amis (on ne dit pas caractère, mais personnage) et traduire en français quelques adjectifs qui me sont venus d’abord en anglais. Weird, I know.

Bonne lecture à tous.

PS : If anyone needs a translation, please, just ask in the comment section.

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