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Wednesdays with Romain Gary: the end

April 30, 2014 12 comments

Gary_LecturesThis is our last Wednesday with Romain Gary. Gary loved women and was a womaniser. Being successful with the ladies was a proof of a good education by his mother’s book. A man had to be charming. He wrote wonderful pages about love, attraction and relationships in many of his books. For our last week, I picked a quote from Les clowns lyriques about perfume:

Le parfum à peine perceptible, à peine esquissé, est comme un murmure prometteur du corps ; lorsqu’il insiste trop, il ne parle plus que de lui-même, ne livre plus que son propre nom. A perfume that is barely perceptible, barely hinted at is like a promising murmur of a body; when it is too persistent, it no longer speaks about anything except itself, it reveals nothing but its own name. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

Isn’t that entirely true? I’m sensitive to smells and scents and I hate to have my personal space invaded by a strong perfume. Like in offices, lifts, train carriages or other closed spaces. Some cologne scream “I’m cheap” and I always think that nothing would be better than this too-much. Some perfume scream “Look at me” and I’m not sure they bring the looks they meant to capture. I associate perfumes with the people who wear them and I wouldn’t want my husband to use the same cologne as my father. Some perfumes remind me of teachers because a classroom is exactly the kind of place where you smell perfumes, which reminds me there’s a funny scene in Straight Man by Richard Russo where the main character acts crazy after a colleague’s heady perfume meddled with his sanity.

But perfumes are also familiar scents, bringing comfort because they belong to someone you love.

I hope this series of billets encouraged you to read Romain Gary. See you tomorrow with the official opening of Romain Gary Literature Month.

I can’t resist: a last quote for the day!

[C’était] un de ces bouquets de fleurs qui partent toujours à la recherche d’un cœur et ne trouvent qu’un vase.Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable. [It was] one of those flower bouquets that always reach out for a heart and only find a vase.In Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid.

 

Happy birthday, Book Around The Corner!

April 27, 2014 38 comments

Hi everyone,

Mafalda_50Despite the image, I’m not fifty. April 2014 is Book Around the Corner’s fourth anniversary. I can’t believe another year has already flown by. 2014 is a special year for this blog as it is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Mafalda by Quino. May will be Romain Gary Literature Month, but more of this in another billet. And who’s Mafalda? She’s the little girl on my profile and if you don’t know how fond of her I am, have a look at this.

That said, blog anniversaries are a time to think about reading and sharing. I have a literary calendar at work and once I started my working day with that quote:

L’accès au livre, plus que tout, réclame des passeurs : on vient au livre parce que quelqu’un vous y conduit. Et cela durant toute la vie. Combien de fois avons-nous lu, et souvent aimé, un livre parce qu’il nous venait de quelqu’un que nous aimions, en qui nous avions confiance ? Mieux : qui nous avait fait, dans tous les sens, le don de ce livre.Danièle Sallenave (« Nous, on n’aime pas lire » 2009) The access to books, more than anything else, requests a middleman. You come to books because someone leads you to them. And that’s for all your life. How many times have we read and often enjoyed a book because it came from someone we loved, someone we trusted? Better, someone who had in every sense, turned this book into a gift.Danièle Sallenave (We don’t like to read)

This is how I see blogging. I’m a middleman between the books I read and you. I don’t always carry good news –negative billets— but I always try to convey my enthusiasm when I fall for a book. I’m not an academic, I just write my thoughts and I have a casual relationship with literature and author. A writer may be a literary genius, if their work didn’t work for me, I’m not ashamed to say it. I enjoy our exchanges and our cross-recommendations, the stream of conversation between our blogs.

Now that I’ve been blogging for four years, I was curious to see which billets got the more hits since the beginning of my blogging journey. (Statistics courtesy of WordPress) *drums* Here are the Top Ten posts at Book Around the Corner:

I’m disappointed by this list, to be honest. These are not the best books I’ve read since I started the Book Around the Corner. Except for Charming Mass Suicide, most of them are classics or books you imagine picked by a teacher, like Lullaby or Sexy. I hope students know what they do if they use my billets for their assignments. Well at least, I don’t write like a literature teacher, there’s a good chance they won’t get caught if they smuggle bits of my billets in their papers. I also hope they wandered on the blog for something else than mandatory essays and that another book caught their attention. I’d love to be their middleman and give them the urge to read. Just because:

La baguette de fée du romancier abolit les distances et le temps, se joue de la logique et ordonne le hasard. En somme, le roman est la clé de nos songes au prix d’un effort minimum : la lectureMichel Déon (Lettres de château. 2009)  The novelist’s magic wand destroys time and distances, plays with logic and sorts out fate and coincidences. All in all, novels are the key to our dreams with a minimum price to pay: reading.Michel Déon (Letters of a castle)

SAMSUNGThis sounds like Thomas Hardy’s brand of novelist’s magic. Nowadays reading is in competition with video games, computer time, tablets and all kind of electronic devices. Will the good old book survive this? I think it will, just like radio survived television and the internet, exactly for the reasons mentioned by Michel Déon in this quote. Books bring you to someone else’s world but allow you to remain close to yours. When you watch a film, you’re in someone else’s imagination. When you read a book, part of the imagining is done by you. Characters are described but you see your mental vision of them, not the actor that was cast for the role. It’s your version of the character. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but like Romain Gary, I can’t give up on hope.

Thanks a lot for following, reading and commenting. Along the way, I’ve spiced my English with French words like billet, explained the word libraire, invented with Guy the word humbook and translated quotes by Romain Gary with Erik McDonald’s much appreciated help. Aren’t we living in a much civilised and friendly book blogging world?

I feel privileged to share that corner of the blogosphere with you and books. See you around.

Emma

 

What if a sense of humour is like hair –something a lot of men lose as they get older?

April 24, 2014 9 comments

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby 2001. French title: La bonté: mode d’emploi.

If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her) and split up. I wouldn’t argue with the synopsis. We’re nothing special.

book_club_2Katie Carr is about forty, married to David. They have two children Tom and Molly. She’s a GP, he’s a columnist, stay-at-home father, would-be writer. According to Katie, David is chronically angry and spiteful. She’s come to the breaking point and has a fling at a work conference. She’s ready to have a divorce and tells David but he refuses to hear her. At the moment, David’s got a back ache and to mock his GP wife, he consults with a healer, GoodNews. GoodNews heals his back, David feels better. He brings Molly there, to heal her eczema, it works. That alone goes against Katie’s every belief. When Katie tells him about her affair with Stephen, he leaves the house and spends a few days at GoodNews’s place. He comes home cured from his angriness and ready to be good. So David goes from perpetually angry to beatifically good and helpful. GoodNews and he are almost joined to the hip and Katie can only stare in confusion:

David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.

David has lost his edge, his sense of humour. Everything turns crazy from then on. It’s not totally crazy, it’s just a liberal deciding to put what he preaches into practice. Katie feels emotions she’d rather not. In her mind, she’s a doctor, her job is to help people. She’s a good person already. David is high on a brand new kind of logic, one that makes her mundane thoughts sound selfish. One day, they’re having Katie’s parents for lunch. She cooks a meal, she’s about to serve it when David demonstrates that they should give it to the homeless shelter and have frozen lasagne instead:

‘I have to give this away,’ says David. ‘I went to the freezer to get the stock out and I saw all that stuff in there and … I just realized that I can’t sustain my position any more. The homeless …’ ‘FUCK YOUR POSITION! FUCK THE HOMELESS!’ Fuck the homeless? Is this what has become of me? Has a Guardian-reading Labour voter ever shouted those words and meant them in the whole history of the liberal metropolitan universe?

She hates herself for these words afterward. Katie represents the good-thinking liberals, the ones that have money but pretend they despise the conservatives but live like them anyway. In French, we have an expression for this, it’s called the gauche-caviar. (The caviar liberals) Hornby mocks Katie and David and corners them, dares them to act upon their beliefs. It could be patronising but it’s not, thanks to Hornby’s ferocious sense of humour. We’re in Katie’s head. She sounds real, the woman next door. See her analysis of her affair with Stephen and its lack of drama:

OK, I’m just about attractive enough for Stephen to want to sleep with me, but when it comes to jealous rages and dementedly possessive behaviour and lovelorn misery, I simply haven’t got what it takes. I’m Katie Carr, not Helen of Troy, or Patti Boyd, or Elizabeth Taylor. Men don’t fight over me. They saunter over on a Sunday evening and make weak puns.

Hornby_EnglishShe’s a rather good person, selfish as we all are. She loves humans in general but rebels when she has to act and actually do something concrete to help. A lot of us are like Katie. She’s “normal”; she wants to protect her family, her comfort and if she thinks of the poor homeless, it’s with pity but no intention to go further. She’s funny and natural. She watches as her children pick a side, Molly turning into a good-thinking little girl and Tom rebelling against it, feeling his father is rather phony.

That’s one side of the story. Their marriage is still sinking, just not for the same reason as before. How to Be Good is also the exploration of a common marriage and a lot of the details mentioned in there are terribly realistic. When you’ve been married for a few years, some arguments or feelings or attitudes, good or bad, ring a bell. It’s sad but so funny. Katie has a way with words and despite the lightness of her expression, she delves into serious questions. What’s your identity when you’ve been married for long? How do you salvage a relationship? What about the children? Is it even realistic to dream of a fresh start?

How to Be Good is deceptive. Yes, you laugh a lot when you read. But behind the curtain of the humour, there’s a serious questioning about relationships and politics. An excellent combination.

Thanks Guy for recommending it!

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

April 20, 2014 26 comments

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

   Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

   Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 

Romain Gary captures my fascination for America in one sentence

April 20, 2014 6 comments

I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up

That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.

I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.

Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:

Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.

The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.

PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

April 16, 2014 13 comments

Les Racines du Ciel. 1956 English title: The Roots of Heaven.

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary won his first Prix Goncourt with Les Racines du ciel. It was published in 1956 and it’s the story of Morel who is in Africa to save elephants. Great challenge. This novel is an ode to wilderness and a plea to humanity to preserve natural resources. Gary advocates that preserving natural beauty is a way for humanity to prove its superiority to its basic instincts. Elephants are at stake, but there’s more to the story than preserving elephants and stopping illegal hunting. Morel is an idealist, a type of character Gary liked to explore. I picked a quote that sums up Morel’s fight and vision of nature:

Est-ce que nous ne sommes plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps ? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? Translation more than reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I had a lot of trouble translating this; the French sentence with all the commas isn’t easy to put together in English. Many thanks to Erik for his help. That quote asks the ultimate question: are we still able to admire and respect beauty for free.  Where is our civilisation going if we can’t value beauty for itself not for what it brings us?

Les Racines du Ciel was written nearly sixty years ago and I can’t help wondering what Morel would do about global warming. The preservation of elephants is the cause Morel fights for. Gary takes advantages of his character’s presence in Africa, in the soon-to-be former French colonies to discuss decolonisation and more importantly, its aftermath. He always has a sharp analysis of the world he lives in. These regions will be free from the French in the early 1960s and Gary already sees the dictatorships coming. I admire Gary for his capacity to decode the world around him. He’s sharp about politics but he also feels the trends in society in France or abroad. White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid…a lot of his books have that side analysis seep through the pages.

In my opinion, The Roots of Heaven is an excellent book but perhaps not the one I’d choose for a first Gary. It’s been made into a film which I haven’t seen.

PS: The celebration of Gary’s centenary continues in France and you’ll find useful links here, in Delphine’s post. I really want that version of Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joan Sfar. It weighs two kilos so it’s not very handy but I’m really curious about it.

 

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