Archive

Archive for November, 2014

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)

German_Lit

I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.

V009_Vue_de_place_San_Marco

I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.

Run River by Joan Didion

November 23, 2014 31 comments

Run River by Joan Didion. 1963. French title: Une saison de nuits.

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

It’s August 1959, it is the first paragraph of Run River and I was hooked. I wanted to know about Everett and Lily and about this shot. She remains quiet, as if she expected it, as if she were in her own world, where the outside world hardly penetrates. I saw Lily as the woman on the painting Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)

Hopper_MORNING_SUN

What happened? Everett shot Ryder Channing by the river, where Channing was to meet his lover, Lily. From the very first chapter we know this murder happens, we know why but what we don’t know is how Everett and Lily are going to react to it. Is Everett going to tell the police it was intentional or are they going to disguise it into an accident? Will Lily help Everett? Will Everett want to be helped?

After that, the novel goes back in time from 1938 and dissects Everett and Lily’s marriage. It is set in Northern California, in a ranch on the Sacramento River, near Sacramento. Everett McClellan has inherited the ranch from his family who comes from the first pioneers in California. We are near Sacramento, it means that the ranch is on the land which belonged to Sutter less than a century ago. So Everett’s great-grandparents were probably part of the locusts I mentioned in my billet about Sutter’s Gold by Cendrars.

Lily Knight comes from the same background. As her father repeatedly points out You come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it. He owns and runs a ranch in the same area, mostly growing fruits. Mr Knight was involved in politics and was even candidate to be the governor of California.

Didion_Run_RiverEverett is freshly graduated from Stanford when he meets Lily again. She’s his little sister Martha’s friend. She’s barely 18 and home after a year at Berkeley. She didn’t like her experience at university and she’s happy to be home, in safe territory. Everett realizes she’s all grown up and they start a relationship. Although he hardly knows how to express his feelings, we gather that he’s crazy in love with her and insists upon marrying as soon as possible. It is as if he wanted to secure her as his before she had a chance to meet someone else and leave him. She’s not sure to love him but prefers to go with the flow than take action. I think that there are two decisions in life that don’t need much thinking: getting married and having a child. No thinking is needed because the decision should be obvious. If the answer is not obviously “yes”, then it’s “no”. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him but after all, he represents the kind of man she should marry. That opens a wide and clear path to a disastrous marriage. Lily and Everett have common values and they both enjoy life on the ranch. Everett can’t imagine doing anything else than growing hops and Lily always pictured herself in that environment, so they do have this in common. However, they have little to say to each other and fail to communicate and create the deep connection that keeps a marriage alive despite the ups and downs.

Except when she was in trouble (when her father died, or when she was pregnant with Knight), she could think of little to say to Everett: she was not, nor was he, a teller of anecdotes or gossip, and sometimes weeks passed without their having what could be called, in even the crudest sense, a conversation. Usually in bed she pretended she was someone else, a stranger, and she supposed tat Everett did too; when she did not pretend she was someone else, she pretended that Everett was.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? It feels like she has given up on him. Everett is there physically and he loves her deeply but he doesn’t manage to reach out to her.

Martha turned off the light again. “Everett thinks the sun rises and sets with you. You should realize that.”

“I realize it.”

“I mean you should realize how simple Everett is.”

Everett may be simple, the problem is that Lily isn’t. On her side, she’s not grounded enough to live well with someone as simple as that. She’s not the perfect rancher’s wife. She’s not much interested in wifely duties even if she plays her role. But that’s a role for her, not her real identity.

Joan Didion describes Lily as a representative of a generation of women who don’t have careers but went to university. She goes straight from her father to her husband, from daughter to wife and mother. She never gets time to be a woman, except maybe during that short time at university. But for Lily, that time was wasted. She’s shy, she comes from a sheltered environment and she’s not ready to integrate into student life. She gets married and doesn’t know who she is and what she wants in life. It doesn’t help their relationship. She’s not a very likeable character, in my opinion. The story is told from her point of view and I would have liked to have Everett’s side of the story. I’m left wondering how things were for him. Since he’s not communicative, even Lily can only speculate. They fail each other but are never able to talk about it openly.

Martha is a disturbing element their marriage. Lily and Everett live on the McClellan ranch, with Mr McClellan senior and Martha until her untimely death. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) Lily and Everett have known each other forever and they both love Martha dearly but I couldn’t help thinking Everett and she had almost an incestuous relationship:

“You might marry Everett,” Martha McClellan had suggested to Lily, once when they were both children, “if I decide not to.” “You aren’t allowed to marry your own brother” Lily had said.

You could think of it as a coincidence but I don’t think that all little girls profess that they’d want to marry their older brother. This passage also shows that Lily and Everett ending up married was a given in their microcosm.

Martha is a bit unbalanced. She’s prone to fits and melancholy. She acts out and has a love-and-hate relationship with Ryder Channing, the man Everett will kill years later. He’s not a rancher, more someone in business, always seeking a new venture. To people from their milieu, he’s not a suitable husband and Martha knows it. She pretends not to be in love with him because she always imagined herself as the wife of a rich rancher. And that he’s not. Her untimely death leaves her ghost hanging over Lily and Everett’s marriage. Lily always knew that deep down her friend never thought her worthy of marrying her brother. Everett has a hard time dealing with his grief. Martha’s shadow is always lurking in the shadows of their lives.

Apart from Lily and Everett’s individual story, Run River is also fantastic analysis of the culture and roots of the Sacramento area. Everett and Lily are the last representatives of the pioneer’s spirit. Ryder Channing represents the new California.

Like Clark McCormack, Channing conveyed the distinct impression that he could live by his wits alone. They were both free agents, adventurers who turned whatever came their way to some advantage; both pleasant, knowledgeable, and in some final way incomprehensible to Everett.

Becoming a rich rancher is not Channing’s idea of success. Like Sutter, the McClellans are rooted on their ranch and have a hard time imagining that their life could change. Martha couldn’t let go of her dream to marry a rancher to marry a man like Channing. They like the old ways and they look down on the Channings around them. Their parents tried to infuse them with the pioneer’s spirit but failed. Everett has no other ambition than to grow hops. Lily can’t grab what she wants out of life, she doesn’t even know what she wants.

Didion was born in Sacramento, she comes from that culture and she observes a turning point in her environment. Lily and Everett’s story is seen as the epilogue of the pioneer’s experience in California. I’ve also read a collection of her essays, L’Amérique and to me she’s the writer of this other California, the rural one, where the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath were headed. I read it not so long after Steinbeck’s novel and I was surprised to read that in 1938 the Okies were still pitching tents at the far end of the ranch, near the main highway south. When did it stop? When did all these people find a job and have a decent home? Of course she describes the landscapes, the city and life near the river. For example, she mentions the intense heat very often. It dictates people’s schedule in the summer, disrupts sleep and impacts their everyday life.

Didion’s style is stunning and sharp. She’s not into overgrown sentences but more into clinical description of events and feelings. Her characters are human but she’s not too complacent with them. Subtle touches of her literary paintbrush create a palpable microcosm. Her style reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. I love Hopper. On his paintings, the details of the scene are precise. The characters look away from us. They’re in their world and they seem a little sad. The scenes leave me a bit unsettled, wondering if something terrible is hovering over these people’s life or speculating about what’s going on in their mind. The subjects are often pensive, physically present but retreated in their thoughts. They don’t give away what they think or who they are. The light on the paintings enforces this impression. We only see the scene as the painter wants us to see it. We only see Lily and Everett’s life as Didion wants us to see it. Hopper and Didion both picture America from the 1920s to the 1950s and it probably explains why I had images of Hopper’s paintings in mind, even if Hopper’s scenes are set on the East coast. See Lily and Everett together in Room in New York (1932)

EDWARD HOPPER

As you have probably guessed by now, this is an excellent novel. It’s a page turner, a subtle description of a relationship and a parallel analysis of a part of California’s history. Didion is rather critical about this novel but I think she should be proud of it. Great news: Run River is her debut novel and it’s not considered to be her best! I can’t wait to read something else by her. I have The Year of Magical Thinking at home and I dread to read it because I know it’s well written and I expect it to be engaging, emotionally.

I leave you with a last quote, one that made me think:

Maybe the most difficult, the most important thing anyone would do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

Reading Bingo

November 13, 2014 27 comments

I discovered this Reading Bingo on Marina Sofia’s blog Finding Time to Write. There are 24 random book categories and you need to find out if you’ve read a book that fits in each of them. I thought it was a funny idea so I indulged and like Marina Sofia, I tried to stick to books read in 2014.

reading-bingo-small

1) More than 500 pages: Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. It’s fantastic.

2) Forgotten Classic: Cheese by Willem Elschott. It’s a classic for Belgium. So I’ve heard. It’s hilarious, btw.

3) Book that became a movie: The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry.

4) Book Published This Year: Sorry, I only buy paperbacks and I don’t have time to go to a library.

5) Book with a number in the title: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I’m cheating a bit here, since I abandoned the book but it’s my only read with a number in it.

6) Book written by someone under 30: Nothing in this category.

7) A book with non-human characters: White Dog by Romain Gary. Please, please, read it. It’s a lot more than a dog story.

8) Funny: Several books qualified for this because as Elizabeth Bennett would say I dearly love a laugh. I picked Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis because I really had a lot of fun with this one.

9) Book by a female author: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Nothing very original. Sadly, most of the books I read this year and that were written by women were a disappointment.

10) Mystery: The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle. Totally wacked. It could be in the Funny Book category too which is strange for crime fiction, I know. Are you curious now?

11) Novel with a one-word title: Drive by James Sallis. It’s also been made into a film.

12) Short stories: Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson. It’s difficult to find in English but it’s available in French.

13) A book set on a different continent: On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. It’s set in Japan and relates the story of a man who liberated on parole and needs to start again in Tokyo.

14) Non-fiction: A Parisian in Chicago by Marie Grandin. She was French and accompanied her husband in Chicago 1892. She describes the city and the American society. Fascinating.

15) First Book by a favourite author: Nothing in this category

16) A book I heard about online: Almost all the books I buy come from blog sources. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCord is one of them.

17) Bestseller: I rarely read bestsellers. The last one I read was Fifty Shades of Grey. Out of curiosity about the society we live in. I turned fifty shades of red just thinking so many readers enjoyed that crap.

18) Book based on a true story: Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars. It’s about John Augustus Sutter’s life, the history of California and the Gold Rush.

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: It’s a bottomless pile.

20) A book that a friend loves: I’ll pick books among the Humbooks I got for Christmas, No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker.

21) A book that scares me: The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth scared me. It’s not a scary in a Halloween sort of way, it’s scary because it’s a long poem. I wasn’t sure I could read a novel written in verses in English. Apparently, I can. It’s also a book two blogging friends love.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: I picked the oldest book I’ve read this year (so far) and it’s Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë.

23) The second book in a series: I have nothing for this category. (yet)

24) A book with a blue cover: Run River by Joan Didion. Billet to come. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Didion_Run_River

I hope you enjoyed scrolling through my reading bingo. It’s a fun way to look back on books I’ve read this year. I’d love to read about your Reading Bingo.

Cheers!

Emma

Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 41 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. 1929. French translation by Olivier Le Lay. (2008)

Doblin_BerlinMy good resolution for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy was to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I’ve read 225 pages out of 625 and then decided that life was too short and my reading time too limited to force feed myself with more of Franz Biberkopf’s struggles in Berlin from the 1920s.

Here’s the story. Franz Biberkopf is freshly out of prison. He was condemned after killing his wife in a domestic fight. Now that he’s free, he determined to stay on the right side of law. But things aren’t easy outside when nobody is expecting you, when you’re alone in a metropolis and where you’re doomed to remain in the shady part of society.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a great novel. I’d say it echoes to Manhattan Transfer which was published in 1925 and in a way it resonates with No Beast So Fierce for its ex-convict theme.

Döblin and Dos Passos have the same sense of describing the bowels of a city, be it Berlin or New York. The form of their novel is similar with chapters describing the city and the people and their struggle to survive. Döblin concentrates on Franz Biberkopf while Do Passos creates a whole gallery of characters, giving a real feeling of the town. Manhattan Transfer pictures a wider range of social classes and this is where Döblin joins Bunker. Both show the city’s unsavoury neighbourhoods, in Berlin and in LA. Bunker describes wonderfully how difficult it is to go out of prison, have no one to welcome you and help you outside. Biberkopf wants to be honest now and turn over a new leaf but the economy is bad and he has trouble finding a job. I can’t tell more about the book since I’ve only read one third of it.

Döblin’s style is, I suppose, modernist or experimental, whatever that means. It’s not easy to read but Dos Passos isn’t easy either. I believe both brought something new to literature. My copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz is translated by Olivier Le Lay. It’s a new translation and he did an outstanding job. He translated the German into the French from the east of the country. For example, he wrote tu es schlass, which means you’re knackered. In common French, you’d say tu es crevé. Schlass is really a word we use in Alsace-Moselle. Sometimes, Le Lay also translated the German usage of putting a definite article before proper nouns. Like here: eh ben la Fölsch, elle est ben étalagiste, literally well, the Fölsch, she’s a window dresser, isn’t she? This use of the definite article before a proper noun is allowed in German and is used in popular French in Alsace-Moselle. In addition to these ways of germanising the French, he also translated accents to give a better idea of the atmosphere of the book. So the French reveals the German and you really feel like you’re in Germany and you forget it hasn’t been written in your language.

So after reading this, you wonder “If it’s that good, why did she abandon Berlin Alexanderplatz?” especially since I LOVED Manhattan Transfer and No Beast So Fierce. Why couldn’t I finish it? The reason I see is that Do Passos and Bunker instilled warmth and life in their work. Their characters are alive and human. Franz Biberkopf is cold. Döblin doesn’t explore his feelings enough. He’s a cog in a machine-city that crushes people. I couldn’t care less about him and what would become of him. I wanted to know what would become of the characters Dos Passos created and I wanted Bunker’s Max Dembo to escape his criminal fate. I rooted for them, I was interested.

The coldness I mentioned before prevented me from enjoying myself. I wasn’t willing to put more energy in this long novel. I was confronted again to the same experience with German literature that I’ve had before. I haven’t read many German books but each time I was dissatisfied. They were cold, the characters aloof. As a reader, I’m in a position of looking insects into a microscope, not of sharing a human experience. The writer doesn’t manage to reach out to me. Please, leave recommendations in the comments about German books that aren’t heavy and stuffy. Introduce me to let’s say, the German Nick Hornby or Alberto Moravia or Richard Russo or Philippe Besson. Otherwise, I’m going to think I need to stick to Austrian writers when German language literature month arrives.

For a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz by someone who’s read the entire book, read Max’s review here. Despite my poor experience with Döblin, I still recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

November 1, 2014 26 comments

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960. French title: Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur.

book_club_2After The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. I swear I’m not trying to read every book on the usual syllabus in American high schools. Actually, Harper Lee’s only novel is our Book Club choice for October. (Yes, I’m late with the billet but work took over last week). I have read the French translation by Isabelle Stoïanov, revised by Isabelle Hausser in 2005. She also wrote the afterword. I could probably read the original but I already had a copy in French. So be it.

A small paragraph about the well-known plot: we’re in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch raises his two children Scout and Jem on his own after his wife died. He’s an attorney in Maycomb and when a white woman accuses Tom Robinson of rape, he’s the lawyer appointed by the court. Tom Robinson is a Black man; Atticus will put himself on the side of law and examine the facts with objectivity. His involvement in the case –although involuntary—will stir strong reactions in the community and affect his family.

Lee_To_KillHarper Lee could have written an openly militant book. The novel was published in 1960, during the fight for civil rights in the Deep South. It could have become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 20th century. She avoids this with a child narrator. Even though Scout relates the events years after they occurred (although Atticus is still alive when she tells the story so she’s not an old lady herself), she relates them with the eyes of a child recapturing her vision of the events. In appearance, it’s not a pamphlet but we know with Candide and Persian Letters that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m not overly fond of child narrators, which is why Life Before Us is not my favorite Gary even if it’s an excellent piece of literature and if Momo’s voice is quite unique. It took me time to adjust to Scout’s voice and I was only hooked when the case actually started. Scout’s introduction to her everyday life helped understanding the cultural background of the Maycomb county, of Atticus’s unorthodox parenting and of the special relationship between Scout, Jem, their black governess Calpurnia and their neighbours.

Through Scout’s eyes, we see Maycomb as it is, without judgment. It’s her town, her life. It’s all she knows and it’s her normality. With hindsight, we see a small town prejudiced against African Americans, a deeply religious community, a county that has not totally healed from the Civil War and a town with economic difficulties. Coming along with small town life, we learn about family reputations, leaders of opinion and we realize that men of good aren’t heard if what they have to say disrupts the community’s balance. Everyone has their place and it can’t change.

Of course the trial doesn’t go well for Tom Robinson. It opens the Pandora box of feelings and opinions everybody knew but hid for the sake of living together in peace. To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity, in human rights but it’s not seen in black-and-white terms. We see that Atticus was appointed by the judge on purpose: he knew Atticus would give Tom a fair defense. It’s the judge’s way to support Tom. There is no strong demonstration of support to Atticus’s choices but steady and strong backup in the wings. The men of good choose indirect action, refuse to resort to violence and help each other. That’s the honorable way to drive change, Harper Lee seems to say. Scout understands the undercurrents and her position reminded me of Momo’s comment is Life Before Us:

Il m’a expliqué en souriant que rien n’est blanc ou noir et que le blanc, c’est souvent le noir qui se cache et le noir, c’est parfois le blanc qui s’est fait avoir. Smiling, he explained that nothing is only black or only white and that the white is often the black in hiding and that the black is sometimes the white that has been conned.

I think that’s what Scout learnt too. Harper Lee manages to get her book out of the State-of-the-Nation box to the coming-of-age box. Scout’s perception of the world changed after these events and they were probably even more striking to the thirteen-year-old Jem. Her narration is charming, funny and candid. It alleviates the tension created by the terrible events the novel depicts.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vivid description of life in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It pictures the flowers, birds and surrounding nature. We experience the stifling summer heat that slows human activities and make people sleep outside in their hammocks. We discover the various religious groups and the local customs and dishes. Harper Lee doesn’t embellish things, though. It’s a poor county and there is no space for individual achievements outside the ones the community expects from you. If you want to live differently, you need to leave. Conservatism is almost a religion in itself.

Names are also interesting. Atticus and Calpurnia are Roman names. They rang a bell and I researched them. Guess what: Atticus was Cicero’s correspondent and another Atticus was a philosopher and Calpurnia was Julius Caesar’s last wife. Harper Lee chose to name her lawyer after a philosopher and a litterateur. The Black governess has the name of a great noble Roman family. And Atticus’s sister who settles in his home as a general in a colony and appoints herself as the children’s mother figure is named…Alexandra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

My only regret is that I would have wanted to know more about Scout’s family. Why do the children call their father Atticus and not Dad? How did the mother die? What will become of them after the events? Will Jem become a lawyer too?

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece for the same reasons as The Grapes of Wrath is one. It mixes beautifully thoughts about the society it is set in with the personal destiny of the characters. Both book raise relevant questions. Both are too complex and subtle to be enjoyed in class without the input of an excellent teacher. To grasp at 16 the desperation the Joad family had to feel or to realize what it meant for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson in this State, at that time and in such a small town, you need a middle man to put the context into perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird is also an ode to childhood, to innocent games and beliefs, to scratches on the knees, t-shirts stained with mud and imaginary worlds. Highly recommended.

PS: If you’re in high school and landed here in search of ideas for an essay about this novel, please note that I’m French and that nobody in the English speaking world knows anything about Romain Gary, except the few aficionados following this blog. Just to point out that using Momo’s wisdom will not impress your teacher.

%d bloggers like this: