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Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

Bookish news in my small world

January 26, 2019 20 comments

Over the last few weeks, I have gathered miscellaneous bookish things I wanted to share with you. They caught my attention during my daily life activities and stayed with me.

Literary events

Angouleme BD festival

This weekend is the Festival de Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême. It’s the 46th edition of this festival dedicated to BD, a French acronym that covers comics, graphic novels, manga… The Grand Prix of the Angoulême festival has been awarded to Rumiko Takahashi, the Japanese author of mangas. Did you know that France is the second market in the world for mangas? (After Japan, of course) 18 million of mangas were sold in France in 2017 and it represents 38% of the BD sales in France. We are unique in the Western world for this and it started with my generation. We watched manga cartoons on TV and we were hooked.

 Fête du Livre de Bron – a festival for contemporary literature.

It’s organized from March 6th to 10th, 2019. Oliver Gallmeister will give a lecture, Nature Writing, une tradition anglo-saxonne. I hope I can attend this as I’m curious to hear this wonderful publisher of American literature.

Quais du Polar – March 29th – March 31st.

I have my subscription to Quais du Polar! Nordic Crime will be celebrate during the 15th edition of this cime fiction festival. I received my badge, my two free books and now I need to browse through the writers that will be invited and see if I have one of their book on the shelf already.

Translations

Good news! Il reste la poussière by Sandrine Collette is now translated into English. It’s published by Europa Editions and it’s entitled Nothing But Dust. See Claire’s review here.

Other great news, La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will be available in English in September. It will be The Godmother, in a Coppola sense, not the Disney one. It will be published by Old Street Publishing.

I also stumbled upon a German translation of Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I hope it’ll make it into English one of these days.

Economy and Literature.

When literature takes interest in economy and vice versa.

I’ve started to read the number 79 of the magazine L’Economie politique as it is about literature and economy and how the two interacts. Some articles are more difficult than others, I’m not done yet. I didn’t know that Robinson Crusoe was used in economy theories. I enjoyed the article about writers and the literature and book market. I’m looking forward to reading the one about economy and Zola.

I’m not going to post a billet about it. Sometimes I struggle to understand the content in French, so writing a summary of it in English is insuperable.

When the French tax law for 2019 favors independent bookstores.

When browsing through the tax changes voted last December, I stumbled upon an article about new tax exemptions for independent bookstores. Chain stores are not in the scope of this law and I’m happy our deputies voted texts to protect our network of independent bookstores.

 

America – A French magazine

America is a magazine founded by François Busnel and Eric Fottorino. It started when Trump was elected as president and it is meant to last the four years of his presidency. Each magazine has a theme to make us discover America. François Busnel is best known in France as the presenter of the weekly literary live TV show La Grande Librairie. It’s a famous TV program in France, one that managed to gather 841 000 viewers on December 11, 2018 and keeps getting high ratings for that kind of show.

America includes long interviews of writers, reportages by French and American writers, a chronology of events in Trump’s America, beautiful illustrations and pictures. It’s a gorgeous magazine, the right mix of long articles and news in brief, of contemporary writers and older ones, of literature, cinema and TV.

This quarter’s number is about race in America, it opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and includes a long interview by Russel Banks, a text by James Baldwin and other reportages and interviews.

Silence, on lit!

Quiet! We’re reading, that’s the meaning of Silence! On lit. It’s a charity devoted to developing reading in schools. The idea is simple: everyday students read at the same time during 15 minutes. The middle schools (collèges) have arranged their schedule around this new reading time. Any reading material is allowed: books, magazines, BDs…Anything. The whole school gets quiet during 15 minutes as all the students in all the classrooms are reading what they chose to read. The repetition helps improving at reading. It’s a real success where it’s implemented. New readers emerged and for the others, it’s a quiet time to settle down after other activities and be ready to learn something else after.

It’s a charity, and of course, they need money to buy more books for school libraries because they need a bigger stock of books if all the students read at the same time and want to borrow something from the library. I like their idea a lot, because 15 minutes is not long and I think that their small steps approach is interesting and takes reading down from its pedestal of intellectual activity.

Libraries Without Borders

Libraries Without Borders is a French charity whose aim is to help alphabetization and promote access to culture and education through libraries. They work locally in 30 countries.

In France, they were recently involved in La nuit de la lecture. (Reading night). Libraries Without Borders gave book bags to a group of migrant children. French children from Alsace prepared personalized book bags for each child, as a welcome to France and the French language gift. For my Australian readers, have a look at what they do for Aboriginal communities. (Here)

Why this billet? you might ask

I know there are tons of initiatives to foster reading, to improve literacy or to build bridges between communities. There are also tons of book festivals everywhere in France. All the events, actions and news I shared are just drops in this ocean of literary-oriented activities. But they were the drops that brightened the world news I heard every day.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

My 2018 reading year in twelve books

January 6, 2019 36 comments

In 2018, I read or started a total of 55 books, not a lot compared to other bloggers. It’s stable from one year to the other, I guess that one book per week is all I can manage. I abandoned five of them either because I didn’t like them or because they were too difficult to read. It was a good reading year, but not outstanding.

After showing you some of my 2018 bookish moments and wrapping up my year of reading Australia, allow me to share my twelve favorite reads of the year.

Best atmospheric crime fiction: The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

I loved being in New Orleans with Dave Robicheaux and I want to go to Louisiana now.

Best companion book: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud retells the story from Camus’s famous classic The Stranger from the Algerian perspective and gives a thought-provoking vision of colonization and post-colonial Algeria. A punch-in-the-gut book, important to read along the original.

Best political crime fiction: Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu

I hope, I really hope that Spada will be translated into English because it shows the underbelly of political communication and how the exploitation of a crime in the media transform politicians into pyromaniacs who set the country on fire.

Best oxymoron book: The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

A banker’s speech that will convince you that indeed, no one is more anarchist than this bourgeois banker. Incredible. Funny as hell.

Best coming-of-age novel: The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

I’m not sure it’s really a coming-of-age novella, since I’m not good at putting books in neat literary boxes. The Poor Man’s Son gives a good vision of life in poor Algerian villages during the French colonization. It’s based on the writer’s own experience.

Best almost-feminist book: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sad story of two sisters, one who follows the expected path of marriage and motherhood and the other who tries to break free of this yoke.

Best African-French book: Small Country by Gaël Faye

Gaël Faye relates his own story as a child in Burundi when the civil war starts in Burundi and during the genocide in Rwanda. Poignant.

Best crazy serious book: The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis

How a doctor who wants to cure madness turns a city into a madhouse inside and outside his psychatric ward. Voltaire would have loved this. It’ll make you laugh and think.

Best Australian literary fiction: I, For Isobel by Amy Witting

Also a coming-of-age story, I guess. Isobel is trying to find her independance and shake off her childhood to become her own person. It’s a well-drawn story of a young girl who loves to read in a family who doesn’t value books and tries to smother her personality.

Best I-want-to-give-it-to-all-my-friends book: The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

I loved The Tin Flute for the accurate and loving depiction of working-class neighborhoods in Montreal during WWII. It’s really a shame that there is no recent English translation of it. English speaking Canadians are missing out on an excellent book.

Best end-of-my-world book: The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Poor Trotta lives through the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and cannot recover from it. Neither could Roth. Don’t read it as historical fiction to learn historical facts but more to see what history does to a man.

Best book to raise awareness about a sensitive topic: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss

Very brave indigenous Australians share with us their personal experience of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. They come from the whole country, from various backgrounds and are of all ages. It helps the reader understand what racist barbs and ingrained prejudices do to the people who receive them right in their faces. Powerful.

I’ve already talked about my project to read American literature in 2019 in my Happy New Year billet. I will read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia in May. Join us if you want to.

For the rest, I hope to read more Australian lit and books from the TBR. I really need to read more from it than I buy books otherwise I’ll end up in the same position as this year: the TBR is as high as the end of the year as it was at the beginning. Only its composition has changed… Oh well, there are worst things in life!

To live without reading is dangerous. You’d have to believe what people tell you.

My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 33 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

Bonne Année 2019!

January 1, 2019 18 comments

I wish you a Happy New year from France. This is the last year of the decade and after that we’ll all be in our 20s again, isn’t that a great perspective? 🙂

Meanwhile, I hope that 2019 will be kind to all of you and your family. I wish you the best and especially a good health.

This post opens my 2019 blogging year and I’m looking forward to spending these months in your company. I’ll do a wrap up of 2018 in an upcoming billet and I will probably write something special about my year of reading Australian literature.

Before sharing my reading projects for 2019, I want to thank you all for reading my billets, for clicking on the Like button to let me know you were there and took the time to read my often hastily-written ramblings.

Thanks for all the comments and discussions, it makes my reading a less solitary affair and a more fulfilling adventure.  I also enjoy reading your thoughts and following your bookish journeys, even if I don’t have enough time to read all the reviews I’d want to. I hear about a lot of books thanks to you and discover other cultures. Australian bloggers have been very patient and helpful during 2018 and it broadened my reading experience.

I’m grateful for the exchanges and for the courteous and stimulating community that book bloggers have created. I wish us all a fanstatic bookish year full of great books, stimulating conversations, fun literary events and challenges.

Now, what about my reading plans?

I have all the books for my Book Club meetings. I missed reading American literature in 2018 and I prepared a little stack of American books from my shelves. That’ll help keep the TBR under control. (That’s the biggest challenge of all challenges.) Since book bloggers LOVE reading lists, here’s my selection:

  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  • Go Tell It On The  Mountain by James Baldwin
  • The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
  • The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson (French translation)
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (French translation)
  • Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante
  • My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
  • Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (French translation)
  • The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (French translation)
  • Sex, Death and Fly Fishing by John Gierach (French translation)
  • Burning Bright by Ron Rash
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (French translation)

I hope I’ll manage to read one per month, I don’t know in which order.

What I know for sure is that reading, blogging, doing literary escapades and attending literary events will prevent me from feeling like this:

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