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Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 3: Criminology and translations

March 31, 2019 7 comments

For my last day at Quais du Polar, I decided to attend to two events, one entitled “CSI in the 19thC: when literature looks into the birth of crimilogy” and one which was actually a translation battle.

I started with the one about criminology, a conversation between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle. We were in the Jacquard room of the Palais de la Bourse. Coline Gatel wrote Les suppliciées du Rhône, a crime fiction book set in Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Fabrice Cotelle is a commissaire, and the staff chief of the SCPTS (Service Central de la Police Technique et Scientifique), the French CSI. The real police forces are involved in Quais du Polar, as a way to make their work better known and I found it marvelous that they are willing to take part in the festival.

Lyon has a long tradition around solving crime. In the 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) was a famous criminologist and specialist of forensic medicine. Edmond Locard (1877-1966) is another forensic scientist who formulated the basic principle of forensic science. Meanwhile, in Paris, Alphonse Bertillon made huge progress in indentification. He’s the inventor of the mug shot. Nowadays, the headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon and the national school for police captains is near Lyon. It is open to the public during Quais du Polar. I visited it once, and it was fascinating. There’s a fake apartment where students learn how to retrieve clues from a crime scene and an interesting museum about criminology. Moreover, the police stations of the 1st and 4th arrondissements were open to the public during the weekend. The public could meet and chat with authors who are also detectives or police officers.

The meeting between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle was absolutely fascinating. She has written a book with Lacassagne as a character and she brings back to life the beginnings of forensic science. The turning of the 20thC was a critical period for crime investigation as several sciences made progress at the same time: medicine, photography, psychology and psychiatry.

Mr Cotelle had read Mrs Gatel’s book and could easily interact with her, explaining what he discovered in her book and going back to the history of criminology. He told us what methods invented back in those days are still used today. He shared about the changes, mostly DNA exploitation and digital traces. Of course, we know that we live traces with our phones and credit cards. But did you know that the computer in your car records when and how many times a door was opened? So, if you say that you were alone in your car and that your connected car recorded that the passenger door was opened, you’ll have some explaining to do. (I’d be a suspect: I always open the passenger door to put my bag on the passenger side because I don’t want to twist my back by doing it from the driver’s side!)

The challenge is also to turn some state-of-the-art technique only used in special cases into readymade and efficient processes that can be used on the field, on a daily basis to help policemen and gendarmes solve everyday criminality.

I loved this exchange so much that I decided to buy Les suppliciées du Rhône, just to discover who Alexandre Lacassagne was. Lyon was a hotspot for science in those years and I’m looking forward to knowing more about my adoptive hometown. I also liked that Fabrice Cotelle didn’t look down on crime fiction writers, pointing out inconsistencies. I also appreciated that he took the time to read Les suppliciées du Rhône to have an enlightened discussion with its writer. He was respectful and engaging, just as his neighbour was.

I’m glad that the festival managed to involve the police in the conferences and the events of the festival. It’s a rare opportunity to hear them talk about their job.

In the afternoon, I decided to attend the translation battle around an English text. We were again in the Jacquard room.

 

It was a short story by Jamey Bradbury, an American writer born in the Midwest and now living in Alaska. (She’s published by Gallmeister, there’s a good chance that her book is good) Two translators worked on a French translation of her story. They presented their translation to the attendance and another translator acted as an anchorman and asked questions about their choices and the differences between the two texts. Jamey Bradbury was there too and she could give her opinion about the option taken in the translation of this or that word. The art of translation fascinates me. The translators explained their choices and basically had the same issues with this translation. Words like to hum, to poke, to squint, to waggle one’s eyebrows, to scavenge; to pee…have no direct equivalent in French and are a hurdle. Just like something and whatever.

I loved attending this exchange and I envy their job. I think that bringing foreign books to local readers who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise is a fantastic job. It brings us a world of literature we’d never know.

That’s all for this year, folks! It’s been a great three days and I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Book haul for the day:

 

Quais du Polar Day 2: James Sallis, Michael Connelly, Ron Rash and others

March 31, 2019 10 comments

You will probably never guess it from my billets about Quais du Polar but this year, the focus is on Nordic crime fiction. Lots of writers from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark are invited to the festival. Since I’m not a great reader of Nordic fiction I chose to attend other events.

Sorry if anyone expected billets about Nordic fiction. 🙂 You can always listen to the conferences on replay here. But let me share with you my second day at Quais du Polar.

My first panel featured Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Ingrid Astier and Monica Kristensen. The theme was Great landscapes and Noir fiction. It echoes to the conference I recently attended about Nature Writing. We were in the room Tony Garnier at the Palais de la Bourse.

Ron Rash writes novels set in the Appalaches and nature is an important part of his protagonists’ way of life. Colin Niel writes crime fiction novels set in French Guyana. You can find my billets about his books here and here. He used to work there as a environment engineer and contributed to the creation of a national park.

Ingrid Astier wrote a surf novel set in Tahiti, French Polynesia. She spent a few months there, to understand the land and talk to the natives of the area. Her book focuses on a special and very dangerous wave that surfers want to ride in Tahiti.

Monica Kristensen is a scientist, a climatologist and the first woman to have led an expedition to the South Pole. She writes crime fiction novels set in the North Pole in Norway.

What I enjoyed about the panel was the good interactions between the writers or how they bounced on each other’s ideas. They listened to each other and even if each of them told stories related to their books and their specific natural environment, they managed to find common points between the issues described. One of the issues is how to combine human activities that ensure that the populations living there can work and make a decent living and protect the environment. Tourism is not always a good solution. They pointed out how our relationship with nature is different according to who we are. Colin Niel said that hiking in the Amazonian forest with soldiers is not the same as hiking there with natives.

They seem to have a common goal with their books: give a voice to the local populations, make their voices heard. And you should have heard Monica Kristensen talking about polar bears! I would have loved to hear her trade bear stories with Craig Johnson.

A very interesting moment with these four authors.

The second event I chose was a mix between jazz and literature. It was set in the Opera of Lyon and James Sallis and Michael Connelly talked about jazz and their literature. Here’s a picture of the premises, for you to have a feel of the jazz club atmosphere.

A quartet played songs between bits of conversation between the two guests, artfully guided by a journalist. It was a wonderful moment, good music and also a great conversation between two writers who truthfully enjoy jazz.

Sallis is actually a specialist and he has written books about jazz music. They made the link between jazz and their work, how it influences their style. Sallis made interesting comments about the music we had just listened to and the process of writing. He pointed out the lead of the song and its patterns and how the quartet improvised from it and came back to the lead and pattern. He said that writing a book was a bit like that. The writer has a lead, he pokes around this idea, plays with it and comes back to it. They have pattern in their writing. He said that music helps him get in the right zone for writing, in the state of mind that will engender his literature. Fascinating stuff.

The third event was a panel with Ron Rash, James Sallis and Chris Offutt about the “Great American Noir novel”, at the Chapelle de la Trinité. Gorgeous place, isn’t it?

They connected well, interacting cleverly, answering the questions of the journalist. They seemed happy to be there, discussing their working habits. Rash and Offutt both write books set in the Appalaches, where they come from. They evoked the nature there and the culture of the inhabitants. Both say that they keep writing about the same place, hoping that if they dig far enough, they’ll reach the universal and be relevant to readers coming from different backgrounds. Sallis has moved a lot in his life and he said that writing about a place was a way for him to absorb the place, to understand it and get to know it deeply.

The three of them have a close relationship with nature and want to stress on the importance of the natural environment on the men who are settled there. Nature influences people’s way of life and their culture, whether they are conscious about that or not. It was a lively conversation with writers who were willing to share, to give us clues about their writing.

I had a lovely time listening to these great writers. I’ve never read Chris Offutt but since he’s published by Gallmeister, I’m sure I’ll like him.

What I love about Quais du Polar is that the writers are not on an obvious promotion tour. Of course, they may be invited to talk about their last book and they sell and sign books. But they are also invited to discuss themes that are in line with their work but not always direct promotion. It avoids readymade comments about their book to questions journalists ask over and over again. They have to play another partition, they have a chance to chat with likeminded writers and that makes it more enjoyable to the public.

Book haul of the day:

A whodunnit in the Proust world written by an academic specialized in Proust. It was wrapped in a nice tote bag designed by the publisher Viviane Hamy. I’m sure cat lovers who will read this post will appreciate it.

Day 3 will be about criminology and about translations.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 1: Brian de Palma, Michael Connelly and a good book haul

March 30, 2019 5 comments

The 15th edition of Lyon’s crime fiction festival started on March 29th, 2019. It is a large festival dedicated to crime, with a giant book store, numerous conferences, investigation games in the city, several escape games and films at the Institut Lumière, the museum of cinema. (The cinema was invented in Lyon, where the first film ever was made.) It is set in different historical buildings in the city center, giving the attendants the opportunity to see places that are usually closed to tourists.

It lasts three days and I plan to take advantage of the three days.

First, I attended interview of Brian de Palma and Susan Lehman who wrote a crime fiction novel together, Are Snake Necessary? That’s the translation of the French version of the book, Les serpents sont-ils nécessaires? I don’t know the actual English title because the book is published in France but not in the USA. This means that, although it was originally written in English, it has not found its publisher in the US. Amazing. To be honest, this interview was disappointing. The journalist had obviously prepared her questions and knew de Palma’s filmography well but he kept deflating questions with jokes, never really answering anything. Susan Lehman tried to compensate for his lack of response but it was not enough to make of this meeting an engaging conversation.

Then I went to the cinema to see the preview of a documentary about Michael Connelly and Los Angeles. Olivier Marchal, a French former cop and crime fiction filmmaker flew to Los Angeles to visit the city, the places mentioned in Connelly’s books and to meet with the real-life cop who inspired Harry Bosch. I have never read anything by Connelly but the documentary was excellent, showing Connelly and Marchal driving around Los Angeles. Connelly talked about Harry Bosch, his work and his love for LA. Olivier Marchal is a great fan of Connelly’s and he was like a kid in a candy store who has met their favorite star. It gave a special atmosphere to the documentary as his enthusiasm and awe are visible. It will be on the French television soon. Connelly was in the movie theatre, discovering the film at the same time as us and he spoke to the public a little bit. He seemed quite approachable for such a successful writer.

After this good time at the cinema, I went to the bookstore at the Palais de la Bourse (The Chamber of Commerce) and wandered among the various stands, all belonging to independent bookstores.

Of course, my wallet didn’t come out of this unscathed but I had a lot of pleasure buying books, discussing with passionate libraires and other readers. Here’s my book haul:

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer. I’ve never heard of him, it was an impulse purchase based on the cover and the name of the publisher. Usually what Métailié publishes is excellent, so I trust them on this one.

I also chose to buy Serena by Ron Rash in English because I knew from his previous visit to Quais du Polar that he reads his book aloud to himself when he writes. He started writing with poetry and moved to novels and short fiction later. He likes to check the sound of his prose. Since I had no trouble reading his Burning Bright collection of short stories, I thought I’d get this one in the original.

For the first time, James Sallis is at Quais du Polar. I’ve never read anything by him, except Drive. I’m curious about Moth (Papillon de nuit in French) and the New Orleans setting appeals to me. I’m curious to compare his New Orleans to the one pictured by James Lee Burke.

Reading Michael Connelly seemed obvious after watching the documentary. It made me curious about Harry Bosch, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the first of the series, The Black Echo.

I enjoyed Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette and I had the chance to tell her how good her book is. She signed my copy of Les larmes noires sur la terre and I’m looking forward to reading it, even if I already know it will be bleak.

Tony Cavanaugh is described as the Australian Michael Connelly, so we’ll see how I like his book. He was very friendly with his public and stunned to learn that the young couple in front of him had come from Lille (700km away) just to attend a book festival. Yes, we French love our crime fiction.

It was a good day to take time at the bookstore and chat with writers. I’m glad I could tell Bogdan Teodorescu how much I loved Spada. (Still no English translation in sight, apparently, no publisher wants it.)

My program of Day 2 is a panel with Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Monica Kristensen and Ingrid Astier about landscapes and Noir. Then a jazz and literature hour with James Sallis and Michael Connelly. Then a panel entitled Eternal flame, the great American Noir novel, featuring James Sallis, Ron Rash and Chris Offutt.

If you want to see the whole program of the festival, you can visit their website. All the talks, interviews and shows are available on replay here.

Away From Men by Pascal Dessaint – excellent crime fiction set in Toulouse

March 28, 2019 4 comments

Away from Men by Pascal Dessaint. (2005) Original French title: Loin des humains. Not available in English.

Last year at Quais du Polar, Pascal Dessaint was signing books at a stand and I asked him to recommend one of his books to me. He picked his fourteenth book, Loin des humains, saying it would give me a good idea of his work. Pascal Dessaint lives in Toulouse and according to his bio on Wikipedia, he loves to hike and is passionate about environmental causes.

Loin des humains is set in Toulouse and was published in 2005. The action takes place in September 2004, one year after the heat wave of 2003 and three years after the AZF tragedy. On September 21st, 2001, the chemical factory AZF exploded near the city center of Toulouse. The blast was of 3.4 on the Richter scale, 29 people died and 2500 were wounded. Two thirds of the windows of the city of Toulouse were destroyed. Needless to say, it left scars on the city and its inhabitants.

The book opens on Jacques Lafleur who decided to tackle the bramble branches that have invaded his sister Jeanne’s garden. He’s there with a pair of pruning shears when his murdered taps on his shoulder…

This will cost Capitaine Felix Dutrey his last days of holidays. His colleague Marc calls him to come back early and lead the investigation about Jacques Lafleur’s murder.

While the police are doing their job digging in Lafleur’s life, Rémi, who works in waste collection center finds Jacques Lafleur’s journals. They date back to the summer 2001. He starts to read them voraciously and Lafleur’s words and way of life make a certain impression on him. When he hears the news about Lafleur’s murder, he decides to act…

Loin des humains is a well-crafted crime fiction novel. Jacques Lafleur is quite a character. He’s a wanderer, a hiker, a bum. He travels and hikes. He usually come back to France to spend a few weeks at his friend Mariel’s place in Ariège. She’s a nurse who lives in a remote house in the mountains. His journal of the summer 2001 was written there.

Jacques came back to Toulouse in September 2001 and stayed with his sister Jeanne since the AZF tragedy. Their brother Pierre also lives in Toulouse with his wife Valérie and their son Quentin. Pierre is a snake specialist and has a vivarium full of dangerous snakes in his backyard. Jacques and Pierre have a complicated relationship. They used to be close but don’t seem to be on speaking terms when Jacques’s death happened. Why?

Loin des humains is a well-written and multi-layered crime fiction novel. The point of view shifts between the police team, Rémi’s and Jacques’s diaries. The police team (Félix, Marc and Magali who has just come back from her personal tragedy) always speaks in the first person, embarking the reader on their side. Rémi’s chapters are told by a omniscient narrator. And Jacques’s voice is conveyed by his journals. It gives the reader clues about the dynamics between the siblings. Jacques hikes in Ariège and it Dessaint writes beautiful pages about the nature there. Remember, he loves to hike too.

The whole book has a great sense of place, Toulouse and the nature in Ariège are part of the characters’ DNA and influence their lives. The police team characters are developed enough for the reader to get attached to them. I liked Félix’s voice, his life on a boat on the Canal du Midi and his relationship with Elisa. Rémi’s looming presence adds to the plot. And the siblings are odd enough to pick the reader’s interest.

Really, who wanted Jacques Lafleur dead?

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – A must read.

March 17, 2019 15 comments

If Beale Street Coult Talk by James Baldwin (1974) French title: Si Beale Street pouvait parler.

Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. James Baldwin

This is a way to tell the reader that what happens in Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk can happen everywhere in America. It’s painfully banal.

Fonny and Tish, the main characters, could be anyone. Fonny is twenty-two and Tish is nineteen. They live in Harlem in the early 1970s. They’ve known each other since they were children and are now a young couple in love. Marriage is in the air. Fonny wants to be a sculptor and works as a short order cook to make ends meet. Tish works in a fancy department store, in the perfume stand, where hiring a black clerk shows off how progressive the store is. They’re looking for a loft in the Village, to start their life together and for Fonny to have a workshop.

As soon as the book starts, we know that Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s accused of raping a woman from Porto Rico. Tish is pregnant with their baby. Tish is our narrator, her voice a haunting presence, aged by her circumstances. She recalls her life with Fonny, their love and tells us about their fight to get him out of jail. 

If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young and hopeful couple crushed by a system who wants its black population staying in designated neighborhoods and nowhere else. Except jail.

Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies. And perhaps I clung to Fonny, perhaps Fonny saved me because he was just about the only boy I know who wasn’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores – and he never got his hair conked: it just stayed nappy. He started working as a short order cook in a barbecue joint, so he could eat, and he found a basement where he could work on his wood and he was at our house more often than he was at his own house.

And indeed, Fonny’s only crime is to move out of Harlem to the Village, to dare to be a sculptor.

That same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re supposed to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.

That’s probably his only crime.

Fonny’s fall is staged. The victim was raped on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side and Fonny lives on Bank Street in the Village. As Tish points out, it’s a long way to run with a police officer on your heels. I put random addresses in Google Maps to see the distance between Orchard Street and Bank Street and it says it takes two hours and a half to walk from one street to the other. What marathon runners Fonny and this cop must have been to cover this distance.

The system is meant to crush them and no one will lift a finger to point out the obvious: that this procedure is ludicrous and unfair. Fonny’s white lawyer, Hayward is genuinely on the case. But the system throws any hurdle it can on the way. And his dedication on the case is suspicious to his peers, he starts to be an outcast in his profession.

It’s a haunting story because of Tish’s voice. She’s dead calm, telling her story with precision and resignation. And yet she fights and stays strong. Her family and Fonny’s father Frank gather around the young couple. They fight with all their might but their power is limited by their financial means and the color of their skin.

The only ones who don’t fight are Fonny’s mother and sisters. These churchy persons rely on God’s goodwill. If Fonny is meant to go out of prison, God will take care of it. They even feed the white power’s fire by speaking ill of Fonny, their own family. It’s so against actual Christian values that it would be laughable if it didn’t have such tragic consequences.

From the beginning, the reader knows that this is real life, not some Hollywood tale with a fairy godmother who saves the day. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain recently. In his debut novel, Balwin, the son of a preacher, hadn’t made up his mind regarding religion. In Beale Street, he has.

Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.

I also watched I Am Not Your Negroa documentary that leaves you shaken. Beale Street includes a lot of Baldwin’s thinking about America. In an interview, he explains that he’s between Martin Luther King’s views and Malcom X’s position. His ambivalence toward religion makes him challenge the non-violent attitude. The power of love cannot conquer all, as Tish and Fonny finds out. Worse, pious people can be your enemies, through their passivity and their feeling of superiority.

But he also says that he cannot hate all white people because he had a white school teacher when he was little and she took him under her wing. Seeing a bright child, she brought him books, took him out and helped him be more than what society had decided a black boy should be. Her kindness rooted in him the knowledge that not all white people were made of the same cloth.

Beale Street reflects that as well, as three white citizen help Fonny and Tish along the way. A landlord who doesn’t mind renting a loft to a black couple. An Italian woman who comes to Tish’s defense when she’s harassed by a white man. And of course, Hayward, the white lawyer who doesn’t give up.

King’s views might be too optimistic and Malcom X’s views might be too extreme. Baldwin stands in the middle. He’s implacable in his description of America, both in Beale Street and in I Am Not Your Negro. He throws punches with facts and cold anger. He’s rational and spot on, except when he says he doesn’t believe that a black man could become president of the USA within 40 years. He doesn’t spread hatred, he just wants the white population of the USA to acknowledge that African-Americans contributed to the construction of the country, that America is their legitimate homeland.

But Beale Street is a lot more than a political novel. It’s a delicate picture of young love. Baldwin writes graceful pages about Tish and Fonny’s new love, how their friendship turned into something more, how strong they are together and how solid their bond is. It’s described beautifully, through little touches here and there, in small moves and looks. No grand gestures here, only feelings that grow timidly, find a suitable compost and bloom beautifully. Their love has solid roots, they should have a future together, one that is robbed from them.

Baldwin is a master at mixing a lovely romance with strong political ideas and a great sense of place. Even if Beale Street could be any place in America according to Baldwin, in this novel, there’s no denying that we are in New York. Again, I’m amazed at his talent. His voice walks on the difficult line of being accusing but not yelling. He chooses a love story to throw uncomfortable political truths at us. And yet the romance is not a prop for politics. It has its own beauty, its own worth. And, this, my reading friends, is only achieved by masters of literature. 

Not “Highly recommended”, but like Going to Meet the Man, a Must Read.

See other reviews here, one by Claire and one by Jacqui

Fête du Livre de Bron – Bron literary festival.

March 10, 2019 18 comments

It’s currently the Fête du Livre de Bron, a festival for contemporary literatures, one of the numerous literary festivals in France. This year’s theme is La vie sauvage. (Wild Life in English). Friday morning, I attended two conferences, one by Oliver Gallmeister, the founder of Gallmeister publishing house and one by Pierre Schoentes, professor at the Gand university in Belgium.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love books published by Gallmeister. They are specialized in American literature with two strong preferences, Nature Writing and Noir fiction. All books show a certain side of America and in their way, question the American way of life. Their books are right in the theme of the festival.

Oliver Gallmeister was interviewed by Thierry Guichard and the interaction between the two was lively. It was interesting to hear the point of view of a publisher. He runs an independent publishing house and his only compass is that he publishes books that he loves. Old ones with new translations or new ones. He comes from the countryside and says that nature has always been part of his life.

Gallmeister publishes Edward Abbey, Pete Fromm, David Vann, Jean Hegland, Gabriel Tallent but also Ross McDonald, Craig Johnson or Thoreau. They publish writers whose books could not be transposed anywhere else. Books that are intrinsically American.

He talked about nature in America, the way it is part of the American psyche and in their daily life, something we can’t understand in Europe where wilderness is when a garden in unkempt. In the books Gallmeister publishes, nature is an important part of the plot. It’s almost a character or at least something so present that it influences the character’s way of life.

I’m not going to paraphrase everything he said about Nature Writing but I’d like to share what he said about publishing.

80% of the books they publish come to them through literary agents. Gallmeister starts to be well-known in America for publishing a certain type of American literature. They receive around 500 books per year and publish 20. Some of these books are not even published in English because no American publisher wants them. For me, it’s quite puzzling to read a book in translation that has not even been published in its own language. It’s the case of Evasion by Benjamin Whitmer.

Oliver Gallmeister said that France is a little paradise for some of the writers they publish. France still has a unique dense and active literary ecosystem made of libraries, independent bookstores, festivals and partly relayed in the school system. When they first come to France, their writers are amazed by the crowds they meet and it’s something I’ve witnessed at Quais du Polar. Writers are sitting at their table to sign their books and they’re pleasantly surprised by the queue of people, patiently waiting their turn to have their book signed and a quick word with its writer. There are a lot of people attending literature festivals, them being free probably helps too.

Can you imagine that? Some of Gallmeister’s writers are so successful in France that it helps them being published in their home country or live off their books. Some keep on writing thanks to the French public and their book buying. (Now I have an excuse to splurge at Quais du Polar…)

I’ve already mentioned that Gallmeister’s traductions are outstanding. They work with a steady team of translators and their watchword is to disappear. The translator shall not be visible and they have each translation controlled by a team to ensure that the translation reflects the author’s text. There is no room for the translator’s voice or interpretations. Their efforts are visible in their translations. I speak English well enough to hear the American under the French, but it’s still written in a French that a French would speak. And yet, it reflects the American way of speaking and Frenglish with literal translation of expressions doesn’t have its place here, which is excellent because it’s irritating. It sounds odd to readers who don’t speak English and they leap to the face of the English-speaking reader. Honestly, it made me want to be part of their team who checks on translations.

I loved this interview because I truly share Oliver Gallmeister’s passion for American literature and also his non-academic relationship with literature. He doesn’t lose the most important part of why we read: pleasure. I managed to muster the courage to talk to him at the end of the conference and ask if they’d branch out to Australian literature and suggested a book that seems right in their publishing policy: The Hands by Stephen Orr.

Last info: Gallmeister will have a stand at the London Bookfair on March 15th.

The second interview was in total contrast with the first one and soon became a snooze fest. Pierre Schoentjes is certainly a very competent academic. He has written an essay about “nature writing” in French literature, which explains why he was Oliver Gallmeister’s counterpart. His first sentence included a word of literary theory that I didn’t know. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the talk. His speech was not totally accessible to non-academics. Sadly, he reminded me why I never wanted to go to university and study literature.

To sum it up: there’s no real nature writing in French literature for different reasons. There’s a genre called “régionalisme”, about peasant stories and it’s not considered as noble as literary fiction and it’s a put off. Europe doesn’t have wilderness anymore. Post WWII intellectuals were mostly urban writers and were more interested in the working class than in nature. It seems that books about nature were a political statement, either to contrast with the brutality of war (Giono) or to promote ecology.

The two interviews really illustrate my perception of American vs French literature. American writers (at least the ones I read) tell stories and nature or wilderness can be part of their story. French writers often fail to avoid the pitfall of introspection and intellectualization of things even when it’s not needed. One example: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari. An American writer published by Gallmeister would have written a story about the two friends taking over a café in Corsica. All the stuff about Saint Augustine would never have been there.

I don’t want a novelist to show off how erudite they are, it’s boring and in a way, it says, “I only write for like-minded people”. I see literature as a way to escape, a way to see the world and broaden my horizons. Why should I need a degree in literature to read novels?

So yes, I’m going to be a very good customer to Gallmeister. The icing on the cake? The book covers are gorgeous.

On Saturday, I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro, a BD (comic books) writer and novelist. It was a very funny interview by one of his passionate reader, Maya Michalon. We went through his work as he shared anecdotes about his life, his creation process and his interactions with the public.

I bought his BD Zaï, zaï, zaï, zaï, the story of the absurd manhunt that starts in a supermarket when a consumer forgot his loyalty card. He had no papers. I haven’t read it yet but from the excerpts I’ve heard yesterday, it’s totally hilarious in an off-beat sense of humor. The idea behind the loyalty card is to show what could happen to someone who doesn’t have an ID card.

I’d also like to read his novel, Le discours and his other autobiographical BDs entitled Le Steak haché de Damoclès, Like a Steak Machine and Steak It Easy. He can’t tell you why all the titles have steak in them, except for the pleasure of a good word.

There were a lot of other conferences that seemed fascinating but alas, one is always caught put by pesky things called work and chores.

Pavane for a Dead Princess by  Park Min-gyu – A bittersweet Korean novel

March 3, 2019 8 comments

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu (2009) French title: Pavane pour une infante défunte. Translated from the Korean by Hwang Ju-young and Jean-Claude de Crescenzo.

For February, our Book Club read was Pavane for a Dead Princess by Korean writer Park Min-gyu. The book opens on a poetic scene. Two lovers meet up on a snowy day, they barely speak, too overwhelmed by their reunion. He wasn’t sure she would be there. The scene seems to come out of In the Mood for Love.

Then we go back one year in time. The narrator, who will remained unnamed, briefly evokes his childhood. His father was a struggling actor supported by his wife. She’s plain, too plain and simple to have such a handsome and lively husband. Success comes and wife and child are discarded as yesterday’s paper. They don’t fit in this man’s glamorous new life and they are erased from it. The narrator’s mother collapses, goes back to her hometown and the narrator stays by himself in Seoul.

We’re in 1986, he’s 19. Soon, he drifts away. He’s still in high school but drops out and starts working in the underground parking lot of a large department store. He works in the fourth underground level, in the bowels of the department store and helps shoppers park their car. He befriends Yohan who makes sure the narrator stays appointed to this level. There are downtimes at this level and Yohan and the narrator have time to speak.

They start having drinks in a bar named Kentucky Chicken. They meet there, talk, and eat a lot of fried chicken. (Fashionable food in Korea in the 1980s, according to the translator) Yohan and the narrator were both in dire need of a friend.

Then the narrator, who inherited his father’s good looks, falls in love with an ugly coworker. With a touching sensitivity, Pavane for a Dead Princess tells the tentative romance between the narrator and the girl, who remains unnamed too. She can’t believe he’s genuinely interested in her since she’s so unattractive. But they have a connection. They are both thrown in life without a proper toolbox. He hasn’t really recovered from the collapse of his parents’ marriage. That’s his baggage. She’s ugly and Park explains clearly it impacts her life. People stare at her on the streets, she cannot find a proper job and she has no hope of marrying. That’s her baggage. Yohan is their porter, he lifts their baggage off their backs long enough for them to walk towards each other.

Pavane is a difficult book to describe. Nothing much happens but the slow and deep romance between the two protagonists. Not much is described, little brushes here and there and the reader knows that behind shy looks and conversations, a solid relationship is taking roots. Both are out of the Korean mainstream: they don’t want –or can’t—invest in looks and appearances. They don’t want to keep up appearances. That makes them outsiders. And Camus is one of the authors that the narrator reads and likes. The narrator feels as detached about his life as Meursault. The girl grounds him. He has to tame her like the Fox in The Little Prince, another recurrent literary reference in the book.

This brings us to another key aspect of Pavane: the cult of beauty and the mad race of consumerism. Park portrays Korea and Seoul in the 1980s, as a negative of the narrator. He’s a high school dropout in a dead-end job. He lives alone with his cat and has only one friend, Yohan. He doesn’t go with the flow of the country. Korea is in the 1980s as all Western countries are. People want to earn more money, to be successful and show off their cash through material possessions. It was the time Madonna sang Material Girl. Their goals are dictated by raging capitalism. A good degree. A demanding but well-paying job. A big car. A big house. A partner who works just as hard and children who enter competitive schools. And good looks.

Capitalism is taking over and the narrator lives on the fringe. Park is very critical about the impact of capitalism on people’s lives and on their artificial need to buy more and more. It’s an empty race to buy the next shiny thing publicity tells you you must have. In a way, Pavane is a subversive book with main characters who refuse to play by society’s rules.

Pavane is full of Western cultural references. Its title is a piano piece by Maurice Ravel. Music is important throughout the novel as the narrator describes his state of mind via songs. I put up a playlist while I was reading and it really suits the atmosphere of the novel. Chapters are named after songs or lyrics and it’s mostly Western music that our characters are listening. Classical music, classic country, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Pavane is an odd book with a surprising ending, concocted by a facetious writer. It’s my first Korean book and I’m not sure it’s representative of Korean literature. It’s a cousin of Norwegian Wood by Murakami and His Kingdom by Han Han. Murakami lovers will probably enjoy Park Min-gyu.

Park’s style is full of poetry, of odd comparisons and images. Yohan’s discussions with the narrator are embroidered with vivid, unusual and still spot on metaphors. It’s offbeat, humorous and philosophical. The heroes’ favorite joint has two misspellings in its neon signs. The mistakes are like Freudian slips, it gives the place some character, a bit of poetry and philosophical air. It’s written BEAR instead of BEER, Yohan and the narrator bears their lives. Hope is on the front, a mix between Korean alphabet and English. The mistakes become a symbol of the narrator’s and Yohan’s lives as outcasts. They come here together to bear and to hope.

I went through Park’s mirror and immersed myself in his story, drawn by his voice and I cared for his characters. I can picture it as a graphic novel too, with grey and light blue tones. I also liked the author’s note. After reading a book, I often wonder if I’d like to meet (or would have liked to meet) its author. In this case, it’s definitely yes. He seems to be a discordant voice in Korean literature and I’m interested in discordant voices.

Warmly recommended.

Of course, Tony has already reviewed it. Read his thoughts here.

For the fun of it, here’s the playlist:

  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Baby One More Time by Britney Spears
  • Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel
  • The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
  • My Old Kentucky Home (I picked the Johnny Cash version)
  • Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles
  • Something by The Beatles
  • Black Bird by The Beatles
  • Michelle by The Beatles
  • Petit Poucet (Ma mère l’Oye) by Maurice Ravel
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • Gymnopedie by Erik Satie
  • Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
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