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And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu – Prix Goncourt 2018

April 28, 2019 9 comments

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu (2018) Original French title: Leurs enfants après eux.

And Then, Their Children is my translation of the title of the Prix Goncourt 2018, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. As far as I know, it’s not available in English yet but it will probably be translated soon, being the winner of the Goncourt. I’ll use the French title in my billet.

Nicolas Mathieu was born in Epinal in 1978. Epinal is a town in the Vosges mountains, part of the former Lorraine region in France. (Administrative regions have changed in 2016) This region was made of four départements, Meuse (where Verdun is), Meurthe et Moselle (Nancy), Vosges (Epinal) and Moselle (Metz). These four départements have a long and different history. Nicolas Mathieu comes from the Vosges and his novel is set in Moselle.

The Moselle département is close to the borders of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. It was the Lorraine part in the Alsace-Lorraine loss of the 1870 war, the one featured in La Débâcle by Zola. This means that it was under German administration from 1871 to 1918. This has left traces in today’s society, with a different social security regime, two additional public holidays and various legal specificities. The Moselle département has also cultural differences with its neighbors. It’s more of German culture, with a patois coming from old German. It’s also a département half-industrial, half-rural. The industrial part is one of those traditional industrial areas we’ve had in all Western countries and that have collapsed after coal mines, iron mines and steel industries closed down. In the early 20th C, lots of immigrants came to work here and the Italian and Polish communities were the most important ones. Later came people from Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Leurs enfants après eux is set in the Fensch valley, an area near Luxembourg and that was rife with steel industries until the 1980s. (For French readers, that’s where Florange is) It was a very populated area with cities that grew with the factories and were made to accommodate their needs. It bears the traces of old capitalism, the one in which the workers’ lives were arranged by the factory like houses, sports clubs, libraries, summer camps and sometimes food. It shaped the landscape with pipes, railroads and street names. (Steel Street, Plant Street, Blast Furnace Street…) In the 1980s, the plants shut down, lay-offs were everywhere. Unemployment skyrocketed. People aged fifty and more were put in pre-retirement. Large noisy plants became industrial wasteland, quiet steel monsters becoming ruins. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s economy thrived with the financial industry and French workers started to cross the border and work there. Today, there are between 60 000 and 100 000 French employees in Luxembourg.

Why such a long introduction? You need a bit of background to understand Leurs enfants après eux.

The 2018 Prix Goncourt tells the life of three people during their formative years in four remarkable summers, all symbolized by a song.

1992, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anthony is 14, Stéphanie is 16 and Hacine is 16 too. Anthony is killing time by the local lake with his cousin. They decide to steal a canoe to cross the lake. They get acquainted with Stéphanie and her cousin. Anthony is attracted to Stéphanie who doesn’t give him the time of day. Hacine is part of a group of adolescents who is into marijuana trafficking and small delinquency.

We’ll follow them during three other summers: 1994, You Could Be Mine. 1996, La Fièvre, by NTM, a French rap group. 1998, I Will Survive, the totem song of the French soccer team, the one who won the FIFA World Cup with its Black-Blanc-Beur team.

The main character is Anthony, a typical child of a working-class family that could come out of a Ken Loach film. His father is self-employed after he lost his job. His mother works as an entry-level employee. They live in a housing development and work hard to pay their mortgage. Stéphanie comes from a richer family, she lives in a bigger house. Hacine lives in a council flat with his father. The three of them represent the social classes of the city. Their lives intersect during these summers, leaving indelible marks on their lives.

Nicolas Mathieu describes the formative years of these three adolescents and their backgrounds. It’s a picture of the French society, the one of the Yellow Vests and the roundabouts. It shows the class system and the fact that, despite de country’s moto claiming Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, equality is an illusion. Not everyone has the same chance to achieve their potential, especially working-class children. Stéphanie’s parents know the codes to help her make the best of the school system. Anthony is average and lacks parental incentive to work harder in school. Hacine is on his own, his father doesn’t speak French well enough. Each of them dreams of leaving.

Nicolas Mathieu paints an accurate picture of working-class and middle-class life in France. It’s a good depiction of its pop culture, its way-of-life and its ups-and-downs. He shows the end of the dream of the Post-war economic boom. Now, the social ladder is broken. Children remain at the same level as their parents or go down and people make do. We see how one generation reproduces the life of the previous one. In that respect, Leurs enfants après eux is a brilliant book. Nicolas Mathieu is the same age as Anthony. It’s his generation and I liked that he put the spotlight on this world, one that is far from the Parisian salons but makes most of the population of this country.

I didn’t like the undercurrent idea of the end of the book. Nicolas Mathieu hints that if you stay in your hometown, live the life of your parents, you failed. The ones who didn’t manage to escape are losers. My question is: why should “escaping” be the goal? What would happen if everyone tried to leave? Where would they go? Populate the Parisian suburbs? Why is having a small life in a little province town a prison? I thought that the tone was a bit judgmental in the end. I wonder how the Parisian literary elites read this. Like anthropologists?

Leurs enfants après eux was a rather emotional read for me. I come from Moselle, from a town like the Heillange of the book, not in the Fensch valley but from a nearby one. I know the place where Leurs enfants après eux is set. I kept seeing the places in my mind eye. I’m from the same generation as Anthony, Stéphanie and Hacine. I “escaped” through the school system and thanks to parents who pushed for school achievements and paid for education. Nicolas Mathieu comes from this world too and “escaped” the same way, thanks to parents who paid for a private school. Even if it’s not his own story, it’s based on people around him and on his own experience. It shows the classes who come out bruised and battered by liberal capitalism.

Leurs enfants après eux is written in spoken language, one that reflects the social classes it describes. It rings true but lacks the regionalisms you’d expect from people of the Fensch valley. I noticed it because it’s my home but it’s not visible for other readers. I guess it wouldn’t have brought anything to the story anyway.

I’m happy that Leurs enfants après eux won the Prix Goncourt because it pictures real life and the prize will ensure it gets a lot of readers. It’s a political novel in the best sense of political, like books by Richard Russo, songs by Bruce Springsteen or films by Ken Loach.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash – compelling

April 26, 2019 8 comments

Burning Bright by Ron Rash (2010) French title: Incandescences

I discovered Ron Rash at Quais du Polar and bought (and got signed 😊) a collection of twelve short stories, Burning Bright. Unfortunately, it took me two years to read it. As always, it’s difficult to write about a collection of short stories. Write about all of them? Boring. Pick one to three favorites? That’s an option. Have an overview of the collection? That’s my choice.

The stories in Burning Bright are all set in the Appalaches, where Ron Rash comes from. Ron Rash was at Quais du Polar this year too and he said that he writes about his region again and again because it’s home, because he wants to tell about this land and its people and because he thinks that if he digs deep enough in one place, he’ll reach the core of the human soul and his stories will have a whiff of universality.

His exploration takes us in different times. A story is set during the Civil War (Lincolnites), one during the Great Depression (Hard Times), one just at the end of WWII (Return) and the others are set in the last decades. As you can see, historical stories happen at a pivotal moment of the history of America. In the others, the timestamp is less clear. A way to reach universality, probably.

Several stories picture people at a rough moment of their lives. Money is tight and they’re one step away from poverty. A brother has to evict his nephew and his junky friends from his brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are stuck in a trailer, scared to death of their violent and drug addict son. A farmer and his wife struggle to survive during the Great Depression and discovering who or what snitches eggs in their henhouse is vital. A child steals valuable objects on the victims of an airplane crash to his worthless parents in order to sell them and put food on the table. A man digs up in tombs of confederate soldiers, looking for belt buckles and other tokens to be sold to people who collect such items or like to reenact battles of the Civil War. He needs money to pay for his mother’s medical bills. These stories show to what length humans are ready to go when their survival is at stake. Some become nasty, selfish and tend to lose part of their humanity in the process. Some keep their dignity and kindness and do what needs to be done but feel guilty.

Ron Rash describes a tough world where people struggle to survive in a region where the economy was based on the wood industry and coal mines. At Quais du Polar, he explained that people have hard lives and live on and off the land. Their lives are intertwined with the land.

His great aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades, and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk. (Into The Gorge)

In Into The Gorge, Rash describes an old man who wants to harvest ginseng in a place that used to be communal woods, where everyone could help themselves and is now a National Park, where it’s forbidden to pick anything. It’s hard for him to accept that the land where his great aunt had died, where his father had planted ginseng is now off limits. His relationship with the land that provides his living runs deep. He earns enough from his tobacco plot but would like to earn a bit more by selling ginseng, to have a bit of money in case of emergency.

Ron Rash also writes about old beliefs. In the Corpse Bird, an engineer who has trouble sleeping hears an owl at night and he remembers that it is said to be the death bird. When he hears that their young neighbor is suddenly ill, he becomes restless, unable to find logical reasons convince her parents to bring her to the hospital. They think he’s nuts but his unease remains.

Burning Bright is a compelling collection of short stories. Rash’s prose is beautiful and he also writes poetry. He says that he reads his texts aloud to hear how they sound. Each word is valuable and I wish my English was good enough for me to hear everything he put in his words.

Comparisons are always dangerous in literature but these stories reminded me of Annie Proulx’s short stories. They have the same rough edges, the same understanding of the roots of America. The stories are dark but not bleak. They put common people in the spotlight and shows how they cope with what life throws at them.

Highly recommended.

PS: The English cover of Burning Bright goes better with the stories than the French one.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah – a chilling and highly recommended novella

April 23, 2019 11 comments

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah (2016) Original French title: Tropique de la violence.

We, French from mainland France, tend to ignore what happens in the overseas territories. Away from the voters’ sight, away from the politicians’ preoccupations. There’s a huge scandal about a pesticide in used banana plantations in Martinique and Guadeloupe that’s barely spoken about. The pollution is widespread, it’ll stay for a long time and will heavily affect the health of the inhabitants of these islands. In Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah, we are in another overseas French territory, Mayotte.

It’s an archipelago near in the Mozambique Channel, near the Comoros Islands and Madagascar. It has 256 000 inhabitants and in 2009, a referendum was organized and Mayotte became a French overseas département. It means that, from a legal and administrative point of view, living in Mayotte is like living in any département of mainland France. Mayotte became part of the EU. One of the consequences is that it faces a huge influx of illegal migrants from Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. It creates tensions between the local population and the newcomers. They are too numerous for the island to absorb and integrate these additional inhabitants.

Tropic of Violence opens with Marie’s story. She’s a nurse in France and falls in love with a fellow nurse, Chamsidine. He’s from Mayotte and they both move to Mamoudzou, the prefecture of Mayotte. Their marriage falls apart and Marie tells us how her adoptive son Moïse came to live with her. Moïse’s mother, an illegal migrant who arrived on a boat in Mayotte one night, abandoned him to Marie. Moïse has wall eyes, one green and one black and in the local popular belief, it means that he has jinn eyes. He has something to do with jinns and he brings bad luck. Marie trades divorce papers with Chamsidine against a recognition of paternity and she gets to keep Moïse and raise him as her son.

He’s a preteen when he starts asking questions about his identity and hanging out with the wrong crowd in school. He’s already rebelling when Marie suddenly dies of a stroke. He finds her in their kitchen and instead of asking for help, he leaves the house and joins a gang led by Bruce, the king of Gaza, a shantytown in Mayotte. He reigns over a people of homeless kids and organizes band thefts and drug trafficking.

We follow Moïse’s fate as he becomes Mo and lives under Bruce’s commandment. He obeys like a well-trained pet. He quickly looses his humanity and Appanah shows the degradation of body and mind under harsh living conditions. Not enough food. No place to sleep. No place to feel safe and relax. No place to shower. No clean clothes. The dehumanization process is implacable.

Moïse becomes Mo and this new and shorter version of his name is symbolic. He becomes a shorter version of himself as poverty and violence strike. He’s no longer Marie’s little boy, the one who used to live in a loving household.

Tropic of Violence is a powerful book. Appanah switches of point of view between Marie, Moïse, Bruce and the representative of France. (Educators, police forces, politicians) They all live on the same territory but their daily lives are so different that they could be living on different planets. The ending is bleak and moving.

The shantytowns really exist in Mayotte. As I said before, there’s a major problem of violence on the archipelago. The locals are exasperated. There aren’t enough public services to cope with the incoming illegal immigration. People die trying to reach Mayotte in makeshift boats. It’s Lampedusa in the Indian ocean.

Out of sight, out of mind. French people never hear of the overseas territory unless there’s a riot, a strike and a blockage. That’s how I knew about this issue, there was a general strike in Mayotte in 2018. Nathacha Appanah transforms a faceless problem heard on the radio into a personalized one with Mo. And that’s one answer to the timeless question “What’s the use of literature?” Well, it gives a face to human dramas and forces us to look them in the eyes.

Tropic of Violence is a political novel but also a symbolic one. Moïse is the French for Moises and it is not a common name for a French child. Like Enée in J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules, it’s a meaningful choice. There must be a parallel between Moïse and Moises.

In the Bible, Moises is a clandestine baby as Pharaon had commanded that all male Hebrew children born would be drowned in the river Nile and his mother placed in an ark on the river. He is rescued from the Nile by Pharaon’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian.

In Tropic of Violence, Marie adopts him when his birth mother arrives in Mayotte after a shipwreck. Rescued from the water. His birth mother is an illegal migrant, from a people not welcome in France and tracked by the police. Marie—another biblical name—is like royalty on the island. She’s white and comes from mainland France. She’s a nurse at the local hospital and has a comfortable life. Moïse is adopted in a privileged home and raised like a French little boy. Marie’s death throws him back to his people and its suffering.

So far so good, I can see the link between Moïse and Moises. But then I’m blocked. After Moïse leaves his house and joins Gaza, I don’t see the reference between Moïse and Moises anymore. So, if anyone has a clue about that, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

I didn’t include any quote in my billet but I could have. Appanah’s style is haunting, like her story. I think Moïse will stay with me, probably because the fate of children is more striking like in Small Country by Gaël Faye. The different points of views give a lot of power to the scenes she describes and they engage the reader in the story. It’s not surprising that Tropic of Violence won the Prix Femina des Lycéens in 2016 just like Small Country won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Highschool students recognized something important in these two political novellas who involve preteens.

Theatre: I Took My Father On My Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot – a contemporary play

April 20, 2019 2 comments

I’ve been swamped by work lately and I didn’t have time to share my thoughts about three theatre plays worth seeing.

The first one is J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules by Fabrice Melquiot, directed by Arnaud Meunier. (I Took My Father On My Shoulders) It’s a contemporary play, written for this director. The author and the director wanted to produce a play about the French working class and today’s France.

We are in a council flat in a suburb. Roch lives with his grownup son Enée. They are unaware that they are both involved with their gorgeous neighbor, Anissa. She loves both men and can’t make her mind between the two.

After an introduction by Anissa, the play opens on a scene where Roch comes home and said he bought some meat as it was on sale and now, they have to cook it. A banal scene in appearance but Roch’s clothes, the décor of the apartment and the fact that meat is rarely affordable tell us that we are in a poor household. The two men barely make ends meet. They get along fine, have a good father and son relationship and Roch is like Enée’s rock.

So, when Roch calmy announces that he has cancer, Enée is shaken up. The play depicts Roch’s illness, his relationship with Enée, Anissa, his friend Grinch and their neighbors Bakou, Céleste and Mourad. We are in a banlieue, with its council flats, its kebab restaurant and its inhabitants of mixed origins.

Photo by Sonia Barcet

They represent today’s French society. A black woman, Céleste. A Muslim of North African origin, Mourad. An older man with his loneliness, Grinch. They have low paid jobs. They feel left behind, not represented by politicians and institutions anymore. They make do and hope for a better future, as far as Anissa and Céleste are concerned. Even if it’s not easy. Grinch is crippled by loneliness and there’s a very moving scene where he explains how he’ll find himself a nice woman to live with.

Roch’s health deteriorates and this patched up family knits a love and friendship safety net around him and Enée.

It’s a powerful play, often spot on to describe today’s France. It was written before the Yellow Vest movement but the people featured in this play belong to the social class that feeds the movement. They come from the same world as the characters in the last Prix Goncourt, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Matthieu. (upcoming billet about this one) It’s as if the French literary world rediscovered the need to give them a voice.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders is loosely based upon The Aeneid by Virgil. The title comes from the second book of The Aeneid, when Aeneas (Enée in French), leaves Troy with his father Anchises on his shoulders. Enée is not a common name in French and if a character is named like that, it’s an obvious reference to Virgil. Like The Aeneid, the play is split in two parts. The first one tells Roch’s fight against cancer and the second is about a trip that Enée will take with his father. I thought that the second part was weaker than the first and that it was superfluous. But that’s a minor flaw.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders could have been bleak but it’s not because the friendship and love between the characters make up for the gloom brought by Roch’s cancer. The text is empowered by a company of excellent actors. Philippe Torreton plays Roch and he’s a natural, the trademark of a great actor. He never shouts but is always heard. He speaks on stage like he’s chatting with friends but has a perfect diction. I go to the theatre frequently. I’ve come to the conclusion that outstanding actors are the ones who are on stage and don’t seem to be acting. You watch them and it’s like they’re living their real life.

Torreton isn’t the only gifted actor here. Rachida Brakni, who plays Anissa is excellent as usual. Vincent Garanger is a true to life Grinch. Maurin Ollès holds his own as Enée, a character often on stage with the master Torreton. The other young actors Federico Semedo, Bénédicte Mbemba and Riad Gahmi were on a par with the more seasoned actors. (And it must be intimidating to play with Torreton and Brakni)

Even if it was a little too long, I Took My Father On My Shoulders is a good play written by a living playwright and for a director who wanted to bring our attention to a certain part of the population. It’s served by an excellent set of actors. For French readers, if this play is on tour in your city, it’s worth buying tickets.

Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï by Fabcaro – Many a true word is said in jest

April 14, 2019 11 comments

Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï. A roadmovie. by Fabcaro (2015) Not available in English

At the Bron Literary Festival I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro (Fabcaro is his nom de plume as a BD author) and laughed so much when I saw excerpts of his BD album Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï that I rushed to buy it. I kept giggling, laughing, chuckling all along this short little gem.

A man –Fabcaro’s doppelgangler—is at the checkout in a supermarket when the cashier requests his loyalty card. He doesn’t have it. He tries to explain that he left it in his other pants but he’s taken by security as if he were a thief. He bolts out of the store and is now on the run. The reader sees both his travels and how society responds to this news.

We see him hitchhike, call home to tell his wife and daughters where he is…He decides to go and hide in Lozère because he imagines that it’s so isolated that they don’t have TV or radio. It’s a reference to American road movies and it become ridiculous in France because we don’t have the American wilderness as a dramatic effect. No. We only have country roads and small villages.

In parallel to the man’s run, we see the circus in the country and how society is carried away by such a tiny event. Perfectly coiffed reporters are sent on location and have nothing to report to their news channel and still talk endlessly. The authorities have to deploy police forces or they’d be considered as inefficient. Artists have their say and create a temporary group to write and sing a charity single. TV channels organize talk shows to discuss the pros and cons of having one’s loyalty card.

We also see the reaction of the man in the street: hasty condemnations in what we call “conversation de bistrot”, which would probably be “bar talk” in English. Mothers who won’t let their kid go out because a criminal is on the run…People who want to deport this BD author to where he belongs…Brussels.

The root of the whole thing is absurd and the absurdity of it all is hilarious. Of course, in real life, forgetting one’s loyalty card doesn’t engender all these extreme reactions. Fabcaro said it was an image for identity papers. It’s a way to show the life of a clandestine and how easy a regular person can become one. See what happened in the UK in the last two years with migrants from the 1950s who were in the Empire at the time and didn’t need papers, who settled in Britain, never knew they needed papers and were suddenly denied a passport and swept away in all kinds of administrative nightmares.

Choosing a loyalty card is also spot on because our Western societies try to make us believe that we are what we consume and that if we are not a consumer, we do not exist. Loyalty cards are your ID as a consumer. And identity papers define you and prove your existence.

This is why Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï is the perfect illustration of the saying Many a true word is said in jest.

The absurd and hilarious ending explains the title of the album. Zaï Zaï Zaï is a gimmick in the popular oldy song Siffler sur la colline by Joe Dassin. It’s available on Youtube for curious readers. It’s also the lyrics told by Jean-Pierre Bacri in the film On connaît la chanson.

Now, I can’t wait to read Caro’s novel, Le discours. I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun too.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

April 7, 2019 35 comments

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

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