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Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey – Crime fiction, cinema and urban violence

March 27, 2020 6 comments

Gone to Ground by John Harvey (2007) French title: Traquer les ombres. Translated by Mathilde Martin.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey is a crime fiction novel set in Cambridge and Nottingham. I didn’t know this writer and bought it at Quais du Polar, attracted by the cover and the publisher. (You can’t go wrong with Rivages Noir) After a quick read of his biography on Wikipedia, I see that John Harvay has written more that 100 books and his best known for his Charlie Resnick series. Have you ever read this series? Is it good?

Gone to Ground is a standalone novel, though. In this one,  Inspector Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker have to investigate the murder of Stephen Bryan. His murderer beat him to death in his bathroom. There’s no trace of someone breaking in. Grayson and Walker will follow several leads at the same time. Bryan was gay and had just broken up with his last partner, Mark. Is it a homophobic crime? Did Mark not take the breakup well and kill Stephen?

Is it work related? Indeed, Stephen was working on the biography of Stella Leonard. She died in the 1930s and belonged to a rich and powerful family. They don’t want to hear about this bio. Is there something to hide in Stella’s past?

We follow the investigation as the two inspectors try to find out what happened to Stephen Bryan. I have to say that I didn’t expect the ending. Harvey knows Cambridge and Nottingham pretty well and Gone to Ground has a good sense of place. The writing is fluid, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.

The police team is a bit too staged, in my opinion. The contrast between Will Grayson and Helen Walker is convenient to feed the narration. Grayson is married to Lorraine and they have two children, a toddler and a baby. They have just moved out of the city to live in a house and the commute weighs on Grayson’s days. Helen Walker is single, lives in the city and has a complicated love life. The two have a solid friendship, though and manage to have real discussions.

To be honest, Grayson’s misogynistic side annoyed me. We’re in 2007 and he’s fighting with his wife because she wants to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children? I wanted to tell him “If you think it’s so enviable, why don’t YOU be a stay-at-home father and your wife will have her career?” Helen sides with Lorraine and talks him into accepting the idea that his wife will go back to work. Thanks Helen, for getting through to him.

Despite this minor annoying trait, Gone to Ground was entertaining, a good story to take your mind off something else and we seem to be in dire need of this kind of books now.

PS: I include the covers of the French and English versions of the book. Same book, totally different vibe. Both are accurate. The French one puts the stress on the cinema thread, the story about Stella, the 1930s actress. The English one shows the homophobic violence in Nottingham, which is another side of the story. I find the difference between the two editions absolutely fascinating and I wonder what made each publisher choose this cover instead of another one.

PPS: John Harvey is British, I wonder why it’s written ‘translated from the American’ in my book, just like I wonder how Folio could write on the back cover of The Guards (upcoming billet), that its author Ken Bruen, an Irishman from Galway, is one the most talented British writer of his generation. *sigh*

Quais du Polar : Let’s celebrate anyway

March 22, 2020 52 comments

Quais du Polar is this fantastic crime fiction festival that takes over the city of Lyon by storm every year.

Sadly, this year, like many cultural event, the 2020 edition is cancelled. No crime fest in Lyon from April 3rd to April 5th. Marina Sofia and I met at this festival, attended panels with writers who discussed around a crime theme, queued to have books signed and had a lot of fun browsing through the wonderful bookstore set up in the vast hall of the Lyon Chamber of Commerce.

We still want to celebrate crime fiction this year and have decided to publish a crime fiction billet for each day of the festival. We will choose books from writers who would have attended the 2020 session or books we got signed in previous editions. We would love for you to join us and do a virtual festival with us. You can find the list of writers here and if you want to listen to previous years’ panels, it’s available in replay here.

Choose whatever book you want as long as the writer has attended the festival and post a review on your blog on April 3, 4 or 5th. If you don’t have a blog, leave a review in the comments on this post and use #QDP2020. The festival’s team is also here @QuaisPolar.

There’s another initiative: Quais du Polar is also a crime fiction prize and Pat, at South of Paris Books has decided to read the six books preselected for this year’s prize.

Let’s get together and take advantage of our lockdowns. May this post go viral.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 12 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

March 17, 2020 9 comments

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (2017). French title: La mère de tous les cochons. Translated by Benoîte Dauvergne.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa was our Book Club choice for February. (Yes, I’m late again with the billet). Set in Jordan, it features the Sabas, a Christian family who lives in the suburbs of Amman. They all live under the same roof. We follow Hussein and his wife Laila, Mother Fadhma, Hussein’s step mother and Samira, Hussein’s step sister. Muna, a cousin from the family branch who emigrated to the USA, is coming over for a vacation. We also get to know Abu Za’atar, Mother Fadhma’s brother and one of the richest entrepreneurs in town. He’s a master as smuggling merchandises across borders.

Hussein runs a butcher’s shop and sells pork. Abu Za’atar perceived that it would be a big competitive advantage to sell pork to Christian families and be the only one to do it. They imported oum al-khanaazeer, the Mother of all pigs through the black market and she was the sow they use to breed piglets. Hussein and Abu Za’atar run the farm together and make the chops, ham, etc. that they need for the butcher’s shop.

With the war in Syria, there are a lot of refugees in Jordan and their settling in Hussein’s town changes the fragile dynamics between the communities. Hussein had a consensus on opening hours: a time for Jewish customers, a time for Muslims and a time for Christians. Everyone can buy what they want without seeing each other. This consensus is shattered by radical Muslims coming from abroad and fed by ISIS.

Through Mother Fadhma, Laila and Samira, Malu Halasa explores the fate of women in Jordan. The old Mother Fadhma has been exploited all her life. She has raised twelve children, not all her own. She was treated as a commodity by her family and of course, couldn’t choose her husband. Of all of her children, only Hussein and Samira remained in Jordan. The others have all immigrated to America and rarely come to visit. Mother Fadhma made a lot of sacrifices and her lifer never belonged to her.

Laila didn’t choose Hussein as a husband but considers herself lucky that he encourages her to keep working as a teacher. She had ambitions but they were trampled by real life: small town, three children, a teacher job and a husband who does his best to make enough money to support his family.

Samira is single and she found a new meaning in her life: she joined a group of women who help Syrian women refugees who suffered from the war. She secretly goes to political meetings and hangs out with women who help her win a bit of freedom.

And Muna, the American cousin? She arrives in Jordan to see how life is near the Syrian border. She has no idea of the actual culture of her father’s country: she brings clothes to Samira and Laila that they will never wear because they’re inappropriate in Jordan. I wondered what she was doing there, except being a plot instrument, the candid eye, the pretext to explain to Western readers things that are obvious for the locals.

I had high hopes for Mother of All Pigs. I was curious about this story of the only butcher selling pork in the area and about the women’s fates.

I was disappointed and struggled to finish it. Apparently, The New York Times reviewed it and said “’It has always been the same ― what men enjoy, women endure.’ So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition.”

It’s true even if I obviously missed the pungent and witty part. The structure and writing didn’t do it for me. It was too much of a patchwork and I never engaged with the Sabas the way I did with the families in Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I never managed to understand what the writer really wanted to say. The novel seemed to be too much of a patchwork and I saw the small pieces, found them lacking and never managed to sew them together in a way that showed me a coherent story and picture. And I hated the chapters with the sow’s stream-of-consciousness. What was the point of that?

Malu Halasa is American, and like Muna, has a Jordanian father and a Filipino mother. She doesn’t live in Jordan and the reader feels it. She has probably been there quite a lot but not enough to sound like a local writer. I also felt that her novel, written in English was intended for Western readers. In the end, it doesn’t have the same authenticity as a book written by a Jordan writer.

For me it was a missed opportunity.

PS: I’m not sure I understand the English cover. Who is that supposed to be? Samira?

Quais du Polar is suspended: bloody virus

March 15, 2020 24 comments

It’s official, Quais du Polar (April 3-5) is suspended this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision was inevitable and of course, understandable. We won’t be out of this crisis by April 3rd.

Each year, the festival has a theme and the 2020 edition was focused on shedding “the light on “the other Americas”, the diversity of American peoples, the minorities sometimes forgotten or misunderstood, the linguistic enclaves, the various social crisis, and the forgotten ones of the American dream. Yes, it was promising.

The Quais du Polar Prize will be announced online on April 3rd and we’ll see what suspended means as opposed to cancelled.

I’m sorry for the non-profit organization Quais du Polar and all the volunteers for all the work they had already put in to prepare the festival. I hope Quais du Polar will get financial help and that they’ll be able to recover from this year’s crisis. This festival must go on next year, 100 000 people attended in 2019 and many of them came to Lyon for the occasion. It’s good for the city, it’s good for the book industry.

I don’t know how disappointed the writers might be, they always seem to have a good time at Quais du Polar, meeting fellow writers from various countries and talking to avid crime fiction readers. Some are really impressed by the crowds and the lines at the signings.

One major side of the festival is the giant bookstore set up in the Chamber of Commerce. Indie libraires have a stand, welcome writers for signings and interact with the public to recommend crime fiction books. They are at the heart of the festival too. In 2019, they sold 40 000 books during the three-days festival. Now these shops won’t have this business and will be closed to the public until further notice. Imagine the loss for these small businesses. I will go and buy them the number of books I would have bought at the festival, as soon as I can. I hope other readers will do it too and that the bookshops will be able to ride this tsunami and hold on. We need them on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, let’s all be respectful of security measures, keep working as best we can and read from the TBR.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

March 10, 2020 16 comments

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

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