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UV by Serge Joncour

August 30, 2015 15 comments

UV by Serge Joncour (2003) Translated by Adriana Hunter. French title: U.V.

Nul mieux qu’un loup sait deviner la faim d’un autre. No one is better skilled than a wolf to figure out someone else’s hunger.

Joncour_UVTime went away and I’m really late to write this billet about U.V. by Serge Joncour that I read back in June. It’s a French novella that will appeal to readers fond of crime fiction and books featuring people on vacation.

A bourgeois family is settled in their holiday home on an island in Brittany. The patriarch is there with his wife, their two grown-up daughters Julie and Vanessa, their grand-children and their son-in-law André-Pierre. It’s the second week of July and they’re waiting for Philip, the other child of the family who’s just spent 18 months in America. They don’t know when Philip will arrive but he’s never missed a 14th of July (Bastille Day) at the house. He’s the one in charge of the fireworks and they expect him to be there on time to organize the show.

When Boris shows up at the house, unannounced and saying he’s Philip’s friend, they assume he’s come a bit early and that Philip will be there shortly. They don’t know Boris but they welcome him into their home. He’s polite, charming, flirting a bit with Julie and Vanessa, bonding with their father, taking the kids on a boat… Philip entertains the family. He’s reckless and he’s a new addition to the group, providing fresh air and sweeping the boredom away. He seems happy to be there, building his nest in this foreign house:

Il y a toujours une gêne à se retrouver seul dans la maison des autres, un vague embarras. Boris n’avait jamais souffert de ce trouble, au contraire, il éprouvait même un certain plaisir à ouvrir un placard inconnu, à y découvrir une configuration particulière, voir un peu au-delà de la zone permise. It’s always uncomfortable to be alone in someone else’s house, it’s a bit embarrassing. Boris never suffered from that problem, quite the contrary. He felt a certain pleasure to open a stranger’s cupboard, to find out its particular setting, to see beyond the permitted zone.

André-Pierre remains weary of him, maybe because he knows and protects Philip’s secrets. He knows better than to take any of Philip’s friends at face value. And he doesn’t like Boris and his easy ways with this family.

André-Pierre se laissa ravaler par son canapé, réalisant comme une évidence que ce Boris, bien que parfait inconnu, avait su s’imposer en quarante-huit heures, en quarante-huit heures il était ici comme chez lui et marquait tout de son empreinte. André-Pierre let the sofa swallow him, realizing suddenly that this Boris, although a perfect stranger, had managed to impose himself in forty-eight hours. In forty-eight hours, he made himself at home here and was leaving his imprint everywhere.

Joncour_UV_EnglishWhere’s Philip? What has he done that only André-Pierre knows? Why is Boris worming himself into this house? What is he after? Serge Joncour builds up the suspense page after page in a scrumptious style. The reader keeps wondering, not if but when the drama will happen. There’s something murky in Philip’s absence, something unhealthy in Boris’s intrusion in this family. The relationships between the characters are tense, there is something explosive in the atmosphere, enhanced by the preparation of the fireworks for the 14th of July. Boris strives for effect and engages the family members in activities that seem innocent but are carried on with such intensity that they become dangerous. A walk on the beach at night, skinny dipping in the ocean, driving a boat too fast…Boris likes to live on edge, playing with fire, flirting with danger and stirring trouble, all behind an easy-going façade.

Joncour seems to invoke all the holy ghosts of the masters of suspense and bourgeois criticism: Hitchcock, Highsmith and Chabrol. It’s extremely well written, the plot is well conducted, the characters well drafted and yet I can’t say I loved UV. Things are excellent individually but didn’t mesh as well as they should have. Or maybe I read it at a wrong time.

Therefore I’d love to hear another opinion on this novella. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment, I’ll be happy to read your thoughts about it. (For French readers, leaving comments in French is not a problem). I’ll just add that UV was made into a film directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner in 2007; I haven’t seen it but if you have, let me know what you thought about it.

PS: A word about the characters’ names. I don’t know why Philip is spelled the English way and not the French one, Philippe. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t come from the translator. And André-Pierre is really a bourgeois name that conveys conservatism.

Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver ?

October 20, 2010 16 comments

Pacsirta by Dezső Kosztolányi, translated in English as “Skylark” and in French as “Alouette”.

No one is exactly the same after reading Skylark. It took me time to land down in my own life after I turned the last page of this novel. It is so sad and moving.

This novel by the Hungarian author Deszö Kosztlányi has already been beautifully reviewed by Max from Pechorin’s Journal and Guy from His Futile Preoccupations. Please read their excellent reviews to find details on the plot and Kosztlányi’s style. Their English is obviously much better than mine and I share their views.

Skylark is Akós and Antonia Vajkay’s daughter. They live in the provincial town of Sászeg. She’s 35. She’s unmarried. She’s ugly. In September 1899, she leaves her parents to spend a week at her uncle’s, in the country. Skylark opens with her departure and closes on her return. This week of holiday is a catalyst. Something had been boiling for years and after that week, a precipitate named “spinster” is born. The parents eventually admit that Skylark is too ugly to get married. Skylark stops hoping to meet a husband. They all love each other so much that they suffer in silence to protect the each other. Skylark will never unveil what really happened in the country. The parents will never tell her how fun their week without her was. All carry a huge amount of pain.

Skylark is about women and about parenthood.

In 1899, the only reason a woman would definitively leave her parent’s house is marriage, the only way a woman can reach adulthood and independence. Names reveal how insignificant women are at that time. Akós’ wife is named Antonia. Her husband is talked as Akós. She is designated as “his wife”, “the woman”, “the mother” but never Antonia. As a woman, she has no proper identity. She only exists as a mother or as a wife. In addition, Kosztlányi never tells Skylark’s real first name. She will keep her nickname forever. Only a husband would have called her differently.

Like all animals, human parents raise their children with one aim: their future autonomy. Skylark will never leave the family nest, her ugliness cut her wings. It is a handicap; she will never be able to live on her own or find a place in society. She is like a mentally handicapped child you love but will depend on you forever. Her parents will have to take care of her until they die and worry about what will become of her after their death. She’s a burden for her parents and they know it. They never said it aloud to each other before this very week off, because it would have intensified their pain and because they are ashamed of this feeling.

Some events in life create a new version of yourself, depending on how other people look at you. At the beginning of your adult life, you were just yourself. Then you added a “spouse self”, ie who you are as a spouse. When you become a parent, a love storm comes in your existence, creating a “parent self”. In the eyes of your child, you are a parent. When you are with your child, you act like a parent, whatever the age of the “child”. Skylark never leaves her parents. They spend all their time together. As a consequence, the Vajkay never go out of their parent role or identity.

When the children are away, roles shift, and the other selves show up. That’s what happens to Skylark’s parents. They forget hours. They have lunch at the restaurant. They go to the theatre. The mother wants a new handbag. They stop thinking their identity as being “Skylark’s parents”. They are adults and spouses again. I have to say I feel that way too when my children stay a few days at their grand-parents’. My husband and I forget meal hours, eat junk food, go to the cinema and work late without thinking of the nanny. We miss them but also enjoy the temporary freedom.

Skylark’s return announces the winter of her parents’ life. The roles are reversed, Skylark acts like a parent. They erase the traces of their joyful week like teenagers would hurry to tidy the house before their parents come back. Skylark finds her father too skinny: she decides to cook for him to fill out again. In French “to fill out again” is said “se remplumer”, literally “to feather again”. Isn’t it ironical to be “feathered again” by a Skylark?

The town of Sászeg is also a character of this novel. According to the foreword included in my copy, Kosztlányi’s home town inspired the fictional Sászeg. For a modern reader, it is interesting to discover the way of life of provincial Hungary at the turning of the 20th century.

 The translator compared Kosztlányi to Flaubert. I would rather compare him to Maupassant, who has a more compassionate look on people. I noted several references to France throughout the novel: one character reads Le Figaro, the men drink Sylvaner, a white wine from Alsace. The newspaper talk about the Dreyfus Affair – was it such a scandal as to interest the foreign press? Maybe Kosztlányi was francophile.

 Before ending this post, I would like to say how wonderfully Kosztlányi writes. The scenes when Skylark weeps in the train or silently cries in her bed are poignant. The description of life in Sászeg is vivid. The French translation was agreeable to read, except for one detail. I just didn’t like all the “attendu que” (“given that”) abundantly used in some chapters. This locution is typical for court ruling, I had sometimes the impression to read a judgment.

 This novel is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it.

 By the way, Skylark has sisters: Jeanne, from A Life by Guy de Maupassant, Liz Dun, from Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Eleanor Rigby, the one of the song. Hence my title.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique – Life of a lonely boy in Lima in the 1950s

July 31, 2019 4 comments

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique (1972) French title: Le monde de Julius. Translated from the Spanish (Peru) by Albert Bensoussan.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique was our Book Club choice for July. It is the second book by Bryce-Echenide that I’ve read. The first one was Tarzan’s TonsillitisAlfredo Bryce-Echenique was born in 1939 in Lima, Peru. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his upbringing:

Bryce was born to a Peruvian family of upper class, related to the Scottish-Peruvian businessman John Weddle Bryce (1817 in Edinburgh – 9 March 1888), ancestor of the Marquesses of Milford-Haven and of the Duchesses of Abercon and Westminster. He was the third son and the fourth of the five children of the banker Francisco Bryce Arróspide and his wife, Elena Echenique Basombrío, granddaughter of the former President José Rufino Echenique. Bryce studied elementary education at Inmaculado Corazón school, and high school at Santa María school and Saint Paul’s College, a British boarding school for boys in Lima.

These biographical elements are important to know because the Julius of A World For Julius seems to be young Alfredo’s alter ego.

Set in Lima in the 1950s (I think), A World For Julius relates six years in Julius’s childhood. When the book opens, he’s five years old. His father is dead, he lives with his mother Susan, his older brothers Santiago and Roberto (Bobby) and his sister Cinthia. They belong to a very rich family, live in a mansion in Lima, surrounded by servants. Cinthia and Julius are very close and her untimely death will leave a hole in his life.

Cinthia dies abroad, in Boston, where her family brought her to attempt a last medical treatment. I understood she died of tuberculosis. Susan’s reaction to her daughter’s death is to go on a trip in Europe with her older sons, her friend Juan Lucas and thus leaves Julius behind in the servants’ care. When she comes back, she’s married to Juan Lucas.

A World For Julius depicts the solitary life of a sensitive child who has a lot of imagination. His mother is not motherly and only the servants seem to really care about him. The whole book is based upon three recurring pillars: Juan Lucas and Susan’s socialite life, and later Santiago’s and Bobby’s, Julius’s life in school and life in the servants’ quarters.

Juan Lucas only cares about himself, enjoys playing golf, doing business and having Susan with him all the time. He’s extremely wealthy, takes a lot of care about his appearance, doesn’t want to age. He loves corrida, cocktail parties and eating at restaurants. He’s not a bad man, but he likes things to go his way. He married Susan and tries not to think to much about the kids she brought with her. He’s not a family man and doesn’t intend to behave like a father. Nothing he likes is compatible with a steady family life. He has no interest in the boys’ education and treats Santiago and Bobby more as a big brother than as a parent. He doesn’t know how to interact with Julius. The boy is too sensitive, he likes playing the piano, he’s quiet, not interested in sports, everything Juan Lucas is not.

Susan is beyond pretty and spoiled. Everyone forgives her everything since she’s polite, sophisticated and so lovely. She’s putty in Juan Lucas’s hands because she’s very much in love with him and too lazy to contradict him. It’s easier to go with the flow and indulge him than push for her own wishes. She has almost no motherly instincts. Going to Julius’s end-of-year school party is a torture, she forgets to buy presents for his birthday, kisses him in passing but never really cares about what’s going on with his life. She asks no questions about school and discovers at the end of the year that he’s first in class.

Santiago and Bobby don’t care about their brother either.

Poor Julius is left on his own and only receives affection from the servants. The team who handles the household is composed of Vilma the nanny who takes care of Julius, Nilda the cook, Carlos the driver, Celso and Daniel who do various tasks in the house. They are a tightknit group with their own lives and interactions.

Julius stands at the intersection of two worlds: he doesn’t belong to his parents’ socialite world because he’s too young and not really interested in it and by class, he doesn’t belong to the servants’ world, even if that’s where he prefers to be.

Julius grows up on his own. Sometimes his mother remembers his existence and bestows a short-lived affection and a few hugs. He seeks the attention of people from lower social classes, the school bus driver, construction workers, the house servants and beggars he sees on the street.

A World For Julius has lengthy descriptions of parties among the upper classes in Lima. I had trouble figuring out when it was set but from a few hints here and there, I gathered it was in the 1950s. We see Julius in school with classic children drama around fights, candies and interactions with the nuns. And we follow the servants’ stories at the mansion and outside of it.

A World For Julius is obviously autobiographical. It is a vibrant picture of Lima at the time but also a moving portrait of a lonely boy who can’t find his place in a house where people who should take care of him don’t. Children don’t deserve vapid and neglectful mothers. He was lucky to have caring nannies and a friendly driver.

The power of A World For Julius resides in its inventive narration. It’s told by an omniscient narrator who sounds like an African griot. It’s in spoken language, full of creative descriptions of people with nicknames to place them. It uses repetitions to help the reader remember the characters. It has a certain rhythm that keeps you reading.

Julius is an attaching character and my heart went out for this little boy who doesn’t get the affection he needs to grow up confident and certain of his place in the world.

Highly recommended.

This is my contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu.

 

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 10 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 15 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

May 26, 2019 16 comments

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. 

I have attended a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. It takes the visitors through a part of the history of black French people from the French Revolution to the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on black models in painting and takes detours through literature and other arts. I rented the audio guide because I knew that some of the paintings were commented by Lilian Thuram and Ab El Malik. Thuram is a former football (soccer) player who won the World Cup in 1998. He’s bright, articulated and fights against racism. Abd al Malik is a rap singer, one with excellent lyrics.

The exhibition has three main sections: one from the Revolution until the abolition of slavery, one about blacks and art in the 19th century, one about the beginning of the 20th century.

The slavery times.

In 1794, the young French Republic abolished slavery in the colonies. Actually, it was only applicable in Saint Domingue, French Guyana and Guadalupe. It remained enforced in La Martinique (then occupied by the British) and at the Mascareignes (now La Réunion & Mauritius). It was never legal in the Nouvelle France. (Québec, Acadia and Louisiana). First black députés were at the parliament.

Napoléon 1st re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802 and abolished the slave trade in 1815. Nothing changed during the Restauration (Monarchy) and in 1848, the Second Republic abolished slavery in France for good this time. 250 000 slaves were emancipated. That’s for history.

Some artists like Géricault or Verdier used their art to fight against slavery. See Le châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies.

This is such a normal scene for the colonies that a white woman is there with her child. The banality of it makes it even harder to contemplate. Verdier wasn’t allowed to show his painting at an official exhibition.

Some like Biard put their painting at the service of government propaganda. See here, Biard’s Abolition de l’esclavage.

The black characters on the painting acts like they are thankful. This painting shows the official vision of the abolition of slavery. It’s a gift when it’s not. It’s abolishing something that is inhuman and should not exist.

When preparing the exhibition, researches were made to find out the identity of the black models featured on the paintings. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings were changed because their original title is offensive now. The captions keep the history of the titles until the one chosen for the exhibition. If possible, it now relates to the models’ names. See this this painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. It was first intitled Portrait d’une négresse, then Portrait d’une femme noire and now it is Portrait de Madeleine.

The changes in the title feels right as long as we keep their historical thread. We see how society changed and where we come from. Just changing the name would erase the truth. When it was painted, her identity to the white world was not Madeleine. Her name didn’t matter. She was “just a nigger.” As Romain Gary pointed it out, racism is when people don’t matter. It is symbolic and important to give this woman her rightful name, her identity and her position as an equal human being in our eyes.

The 19th century after 1848.

Literature has its place in the exhibition as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover was black and Manet painted her.

She was his muse and a recurring presence in The Flowers of Evil. She’s the black sun in his poetry.

I noted down several literary works featuring black characters: La négresse et le Pacha by Théophile Gautier, Le capitaine Pamphile by Alexandre Dumas, Toussaint Louverture, poème dramatique by Lamartine, Bug Jargel by Victor Hugo, Ourika by Claire de Duras. In 1921, René Maran was the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt with his book Batouala. Véritable roman nègre. I’m tempted to read the Dumas because I like him as a writer and he was proud of his black heritage, despite the jibes and he wrote is Capitaine Pamphile as a statement.

And there was a display table about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was successful in France when it was published.

The 19th century is also the century of French colonization of parts of Africa. Cordier made gorgeous bronzes to celebrate the beauty of African people

Including one entitles Aimez-vous les uns les autres. (Love one another)

And at the same time, there was a horrible film taken at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1897. It was a human zoo representing an African village with actual Africans displayed in this fake village.

The early 20th century.

WWI brought more black people in France. The Senegalese tirailleurs, soldiers from African colonies were enrolled in the French army. The Harlem Hellighters, an African-American infantry regiment of the US Army were detached to the French army and wore French helmets during WWI.

It bothered me that the Senegalese tirailleurs and the Harlem Hellfighters were put together on the same wall. It’s not the same. The Senegalese tirailleurs are colonial troops who were sent to fight for a country that wasn’t theirs. They didn’t ask to be colonized and live under French rule. They got into this war because of the colonization.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought in France because the USA entered WWI. They were serving their country. To put them on the same wall as the Senegalese tirailleurs is like saying that, like them, they were fighting for a cause that wasn’t theirs. It denies the fact that these African-American troops had rightful American citizenship.

The arrival of 200 000 African-American soldiers in 1917-1918 for WWI brought jazz to France and it was the beginning of an African-American community in Paris. The exhibition branched out to show black artists in circus, in theatre or on shows like Josephine Baker. It reminded me of another exhibition The Color Line, about segregation and African-American artists.

It also focused on the concept of négritude by Aimé Césaire, it met the Surrealists’ political causes and was concomitant to the Harlem Renaissance movement. I loved to hear about Matisse and how his visit to Harlem influenced his painting.

The exhibition ends with a new reading of Olympia by Edouard Manet, first by Matisse:

and then by Larry Rivers in I Like Olympia In Black Face.

If you’re traveling to Paris soon, the exhibition lasts until July 21st and it’s worth the visit.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live the Musée d’Orsay with two new books bought at the bookstore of the exhibition. Slavery Told to my Daughter by Christian Taubira and Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, Jimmy being James Baldwin.

 

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 28 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

The Speech by Fabrice Caro – hilarious, bittersweet and spot-on

May 1, 2019 5 comments

The Speech by Fabrice Caro. (2018) Original French title: Le discours. Not available in English

Fabrice Caro is better known under his penname Fabcaro and for his BDs. (comic books) I recently posted a billet about Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï, one of his most successful BD albums.

Le Discours (The Speech) is his second novel. We’re in Adrien’s head, he’s currently sitting through lunch at his parents’ house with his sister Sophie and his future brother-in-law Ludovic. He’s heartbroken because he recently broke up with Sonia. Their relationship lasted one year and she left him 38 days before. He’s sitting there, alone with his misery when Ludo asks him to give a speech at his and Sophie’s wedding. Poor Adrien doesn’t dare to refuse and he starts panicking about The Speech.

The whole novel is set during one Sunday meal and Adrien is going through breakup angst. Shall he text Sonia? What to text? And after it’s sent, when will she answer? He checks out his phone, goes to the power room to regroup and look at his messages. He’s on pins and needles and overanalyzes everything. He reminisces the stages of their relationship, how they met, how they were together and when things started to fall apart. It rings true because Adrien is going through spot-on little details and his pain is palpable to the reader. It’s one aspect of Caro’s novel. It’s bittersweet, funny at times because of Adrien’s self-deprecating sense of humor but my heart went out to him. Poor Adrien.

While his whole being screams of pain because of his breakup, he manages to engage in the small talk around the table and to worry about The Speech. His mind wanders and he imagines himself at the wedding, speaking in front of everyone. He writes drafts of his speech in his head and it varies according to the tone and the topic of the conversation at the table. These parts are hilarious.

The third aspect of the novel, the one that interested me the most is the family dynamics. The parents regularly invite their children to share a meal. The siblings wouldn’t spend time together otherwise. Sophie takes Ludovic to her parents’ house but Adrien never brings any girlfriend. The meal is like a perfectly orchestrated symphony with each family member knowing their role, their score and playing their usual part. It’s classical music, not jazz and impro is not allowed. Each member sticks to their score. The dishes are a family tradition. The repartition of tasks between the parents and the children are set. At the table, each guest plays his role, brings his topics and share their news.

It’s also a perfect picture of the French middle class with perfunctory meals where nothing important is said but they still glue the family together. The affection is there, deep but silent. Fabrice Caro was born in 1973 and Adrien is forty. Author and character are from the same generation and have reached a stage in life where parents start ageing. The roles are shifting, children feel the need to take care of their parents, they realize their parents won’t be there forever. Here, Adrien remembers a time he drove them to diner at Sophie’s.

Sur le trajet, ma mère, assise à l’arrière, m’avait demandé de rouler moins vite parce qu’elle avait un peu le mal de mer, et j’avais repensé au vomi sur l’auto-stoppeur, et cette inversion des rôles m’était apparue comme le symbole d’une tristesse infinie, une preuve tangible de plus que j’étais entré dans la seconde moitié de ma vie qui consiste à faire pour eux ce qu’ils ont fait pour moi dans la première moitié : m’inquiéter, les chérir, les épargner, rouler moins vite pour éviter qu’ils ne vomissent. On the way, my mother, sitting in the back, had asked me to drive slower because she had motion sickness. I recalled throwing up on a hitchhiker and this reversal of our roles seemed like a symbol of utter sadness. It was another proof that I had entered the second half of my life, the one that consists in doing for them what they did for me during the first half: worry about them, cherish them, spare them and drive slower so that they wouldn’t throw up.

Adrien also remembers his thirtieth birthday. Another breakup and he had come to his parents’ house to find solace. Although his parents did not provide any tangible comfort, the fact that this house exists, with his teenage room intact, his craft done in school on the kitchen wall is already something. He may make fun of himself and his successive breakups, softly joke about his parents’ routine and decoration, his childhood home remains a safe haven. Even if he’s forty, it eases his pain to think that in time of need, this is a place he can turn to. His parents will welcome him. Even if he knows they won’t give him advice because they won’t have heart-to-heart conversations, he knows they love him and show their affection differently.

Le discours is a lovely book and a nice picture of how families get together. Of course, you can read Caro’s description of Adrien’s family dynamics and think they’re pathetic. There’s no deep conversation, Ludo sounds like a jerk, Sophie and Adrien have nothing in common except a childhood in this house and with these parents. I didn’t take it that way. I just thought that going through these rituals is how this family expresses their affection. They’re not touchy-feely but they’re there for one another in times of need. And in the end, that’s what matters the most.

Adrien has a wicked sense of humor and sees everything through biting humorous goggles. It’s self-deprecating sometimes and it borders on sadness. Often, the comic side of the book comes from Adrien’s wild imagination. His mind wanders from a banal topic or sentence. He starts thinking out of the box, exposing the ridicule of something and his thoughts get crazy and out of the usual paths. It’s huge fun, and it’s Caro’s brand of humor, the one that made me laugh so much when I read Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï. Adrien has also a devilish sense of observation. His thoughts are sarcastic and hugely entertaining.

Le discours is a sad and a funny book at the same time. This combination makes it deep and light. Adrien’s feelings, the description of the family meal and his depiction of his relationship with Sonia, everything rings true. It isn’t bleak but it doesn’t discard Adrien’s raw pain under fake jolly farces. It’s a lot more subtle than that.

Warmly recommended.

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.

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 22 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis – Insightful

February 3, 2019 10 comments

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (2018) Original French title: Qui a tué mon père.

Ta vie prouve que nous ne sommes pas ce que nous faisons, mais qu’au contraire nous sommes ce que nous n’avons pas fait, parce que le monde ou la société, nous en a empêchés. Parce que ce que Didier Eribon appelle des verdicts se sont abattus sur nous, gay, trans, femme, noir, pauvre, et qu’ils nous ont rendu certaines vies, certaines expériences, certains rêves, inacessibles. Your life proves that we are not what we do but in the contrary, we are what we haven’t done because the world or society was in the way. Because what Didier Eribon calls sentences have descended upon us, gays, trans, women, black or poor and these sentences have made some lives, some experiences or some dreams unreachable to us.

Who Killed My Father is a short non-fiction book by Edouard Louis, the young author of The End of Eddy. It was published on May 3rd, 2018, the exact date is relevant. Edouard Louis is also a graduate of EHESS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Sociology is his territory.

In Who Killed My Father, he comes back to his complicated relationship with his father and his social background. We understand that his father had to stop working because of a work-related accident, that his back is wrecked and that his life has been even tougher than what is described in The End of Eddy.

This short non-fiction opus is a description of the social violence done to his father and by extension, to a large part of the working class. He describes the impact of public decisions on social benefits from his father’s perspective. Through snippets of life, we see what political decisions make on the life of a man broken by hard working conditions. He gives specific examples, gives the names of the politicians who promoted a particular measure and throws them back what this or that decision entailed for the recipients of social benefits or for poor workers.

This is his father. He’s a representative of an important part of the population whose life conditions are degraded after liberal capitalism won the economic sphere and politics became a synonym of managing short-term finances.

Describing how his father was forced to take a job that was not compatible with his health condition, he rocks the boat of the generally admitted law that any job is better than no job. It becomes an excuse to accept with jobs with appalling working conditions. At the Davos summit, Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director mentioned her meeting with poultry workers in the US who had to wear nappies because they had no toilet breaks. I didn’t ven know it was legal. Shocking, right? But not surprising when you’ve read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison.

The end of Who Killed My Father is the following:

Le mois dernier, quand je suis venu te voir, avant que je parte, tu m’as demandé : « Tu fais encore de la politique ? » — le mot encore faisait référence à ma première année de lycée, quand j’avais adhéré à un parti d’extrême gauche et qu’on s’était disputés parce que tu pensais que j’allais avoir des ennuis avec la justice à force de participer à des manifestations illégales. Je t’ai dit « Oui, de plus en plus. » Tu as laissé passer trois ou quatre secondes, tu m’as regardé et enfin tu as dit : « Tu as raison. Tu as raison, je crois qu’il faudrait une bonne révolution » Last month, when I came to visit, before I left you asked me: “Are you still involved in politics?” – the word still referred to my freshman year of high school, when I subscribed to an extreme-left political party and when we argued about it because you thought I’d end up in trouble with the law with my participation to illegal demonstrations. I told you “Yes, I am. More than ever”. You let three or four seconds pass, you looked at me and finally said: “You’re right. You’re right, I think we need a good old revolution”

Publication date: May 2018. Beginning of the Yellow Vests movement: November 2018. Genuine participants to this movement: people like Edouard Louis’s father.

I read Who Killed My Father before the movement started. It stayed with me because it hit me right in the face. Edouard Louis sometimes irritates me, and certainly, he’s got his own issues. But I think it’s good for the country to have thinkers who come from the working class and who understand things that are oblivious to the ruling bourgeoisie because this reality is simply not part of their quotidian.

I wondered what Edouard Louis thought of the Yellow Vests movement and I found a great article here at The Inrocks.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Ilustration Hélène Builly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

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