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“We’re not living in the Victorian Age”

July 26, 2013 26 comments

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’ (… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)

I started reading Vile Bodies just after the dreadful Scarlet Letter and I read most of it on a hot summer afternoon, lying in a hammock under the apple tree in the garden. No children playing around, no noise, a perfect peaceful moment. These happy circumstances might have influenced my appreciation of the book.

Vile Bodies opens with a nightmarish crossing of the Channel between Calais and Dover. All the characters that we will follow in the novel are here. The sea is rough; all passengers are struggling against seasickness. There’s Mrs Ape and her group of religious singers, reborn Christians and renamed after virtues. I laughed when she called the roll on the boat:

‘Faith.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Charity.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Fortitude.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Chastity… Where is Chastity?’ ‘Chastity didn’t feel well, Mrs Ape. She went below.’

While the American Christian choir sings holy songs ad nauseam to drive away queasiness, the men feel sick too but it would damage their virility to acknowledge it:

 ‘You know I’m funny. I never feel sea-sick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn’t agree with me.’ ‘I’m like that, too.’ ‘Ventilation… a disgrace.’

Waugh_Vile_BodiesSo I sort of fell in love with Waugh’s style and wits immediately. The first chapter is funny, engaging and full of weird personalities. Adam is our main character. An aspiring writer, he’s coming back from France with his memoirs in his suitcase. A publisher is waiting for the book and he’s engaged to be married to Nina Blount. The future seems bright for him. Unfortunately, the Custom officers decide that his book isn’t suitable for reading and burn the manuscript. So Adam is back to London without money and without perspectives to earn some any time soon since he doesn’t have another copy of his manuscript. He phones Nina to let her know they wouldn’t be able to get married as scheduled. Adam settles at a pension, one of those places you encounter in books but have disappeared now. All along the book, Adam is running after money and his chances of marrying Nina vary according to the content of his wallet.

Waugh was a member of a group of Londoner socialites that the press named Bright Young People.  They organized wild parties, scandalized the old society. They were reckless and they shook up the old values. They didn’t want to live like their parents. Waugh put a bit of himself in Adam. Adam made me laugh but irritated me at times for his lack of good sense. His main goal is to marry Nina and money is an obstacle. He should be actively looking for a job but he idly hangs out with his friends instead. He lacks of focus for the only thing important to him. And when luck is on his side, he sabotages it out of stupidity or carelessness. For example, he gets 1000 £ by chance and instead of keeping them preciously, he gives them to a drunken major to bet on a dubious horse. And, how can you have only ONE copy of the manuscript you’ve spent hours working on?

The book broaches many subjects. It describes the thirst for happiness and fun after the war. However despite the lights and the apparent lightness, it’s bittersweet. These young people don’t know exactly what they want from life or what they want to do with their life. They reject the values and ways of living of their parents but still have to invent their own. For me, Vile Bodies is a testimony of the beginning of the 20thC, the one that, according to historians, actually started after WWI. The Bright Young People have occupations derived from industries that developed during the war. They party in a balloon, they participate to car races. Waugh is a keen observer of his society. Here are the domestics at an aristocrat’s house trying to define a status for Mrs Ape’s choir (the “angels”) who is to perform for the guests:

(There had been a grave debate in the servants’ hall about the exact status of angels. Even Mr Blenkinsop, the butler, had been uncertain. ‘Angels are certainly not guests,’ he had said, ‘and I don’t think they are deputations. Nor they ain’t governesses either, nor clergy not strictly speaking; they’re not entertainers, because entertainers dine nowadays, the more’s the pity.’ ‘I believe they’re decorators,’ said Mrs Blouse, ‘or else charitable workers.’ ‘Charitable workers are governesses, Mrs Blouse. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying social distinctions indefinitely. Decorators are either guests or workmen.’ After further discussion the conclusion was reached that angels were nurses, and that became the official ruling of the household. But the second footman was of the opinion that they were just ‘young persons’, pure and simple, ‘and very nice too’, for nurses cannot, except in very rare cases, be winked at, and clearly angels could.)

Waugh caught that the society was at a turning point. The war has shattered the old status quo. The pieces of the social puzzle have been moved and need to find a new place to create a brand new picture.

While writing Vile Bodies, Waugh’s wife left him. He said it impacted the tone of the book and I could feel it, even if I read about this afterwards. It becomes darker in the end and I have to say that the ending left me a bit confused. Anyway, Waugh has an incredible sense of humor and I’m sure I didn’t get everything a native English speaker could get out of the text. The names of characters are funny and the text is full of little remarks and cheeky comparisons on a humorous tone, like this one:

Adam gave her – the spaniel, not Mrs Florin – a gentle prod with his foot and a lump of sugar. She licked his shoe with evident cordiality. Adam was not above feeling flattered by friendliness in dogs.

Isn’t it excellent? And of course, there’s the amazing passage I published earlier.

Vile Bodies is worth reading for its funny style, for the observation of the London life of the time and for the set of characters. It felt like the English equivalent of a novel written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I was asked if there is a French counterpart to this literature about the bubbly 1920s. I couldn’t find any. I searched through the novel published in the 1920s and 1930s and didn’t find any. I only thought about Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. There were wild parties in Paris at the time but the French authors weren’t writing about them. The 1920s are the years Gallimard published most of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. If I stick to writers born around 1900 like Waugh and Fitzgerald, I didn’t find a famous book resembling Vile Bodies. At the time, Malraux published The Conquerors, Cocteau created Les Enfants terribles. Jean Giono wrote Harvest, Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour. Let me know if you are aware of a French novel close to Vile Bodies.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

November 24, 2011 25 comments

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth. 1924

End of WWI. Gabriel Dan has just come back from Russia, where he was held prisoner. He walked back from camp, all the way from Russia. He’s now in an unnamed town at the doors of Western Europe. In Ukraine, a town like Brody where Joseph Roth was born? Gabriel settles at the Hotel Savoy. At first, his room seems luxury to him after all these rough years. He has nothing but his clothes, Russian clothes that shout his poverty to the world and let them know where he has spent the last years. The hotel is huge, 868 rooms, a condensed version of the world. The lower floors are the richest rooms. There it’s warm, clean and tidy. Neat maids take care of the rooms and guests. The more you climb the stairs, the poorer you are and the hotel counts eight floors.

Gabriel lives in room 703. He’s only there for a few days, he thinks, before heading West. But he’s soon stuck in the hotel and gets acquainted or even befriends with other guests. Roth describes the colorful crowd: the showgirls, Stasie who works for a local cabaret, the military doctor, the liftman, Neuman the industrial captain whose workers are on strike… Gabriel isn’t alone in this town; he’s got a rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug. But he doesn’t seem eager to help his impoverished nephew.

The city in itself sounds terrible: grey, polluted with wild industries, always under the rain. There are no sewers, and the stench is almost unbearable. It’s full of unemployed men, demobilized and exhausted soldiers and trumps. The city overflows, but not with wealth, with refugees coming from the East and heading West. It has an end-of-the-world atmosphere. And indeed, it is the end of a world, the one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its peoples become again only Serbs, Romanian…

I imagined it as a graphic novel, in black and white, full of details. Roth glances at life disenchanted eyes. He pities these human ants. I couldn’t help thinking of that quote Max included in his review of Musil’s feuilletons about flypaper.

In addition to the end-of-an-era ambiance, there was a feeling of déjà vu. That picture of people living in poor conditions in hotel rooms reminded me of Maurice Sachs in Witches’ Sabbath, of Orwell in Down and in Paris and London or Steinbeck in Cannery Row. It’s the era of living in pensions and hotels that has almost disappeared. Romain Gary’s mother operated such a pension in Nice, that’s where he lived when he arrived in France. Speaking of my dear Gary, here’s a quote by Roth…

Sehen Sie, Herr Dan, die Menschen haben kein schlechtes Herz, nu rein viel zu kleines. Es faβt nicht viel, es reicht gerade für Frau und Kind. You see, Mr Dan, men don’t have a nasty heart, it’s just much too small. There isn’t a lot of room in it, just enough for wife and child.

…that sounds typically Gary to me. The more I read Russian and Eastern Europe literature, the more I realize how influenced he was by his background and his origins. He was a Slav, a Jew and despite his changing Roman into Romain, he was part of this culture. But back to Roth.

Some passages sound like predictions and oddly modern.

» Siehst du, Glanz macht ganz gute Geschäften «, sagt Onkel Phöbus.» Was für Geschafte ? «» Mit Valuta «, sagt Phöbus Böhlaug, » gefährlich ist es, aber sicher. Es ist eine Glückssache. Wenn einer keine glückliche Hand hat, soll er nicht anfangen. Aber wenn einer Glück hat, kann er in zwei Tagen Millionär sein.  «» Onkel «,sagte ich, » warum handeln Sie nicht mit Valuta?  «» Gott behüte «, schreit Phöbus,» mit der Polizei will ich nichts zu tun haben! Wenn man gar nichts hat, handelt man mit Valuta. « – You see, Glanz makes good business, Uncle Phöbus says.- What kind of business?- With currencies, Phöbus Bölaug says. It’s dangerous but safe. It a question of luck. When one has no lucky hand, they should not start this. But when one has a lucky hand, they can become millionaire in two days.- Uncle, I say, why don’t you deal currencies?- God prevents it! Phöbus cries, I don’t want to be involved with the police. You only deal currencies when you have nothing.

Hmmm. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.

It’s hard for me to put words on Hotel Savoy, its eclectic inhabitants, its condensed misery that brushes against wealth. Poverty has the same taste as Orwell’s in Down and Out in Paris and London. Roth describes these people and their suffering. They run after money, die in poor conditions, live in poor and unhealthy rooms and have to use their suitcases to guarantee the payment of their room. They live in fear of losing the roof above their heads. I am grateful to writers such as Joseph Roth, Orwell or Steinbeck. They give a voice to people who don’t have one.

Hotel Savoy leaves me with one question: if Joseph Roth had survived WWII in Paris, would he have written Hôtel Lutetia?

PS: I have read it in French, unfortunately my German isn’t good enough to read books. I downloaded the original version and translated the quotes with the help of the French text.

For another review, read Caroline’s thoughts here

Charlus, Albertine and others: homosexuality in Sodom et Gomorrah

October 3, 2011 26 comments

Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. 1921/1922 English titles: Cities of the Plain or Sodom and Gomorrah. All the quotes come from the Scott-Moncrieff translation.

The opening quote of this volume is a verse by Alfred de Vigny which explains the title of the book: « La femme aura Gomorrhe et l’homme aura Sodome. » (The woman will have Gomorrhe and the man will have Sodome) Was it changed in the Scott-Moncrieff translation in an attempt to conceal one of its leading topic?

In Swann’s Way, “faire cattleya” (make cattleya) is the code name Swann and Odette used to call their love making. In the opening chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Narrator is in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermantes, observing a bee and an orchid, trying to catch the moment when the bee will pollinize the orchid. He’s distracted in his task by M. de Charlus who meets Jupien for the first time. It’s love at first sight between the two men and the Narrator then digresses on homosexuality. Strangely, the growing love between these two men from totally different backgrounds echoes the love between Swann and Odette from the first book. It gives the impression of a thought through saga and I wonder how Proust managed to wrap his head around so many details.

This first chapter details from the inside what it is to be gay at this time.

I now understood, moreover, how, earlier in the day, when I had seen him coming away from Mme. de Villeparisis’s, I had managed to arrive at the conclusion that M. de Charlus looked like a woman: he was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine and who in their life resemble in appearance only the rest of men; there where each of us carries, inscribed in those eyes through which he beholds everything in the universe, a human outline engraved on the surface of the pupil, for them it is that not of a nymph but of a youth. Race upon which a curse weighs and which must live amid falsehood and perjury, because it knows the world to regard as a punishable and a scandalous, as an inadmissible thing, its desire, that which constitutes for every human creature the greatest happiness in life; which must deny its God, since even Christians, when at the bar of justice they appear and are arraigned, must before Christ and in His Name defend themselves, as from a calumny, from the charge of what to them is life itself; sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie all her life long and even in the hour when they close her dying eyes; friends without friendships, despite all those which their charm, frequently recognised, inspires and their hearts, often generous, would gladly feel; but can we describe as friendship those relations which flourish only by virtue of a lie and from which the first outburst of confidence and sincerity in which they might be tempted to indulge would make them be expelled with disgust, unless they are dealing with an impartial, that is to say a sympathetic mind, which however in that case, misled with regard to them by a conventional psychology, will suppose to spring from the vice confessed the very affection that is most alien to it, just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination. And lastly — according at least to the first-» theory which I sketched in outline at the time and which we shall see subjected to some modification in the sequel, a theory by which this would have angered them above all things, had not the paradox been hidden from their eyes by the very illusion that made them see and live — lovers from whom is always precluded the possibility of that love the hope of which gives them the strength to endure so many risks and so much loneliness, since they fall in love with precisely that type of man who has nothing feminine about him, who is not an invert and consequently cannot love them in return; with the result that their desire would be for ever insatiable did not their money procure for them real men, and their imagination end by making them take for real men the inverts to whom they had prostituted themselves. Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.

It’s a long quote, but it’s the perfect summary of the ideas he develops in this chapter. He describes the angst of being different and being ashamed of this difference, the painful moments in adolescence when one acknowledges being attracted to someone their own sex. After this pleading chapter, the Narrator will mostly give examples of homosexual couples around him. The first one is M. de Charlus and Morel. They are supposed to be friends but everyone at the Verdurins’s know that they are lovers. The society knows and pretends not to see it. They don’t recognize them as a couple, officially, but call them the “demoiselles” behind their back and perfectly know what’s happening. They keep up appearances and expect the couple to do so. They don’t want to be obliged to be officially offended to abide to social conventions. All along the novel, Proust shows how gays find each other while hiding and how they always fear to be discovered and imagine double-entendre in innocent phrases, like here:

Monsieur de Charlus, are you one of them?” The Baron, who had not heard the whole speech, and did not know that she was talking of an excursion to Harambouville, gave a start. “A strange question,” he murmured in a mocking tone by which Mme. Verdurin felt hurt.

Proust also explores lesbian relationships. We had a glimpse at them in Swann’s Way, with Mademoiselle de Vinteuil. After a remark by Cottard, he now fears that Albertine might be Andrée’s lover. (Note that both girls have boy names in the feminine form) He spies on them, he’s jealous and supposedly repulsed by such a thought. I was under the impression that it’s a way for him to spice up his relationship with Albertine. It definitely fuels his love for her. In Proust’s times, lesbians were running very famous cultural salons in Paris, like the American Natalie Barney or the princesse de Polignac. They were part of the avant-garde, showing a tolerance of the society, very different from what was happening in London at the same time. After reading the chapter about women, sex and mores in La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock, I understand better why Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t censored. Even at the turning of the century, there was a scientific and societal interest for sex and questions about women’s sexuality. The society was less uptight than I thought it was. By the way, I wonder how a robe postiche (literally a false dress) becomes an imaginary spirit in English and generally speaking I wonder how Scott-Moncrieff dealt with all the homosexual allusions and descriptions and the censorship of that time. Perhaps it’s worth reading this one in newer translation.

Proust doesn’t cover gays and lesbians the same way. For men, I think he insists a lot on appearances. He describes the way M. de Charlus dresses and moves, betraying his sexual orientation.

À force de penser tendrement aux hommes on devient femme, et une robe postiche entrave vos pas. By dint of thinking tenderly of men you become a woman, and an imaginary spirit hampers your movements.

He also wears make up and is pictured as middle-aged and fat. I can’t help seeing him as David Suchet playing Poirot. Under Proust’s prose, lesbians don’t give any hint of their sexual preferences in the open. Either he can’t read the signs or they aren’t any.

Of course, everyone knows that Proust was a homosexual and it gives an extra-dimension to the text, as we know he experienced all this. Maurice Sachs, homosexual himself, relates that Marcel Proust used to do the peeping Tom in some Parisian brothels. I don’t know if it’s true.

Holiday Reading

July 30, 2011 13 comments

As far as work is concerned, France is a dead country in August: everbody is on holiday. So as a good French employee respectful of traditions, I’ll be on holiday for the next three weeks. However, I won’t be off-line and I wanted to give you a look at the books I’m taking with me. Having a kindle should reduce the space taken by books in my suitcase but it doesn’t. It’s not appropriate for extreme reading on the beach, with salt, sand and greasy hands from sun cream.  Thankfully Mr Emma is really patient with heavy book luggage. I already know I won’t have enough time to read all of them but I like to have options and choose what suits my mood. If anyone is interested in reading one of these books with me, leave a message in the comments. I’ll be happy to have company.

No & me by Delphine de Vigan.

I’m thrilled to start another of her books after Underground Time  (Btw; it will probably be on my Top List 2011. Talking about it make people open up and I’m horrified to discover so many Mathildes around.)

 

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time, volume 4)

The re-reading of In Search of Lost Time continues. If I remember well, in this volume the Narrator discovers Charlus’s secret love and sex life. I was 16 when I first read this and I’m sure I was too naïve to understand everything. I’m curious, especially after Maurice Sachs’s comments on Proust’s habits in Paris.

 

The Notebooks of Malte Lauris Brigge by Reiner Maria Rilke

I picked that book in Kate and Jonathan’s reading list (Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol). Litlove is going to re-read it in August; it’s been on my shelf for months. It’s a good time to finally get to it. I expect somthing that explains Kate & Jonathan’s personal story like all the book listed in this epistolary novel.

 

 

Syrup by Maxx Barry.

I’m really looking forward to reading a second Max Barry. People on the beach will think I’m nuts to laugh out loud on my own. I loved Company and I expect so much fun of this one that I ordered a paperback copy instead of a kindle version: I want to lend it around me. They’re now shooting the film version of Syrup and I hope I’ll be able to watch it when it is released.

 

 Les Ecureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi by Katherine Pancol.

Literally “Central Park Squirrels Are Sad on Mondays”. I couldn’t find out if it’s been translated into English. It’s the last volume of the “animal” trilogy after Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles) et La valse lente des tortues (The Turtles’ Slow Waltz). If it is as lovely as the first volumes, it should be a good page turner novel. Over 800 pages. Perfect for my 5 hours journey by train. 

 

 

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

After reading Pop.1280, I thought I could read Thompson in paperback edition. The contrast between Pancol and Thompson is promising. According to Guy’s review, I know The Killer Inside Me won’t leave me indifferent. Being in Lou’s head doesn’t sound comfortable. It’s on the 1001-books-you-must-read list, if anyone is interested.

  

 

 

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Sarah’s Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge continues in August too. I’ve been delaying enough, now is the time to read the SF book I committed to read. This selection is in the category “A book from an unfamiliar genre” since I’m not a great SF reader.  Hopefully I’ll enjoy it.

 

Les Choses by Georges Perec.

After reading again and again in the Anglophone blogosphere what a great writer Perec is, I’m finally trying one of his books. As I’m far from convinced that I’ll like him, I’ve chosen a small one. Let’s hope I’m wrong to be prejudiced against him and that it will be a great discovery.  

 

The Murderess by Alexander Papadiamantis.

It’s going to be my first Greek novel as a part of my EU Book Tour. It doesn’t sound funny at all but I’m curious. If anyone has read a contemporary Greek novel, leave a message.

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Take a walk on the money side

May 3, 2011 24 comments

Money by Martin Amis. (1981) 394 pages.

Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The great addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now. There’s not even anything very twentieth century about it, except the disposition. You can’t kick it, that junk, even if you want to. You can’t get the money monkey off your back.  

Last year, I read Dead Babies and Money was a recommendation. As I regretted no to have read Dead Babies in English, I bought Money in the original. A mistake maybe, but more about this later. Now, the book.

 John Self is the narrator. He’s 35, single, lives a relationship based on a sex-versus-money trade with a hot and venal woman named Selina. He’s a Londoner publicist who’s about to shoot a movie in America. He’s famous for trashy commercials advertising junk food and he turned his personal expertise in pornography into a juicy business. Some of his commercials were even censored. His idea of a script has been bought by Fielding Goodney, an American middleman who’s in charge with finding money and actors to shoot the movie. John flies back and forth from London to New York to meet with Fielding and play his part in the project.

We follow him in meetings, choosing the actors and reading the script of the film. Amis vividly pictures the insecurity of actors, their eccentric way of life, their need to be loved and worshipped. Each actor has specificities and wants to take advantage of them in the film. Each actor tries to influence the scenario in order to put forward their strength and hide their weaknesses. John spends his time in diplomatic missions to make these egotistic personalities work together.

Caduta Massi is the ageing actress with no children but show-off motherly instincts. Lorne Guyland is the model of the ageing actor who still wants to play sexy parts and insists on shooting nudity scenes.

Butch Beausoleil is the typical young actress who claims she has more brains than you imagine but is stupid anyway. She’s the kind of girl who says she already had two abortions this year but doesn’t know how she got knocked up this time as she was convinced to be sterile.

Spunk Davis is the perfect illustration of the star-to-be coming from a poor neighbourhood, reborn Christian, at first full of principles.  

Back to our narrator. John Self, what kind of name is that? A John Doe replaced by Self for selfish, self-centred? Or is it a I’m-just-myself claim, like a slogan for a commercial? His way of life is a hodgepodge of pornography, booze and laziness. He’s so deep into pornography and paid sex that I wonder if his name deserves a capital letter. He’s materialistic (he loves money), violent (he casually explains he has just quit hitting women), misogynistic (women are sex toys), vulgar (porn magazines are the only ones he reads) and illiterate (ah the glorious passage about Animal Farm!!). He’s everything but a catch.

He only cares about money. All his relationships are based upon money. It’s his safety zone. No problem with that, he thinks, you know where you are. So he thought. His father taught him that. Martina Twain is his only relationship not based on money. She challenges him, buys him books and only meets him if he’s sober. She has an inherited wealth; she oozes money but doesn’t find it fascinating as she’s never been short of money. I wonder what Martina sees in John Self. A puppy, a child who needs her help? Or does she just have the classic attraction of women for bad boys and the also very classic temptation to reform the said bad boy?  

John’s childhood memories are scattered in the novel, generally after a hammering hangover. His mother died of melancholy, like a heroin of a Romantic novel. She was American and never got used to Great-Britain. John was shipped in New Jersey to live with his aunt when his mother died. Then she shipped him back to London, where everything seemed smaller. His father is a jerk who runs a pub. He’s a gambler and also into pornography. Money is his religion too; once when he was broke, he billed John for the money he spent on his education. With these two parents, what chance did John have to escape self-loathing, violence and love of money? Not a lot, right? After all this, the reader starts to sympathise with John despite his flaws. 

Through John’s eyes, we also visit New York before Giuliani, the New-York of the Velvet Underground. His business partner Fielding has him slumming in all kinds of neighbourhoods. He walks a lot in NY, it’s a city to explore on foot. His description of LA is also spot on as far as walk is concerned:

The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles, don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.

In New York, he watches strip dancers, goes into sex shops, drinks heavily. The night is longer than in London where pubs closed at 11pm at the time, if I’m correct. He runs on coffee, booze, handjobs, pornography, fags and greasy junk food. He drinks himself dead, passes out and doesn’t remember which day it is or what he did of his night.  

Beware spoilers: skip the following paragraph if you haven’t read the book.

I thought the plot a little weak sometimes. I had guessed that Selina was sleeping with Ossie and I was disappointed to have guessed right. I’m also disappointed by the ending, a little too moral for me. John Self sorts of feel better without money and has found a Georgina who loves him for who he is? Isn’t this a little too conventional?

I was suspicious when reading, wondering where John Self had met this Fielding. The plot of his movie sounded far from fascinating. I thought the money poured over his head a little too easily and an alarm bell rang in my mind when I saw John signing contracts without reading them. I was suspicious but I hadn’t guessed it was a swindle. Like John, I saw the clues but misinterpreted them. Well, that’s the story of our lives; we run into clues but misinterpret them and make ill-founded decisions.

Earlier I said John played his part in the project. It should have been read literally as it was a setup, a show. His car is a Fiasco, the perfect name for his ride through life. He has played by rules he never knew existed and drove himself out of the road. Isn’t it what happens when you’re an outsider in the world of money? Or did he just play recklessly like during his chess game with Martin Amis?

If you have skipped the previous paragraph, you can resume reading now.

Martin Amis has a gift to encapsulate the flavour, the scent of a time. He’s smart and lucid, as I expect a real artist to be. In 1981, he felt the turnaround of the 80es and how money, sex, junk food, the want of fame would invade our societies. He also understood that language would become less formal. 30 years later, we have junk food everywhere, even in France. People are overweighed from fatty food. Pornography is an industry, porn stars are known from the public now. People spill out their lives in lousy talk-shows; I always wonder how they look their baker in the eyes after that.

John Self personalizes how the 80s pushed vulgarity and illiteracy on the front of the stage, a trend that never changed since and reaches its apogee in today’s reality shows. They encompass everything: money, sex and fame at any cost, including humiliation if need be. The more stupid and illiterate you are, the best chances you have to be invited in dumb TV shows. And everything has to be a show for people with limited concentration capacities. Politics is a show and it started in the 80s, with publicists working for politicians. Polls make decisions instead of politicians.

The Western Alliance is in poor shape, I’m told. Well what do you expect? They’ve got an actor and we’ve got a chick. More riots in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, the inner cities left to rot or burn. Sorry, boys, but the PM has PMT.

The show goes on with the narration: John Self talks to the readers, feels their looks on him. He’s performing a show too. He’s watching us watching him. The whole novel is constructed around boomeranged looks. The reader looks at John who looks at John the reader. Martin Amis observes John who observes Martin Amis.

Some sentences are constructed in a sort of vache-qui-rit pattern, they spiral, like here in this description of London:

The car and I crawled cursing up the street to my flat. You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving. House divide, into two, into four, into sixteen. If a landlord or a developer comes across a decent-sized room he turns it into a labyrinth, a Chinese puzzle. The bell-button grills in the flakey porches look like the dashboards of ancient spaceships. Rooms divide, rooms multiply. Houses split – houses are tripleparked. People are doubling also, dividing, splitting. In double trouble we split out losses. No wonder we’re bouncing off the walls.

I saw the designs repeated in the novel: the observation of the weather and the sky in particular, the Polish uprising led by Lech Walesa, the wedding of Charles and Diana, John’s aching tooth, the economic crisis in Great-Britain. They were a kind of Ariadne’s clew along the novel. Like in Dead Babies, Amis lets you know he’s pulling the strings of the story. He puts up a good show of him as a writer too. It isn’t serious; it’s more a way to enlighten the reader, to make him aware that writers manipulate them. You don’t forget that what you’re reading isn’t true; you’re reading someone’s work of art. And in work of art, there the word “work”. Never forget that, Amis seems to say.

Two strange things happened while I was reading Money, as if the style of the novel had backfired on me. Firstly, I read most of it during the weak William and Kate got married, an event difficult to avoid, even in France. I don’t want to think what it must have been in Great-Britain. I was hearing of this wedding a lot everywhere –TV, covers of magazines, people talking in shops…– and at the same time I was reading John Self hearing a lot about Charles and Diana’s wedding in cabs, shops, TV and covers of magazines. The novelist Martin Amis entered into his character’s life and his character entered into mine. It was as if the mirror effects he had designed in his book had sprung into my everyday life as an ultimate way to involve his reader into the story. Weird and powerful.

Secondly, I was reading Money and at the same time writing the post on Witches’ Sabbath. I couldn’t help seeing similarities between Maurice Sachs and John Self, between a real man and a fictional character too, like Amis/Self in Money. Again, the frontier between reality and fiction was blurred. Sachs’s life permeated into my reading and his worn-out tone interfered with my vision of John Self. Instead of laughing at/with John, I found him sad. I already thought that Dead Babies was sad.

After all, what do I think about this book? I tell you my friend, this wasn’t an easy read. No, Money wasn’t an easy read. I was often bored and I can’t define why. Perhaps the two effects I just described spoiled the book for me. Perhaps the difficulty of the language prevented me from enjoying the fun, although I really laughed sometimes. I certainly missed tons of references and play-on-words. You might have to be British to fully appreciate it. Amis is really talented; his descriptions of people and situations are often funny.

Then it hit me: stress – perhaps I need stress! Perhaps a good dose of stress is just what I’m crying out for. I need bereavement, blackmail, earthquake, leprosy, injury, penury… I think I’ll try stress. Where can you buy some?

Or

His head looked like a fudge sundae – I swear to God, he could have put a spoon in his ear and a maraschino cherry on his crown and looked no worse.

Hilarious, isn’t it? I know I’m talking about a major, nasty and funny book and I won’t contest this assertion. Yet, I didn’t have a lot of pleasure reading it.

PS : For Guy’s review, click here

When our qualities are off wandering, what can we do with ourselves?

May 1, 2011 27 comments

Le Sabbat by Maurice Sachs (302 pages) 1939. English title : Witches’ Sabbath.

I was interested in reading Maurice Sachs’s memoirs, Le Sabbat after enjoying his Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit, which I reviewed here. As Guy Savage was interesred too, we coordinated and read it at the same time. So another post is published on his blog.  I recommend to read his review as it will show these memoirs in another light.

 Maurice Sachs was born in 1906, in a bourgeois family in Paris. He was of Jewish origin but never went to the synagogue. He has few memories of his childhood, except his English nurse Suzy and his wish to be a girl. His parents were divorced, he was living with an indifferent mother (very close to the character of Mrs Farrange in What Maisie Knew, now that I think of it) and never heard about his father after he left. He was sent to boarding school where he learnt nothing useful but read a lot and definitely accepted to be gay. Back from school, he spent a few years with his newly-wed mother. He lived his first true love with a boy named Oscar, a feeling he says he’d struggle to relive all his life.

When his mother inherited a large sum, she decided to manage it herself and went bankrupt. His world collapsed and he helped her evading to Great-Britain to avoid prison for debts. He was 15 when it happened, was left alone and had to fend for himself as almost all their acquaintances turned their back on him. After a while, he decided to join his mother in London, where he worked for a twelve-month as a bookseller. He chose to come back to France in 1922. He was only 16.

1922 was a turning point in his life.

Le Maurice Sachs louche, fuyant, combinard, ivrogne, prodigue, désordre, curieux, affectueux, généreux et passionné, ce Maurice Sachs qui s’est formé toujours un peu malgré moi, mais avec ma complicité et qui a donné ce personnage parfois répugnant, souvent attachant, auquel je donne tant d’importance parce qu’il est quand même moi, (…) ce Maurice Sachs dont j’espère qu’il écrit ici avec cette main qui est la sienne et la mienne la confession qui clôt un cycle de notre vie, date vraiment de ces premiers jours de l’année 1922 quand je revins d’Angleterre.

This Maurice Sachs who is shady, elusive, a real schemer, a drunkard, untidy, curious, loving, generous and passionate; this Maurice Sachs who grew up in spite of me but with my complicity and who turned into that repulsive but sometimes touching character and to whom I’m so attached because he is me anyway (…); this Maurice Sachs who writes this confession that closes a period of our life and hopefully writes it with this very hand that is both his and mine; this Maurice Sachs really dates back to those early days of 1922 when I came back from England. Chapter 9

In 1922, he started partying in Paris; it was the time of Au Boeuf sur le Toit, a place where the golden youth of that time used to hang out. He was part of Cocteau’s crowd and he adored him like an idol. He was his fan, worshipping the ground Cocteau walked on. He was 16 and had the same enthusiasm for Cocteau than a nowadays teenager could have for a rock star.

Thanks to Cocteau, Maurice Sachs met Jacques Maritain, a Catholic devout. He changed of guru, converted to Catholicism, planned to become a priest and got in a seminary. No one seemed more ill-fitted for seminary life than him. (apart from Casanova maybe?). After a few months of happiness and peace in blissful rituals, strict routine and soothing prayers, chastity became a burden. He left the seminary.

He was due to military service and had to spend 18 months as a soldier. He didn’t want to be an officer. He rather enjoyed life in the army, which is highly improbable for someone not so keen on discipline. There was no such rule as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but he thought it more prudent to hide he was gay and manfully survived through his relationship with a girl who had elected him as her man of the moment. The other soldiers thought he was lucky, it was impossible to refuse such a gift.

Back to civilian life, he came back to Paris and had an awful meeting with André Gide. He worked as a librarian for Coco Channel, tried to be part of the high society of the Boulevard Saint Germain, always spending more that he could afford and thus always running after money.

After a while, he shipped himself to New York to manage an art gallery. A failure. Introduced in the NY society, he was hired as a speaker for a tour of the USA. During that tour, he met Gwladys, who wanted to get married to liberate from her parents and leave her little town of Morpheus. On a whim, Sachs proposed to her and she accepted. They got married in Morpheus after he converted to their Presbyterian faith. Unsurprisingly, the whole marriage turned into a big failure and he abandoned her. It was the kind of departure where the guy goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back. Sachs writes “I had married her like a crazy man; I left her like a coward”.

In California he met Henry; they fell passionately in love and Maurice Sachs persuaded him to come back to Paris with him. After a few months of happiness in the country near Chartres, they were back to Paris. Their come back was a slow go down into the underworld of poverty. They were filthy poor, lived in a dump hotel, the Hôtel Saint-Joachim, among a strange crowd of semi-artists. Maurice Sachs drank heavily and spent his time chasing after money.

When Maurice Sachs wrote his memoirs, in 1939, he was only 33. Really young to write memoirs. I think he wrote this book when he was in rehab for alcoholism. It’s an exorcism. He tries to slough off his former self, the hateful Maurice Sachs who, as quoted before, was born in 1922. He wants it to be a resurrection, at 33, the age Jesus was when he died and resurrected. I’m not sure it is a coincidence.

Maurice Sachs had no moral roots, no principles. He just grew up like a weed. He was lazy, crazy, always making a fool of himself and always full of himself too. No idea of grandeur was foreign to him. That same grandeur that turned men into heroes during WWII turned him into a weed. His male models were either weirdos, debauchees or saints. He never compared himself to average men, to reachable models.

He was aware of his vices and aimed at virtue but he lacked persistence and temperance. Words like “decency”, “integrity” or “honesty” were in his dictionary but as a vague ideal he couldn’t reach for himself. This book can only foresee what he would do during WWII, black market, work for the Gestapo. As long as there was money to be earned, no moral issue could get in the way.

He drank heavily, tried drugs. And yet, with all this, he managed to be a member of the prestigious reading committee of the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) He always kept in touch with the literary world. How charismatic, witty and intelligent he must have been for people to help him along the way despite his despicable flaws. In the last years of these memoirs, he had started to write plays and novels but he doesn’t talk about his literary work.

For some reason, the guy was incapable to work. He could have been a waiter, a cleaner or whatever instead of living in misery in a dump hotel. It seems that having a regular job was impossible to him. He was too snob, too lazy for that. He had so much pride and blinded confidence in luck and in his personal qualities. He was a gambler. He gambles his life, bet on his qualities and always expected a turnaround of luck.

Maurice Sachs was a homosexual and I appreciated how he casually describes his sexual preferences in this book, although it was still a crime at the time. His lack of moral education was an advantage on that field. He was never taught to think homosexuality as a deviance. Cocteau was homosexual too and so was Proust. He knew he wasn’t alone and had great models in mind.

I thought his memoirs a little dry; I would have liked more anecdotes or thoughts about society and “l’air du temps”. I enjoyed the chapter about Proust and Albert, the model for Jupien. The description of Morpheus is really vivid and the other inhabitants of the Hôtel Saint-Joachim are depicted in a colourful manner. Sachs had a real literary style, rather close to Kessel for example. They were from the same generation and the reader can feel the imprint of the time. The syntax is still traditional; he uses the “imparfait du subjonctif”, a past tense nobody uses any more. It’s not heavy, it’s formal, more formal than Gary’s first short stories I read lately. He sounds a bit old fashioned too, like when he uses such expressions as “the age of manhood”. It would also be interesting to compare his style to Saint-Exupéry’s, another writer of that generation. As shown in the next quote, Sachs could write well but he was not innovative.

Je revois la commode bien polie et je ne sais quelle odeur de confort me monte aux narines, comme si le salon sentait le pain frais; quel appétit me revient du poulet du dimanche que l’on mange le cœur content.

I recall the well-polished drawers and a scent of comfort reaches my nostrils as id the living-room smelled of fresh bread; I’m reminded of Sunday chicken that one eats with a contented heart and a heartily appetite. (chapter 13)

I translated the quotes and I found Sachs really hard to translate into English. Curiously, Sachs mentions that being a writer was the first career path he thought of. Writing was important to him but he seldom evokes his literary work but for the last chapters.

There is a lot of name dropping in this book. It didn’t bother me, it came naturally to Maurice Sachs. He lived in the literary world and literature was the one and only topic he really studied.

His work is full of literary references: he sees himself as a Balzacian heroe, as a new Julien Sorel. Proust is hovering over his shoulder as THE model, I think. He’s hidden in that sentence “C’est pourquoi elle était revenue y terminer ses jours pour tenter to recapture the past The English translation would be “She came back to end her life here in an attempt to recapture the past. In English, Time Recaptured is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time... The following quote reminds me of Candide by Voltaire:

Il faut être son propre jardinier : arracher ses mauvaises herbes, faire côte à côte avec soi-même le terrible chemin et quand on se dégoûte trop, suer les odeurs mauvaises, travailler, travailler jusqu’à ce que l’âme soi nette. Car il ne faut se remettre à personne le nettoyage de son être, à Personne. Sur cette route solitaire et brûlante, il y a pourtant des poteaux indicateurs. Il faut les examiner, suivre certains indications, repartir. Personne en chemin, personne à l’arrivée ; quelques bras tendus sur la route. You have to be your own gardener: pull out your weeds, walk the dreadful path side by side with yourself and when you’re disgusted with yourself, sweat out the bad smells and work, work until your soul is all cleaned up. Because you can’t rely on anybody to clean up your soul. On Nobody. On this lonely and scorching path, there are road signs though. You need to watch them carefully, follow some of the instructions, resume walking. Nobody on the way, nobody at the arrival; some arms held on the road. Chapter 13

Doesn’t Mlle Viaud who lives in the Hôtel Saint-Joachim look like La Cousine Bette?

J’y trouvais Mlle Viaud, une petite noiraude au visage tanné, aux mains sèches, qui faisait de la couture mais était l’âme des potins qui circulaient d’étage en étage avec une incroyable rapidité. Here I found Mademoiselle Viaud, petite, dark-haired with a tanned face, dry hands, who used to sew but was the soul of the gossips that circulated from stair to stair at an incredible speed. (chapter 32)

When he’s in the army, his lover’s name is Lisbeth and she sorts of force him into the relationship. Does he think himself as the Stanislas that Lisbeth (La Cousine Bette) loves and who has to put up with it? Is Lisbeth her real name or was it just for the literary reference?

Sachs also plays with words and knowing Guy was reading the English translation, I often wondered how the translator had fared with specific passages or translated double meanings of words. Here is an example at the end of chapter 14:

Tout en nous croit en elle, comme tout de nous a crû neuf mois en elle du jour de la fécondation” (All in us believes in her, like all of us have grown nine months in her from the day of fertilization). Sachs plays with the conjugation of “croire” (believe) and “croître” (grow). So the sentence could also be translated as All in us grows in her, like all of us have believed in her from the day of fertilization. Only the ^ on “cru” lets the reader know that the first meaning is the good one. Orally, the sentence can be understood in both ways.

I’d be curious to know what the translator did with “J’aurais aimé la voix d’une femme qui dit “mon ami” et qui veut dire “mon amant”, ce vouvoiement qui tutoie” (chapter 18) , which means I would have loved the voice of a woman who says “my friend” and means “my lover”, addressing to me as a “tu” but saying “vous”. In French, “mon ami” can be used for friend, lover or partner. Only the inflection of the voice can tell you what the person intends to say.

Like Rousseau in Les Confessions, Sachs is looking for the reader’s compassion. Though he doesn’t show any indulgence for his vices and never tries to present himself as a victim, he wants the reader to forgive him all the things he has done. I didn’t find Maurice Sachs likeable because of his unquenchable need for money combined with his laziness. Post Office was a novel about a drunkard and Bukowski is not a model for virtue. But he worked hard in that post office, enduring horrendous hours and dreadful working conditions. Maurice Sachs was never able to keep a position for long without taking advantage of it. Of course, you can always argue that he had a miserable childhood and that no one really took care of him during his formative years. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

In the 1960s, Maurice Sachs would have been Jim Morrison, enjoying fame, money, sex, booze and drugs while dreaming of being Rimbaud or some other literary model.

In the 1980s, he would have been a well-read John Self, the fictional character of Money by Martin Amis. With his rotten background, he would have written commercials, enjoyed money, sex, booze, cocaine and would have died of AIDS before the end of the decade.

There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

March 11, 2011 36 comments

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  

Transportation.

Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.

America 

It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

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