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Reading Bingo 2016

November 29, 2016 14 comments

reading-bingo-small
Reading Bingo is back, according to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. The game is easy : for each square you need to find a corresponding book among this year’s reads. I don’t have much time to do that, to be honest, but I find it fun. It’s also a way to remind you of billets you might have missed about books you might enjoy. I don’t read much compared to other book bloggers but apparently my reading tastes are eclectic because I managed to find a book for almost all the squares. Ready? Let’s play.

soseki_chatA Book with more than 500 pages.

To be honest, I don’t read a lot of long books. I don’t have enough reading time and the book stays a long time on my night stand. It took me several weeks to read  I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki because I was too tired at night and because my paper copy is in really small print, not eye-friendly after a long day in front of a computer. It was worth the effort, though. I haven’t written my billet about it yet but it’s coming soon. In this Japanese book from 1905, Soseki uses a cat as a narrator. It is a first person narrative and the cat describes his master’s life with a lot of candor and a lot of irony. It was full of comical moments and I was fascinated by the description of life in Japan at the time. It is also amazing to see how Soseki imagined what it is to be a cat.

DurasA Forgotten Classic 

For this square I choose The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras. Set Indochina in the 1920s, it is based upon the author’s family story. Through the fate of a mother and her two grow-up children, Duras describes the life of poor white people in Indochina. She explains the workings of the colonial administration and how it steals from settlers and lies to them. It also show how a young woman can be tempted to get married just to provide for herself and her family. It is a theme that Duras will also explore later in her famous novel The Lover.

Ferey_ZuluA Book That Became a Movie
Zulu by Caryl Férey
is a French crime fiction novel that has been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film and I don’t intend to. It is an excellent crime novel set in South Africa. It was very violent in its descriptions of war between gangs and the use of torture. It was difficult to read and I can’t imagine watching it on screen and that’s why I won’t look for the film. The novel is excellent though, with lots of insight about life and culture in South Africa. The author is French and he researched a lot of information before writing his book.

 

malte_garconA Book Published This Year.

I usually don’t read books that just come out. I don’t have time for review copies and I tend to wait for the paperback edition of books. This year for the Rentrée Littéraire, I asked a libraire which book he’d pick among the ones that went out in September. He picked Le garçon by Marcus Malte. It’s a French book, so it’s not available in English for now. I guess it will be translated because it won the prestigious Prix Femina. It is the odyssey of a boy from 1908 to 1938 through France, life, war and love… And he doesn’t speak. It’s epic, poetic, well-written and totally unusual. Keep it in mind for when it comes out in English. In France it is published by Zulma and their stylish covers.

Peace_1974A Book With A Number In The Title

I actually read two books with a number in the title and I pick 1974 by David Peace. This was a disquieting and dark book. Peace’s description of Yorkshire in 1974 is not good for tourism. At all. It is about a journalist who investigates the murder of a little girl and finds himself in the cross-fire of corruption and collusion between politicians, journalists and the police. No one is likeable, no one is totally clean and our poor journalist gets into something too big for him to handle with no real chance to escape from it. Powerful but it makes you queasy.

keats_fannyA Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

Early this year, I read Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne by John Keats. It is Keats’ correspondence to his lover Fanny. It was an opportunity for me to discover Keats. I read a bit about him, I saw a bit of the lover through his letter and it led me to read his poetry. I bought an bilingual edition of a collection of his poems: the original on the left page and a French translation on the right page. It helps but even if my English is good enough to read novels, I will never be able to grasp the full beauty of English poems.

A Book With Non Human Characters

I could have chosen I Am a Cat for this square but instead, I want to draw your attention to The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. He’s a French Canadian writer and in this first volume of the Plateau Montréal chronicles, one of the characters is a cat. In this wonderful little novel Tremblay takes us around a popular neighbourhood in Montreal. We go from one character to the other, seeing them in their everyday activities, hearing their thoughts, watching their interactions with their family, friends and neighbours. It is a fantastic read. I have already bought the second volume.

de_fao_callingA Funny Book

I love funny books, it’s one of the great pleasure of reading. Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao is the story of a hitman who grows a conscience and finds a new interest in architecture. He’s getting tired of killing on demand and wants to be left alone to pursue his research in Georgian architecture. The more he wants out, the more botched his jobs become until his employers starts to notice. We follow him on the streets of Paris, London, New York and Barcelona and it’s hilarious.

KaffkaA Book By A Female Author

This book might be OOP in English. I bought it in Budapest in a Hungarian edition. I usually don’t read books in Englis translations but I have a soft spot for Hungarian literature and this one was not available in French. And it was by a female writer of the turning of the 20th century. So Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka is my pick for this square. I didn’t like it as much as I expected, mostly because the main character irritated me. It is still a fascinating picture of Hungary before WWI.

penny_fatal_graceA Book With A Mystery

I read a bit of crime fiction and I recently had a great time with A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny. It is an upcoming billet, so I won’t say more about it. I had liked Still Life a lot and this one confirms that it is a series I will follow. I was back in Three Pines, a lovely village of the Eastern Townships in Québec and I was happy to be back despite the terrible murder that happened there. It is still a delight to read Penny’s prose laced with French words to remind you than Anglophones and Francophones coexist in Québec.

boulerice_javotteA Book With A One Word Title

I wasn’t sure to have a book for that square but I did! Javotte by Simon Boulerice is a coming-of-age story of a French Canadian teenager. Javotte lost her father in a car accident and doesn’t get along well with her mother and sister. She’s a quirky teen and she has her own way to deal with the cards she has in hands and to cope. It’s not the novel of the century but it’s entertaining. Simon Boulerice is kind with his character and the reader is on Javotte’s side as well.

c0515_sciasciaMER.indd

 

A Book of Short Stories

I’ve read several this year and my favourite one is The Wine-Dark Sea by Leornardo Sciascia or Sicily from 1957 to 1972. It takes you to this island and its various facettes: its history, its values, its family traditions, its respect for  religion, the influence of the mafia, its tighs to immigrants in the USA.

 

 

Swierczynski_hell_gone

Free Square

My Free Square is for the Charlie Hardie trilogy by Duane Swierczynski. It’s fast-paced, funny, suspenseful and totally crazy. It’s crime fiction and A LOT of fun. Plus the covers are gorgeous. Isn’t it a great idea for Christmas?

 

 

 

Chavarria_french

A Book Set on a Different Continent

With Castro’s death, let’s go to Cuba with Daniel Chavarria and his Tango For a Torturer. This is a dark story of revenge loosely based upon The Count of Monte Cristo. Aldo Bianchi is in Cuba for business and pleasure when he realises that the man who tortured him in Argentina during the dictatorship is hiding on the island. He sets a plan in motion to get his revenge. A fantastic novel by Chavarria who manages to sew a great plot and give educational insight on dictatorships in South America. I love this kind of books.

claudel_la_criseA Book of Non-Fiction

I’m not good with reading non-fiction and this is why I love books like Tango for a Torturer. I learn things but it’s still fiction. I was intrigued by The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. It is a exerpt of Claudel’s correspondance to his minister in France when he was ambassador in Washington from 1927 to 1932. These letters are only about the economic situation of the time. It was fascinating to see how modern the concerns were and how history repeats itself.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

Sorry. Nothing here. But if you want to read Romain Gary’s first book, it’s entitled Education européenne.🙂

De_LucaA Book You Heard About Online

Lots of my reading year could fit in this category as fellow book bloggers are a great source of reading ideas. I’ll choose Three Horses by Erri De Luca. It’s a novella by an Italian writer about an Italian man who’s back in Italy after spending years in Argentina. He was a victim of the violent dictatorship there. It’s a book full of humanity and very reflective. The style is beautiful as well, a short book that makes you want to go to Italy too. I have another of his books on the shelf now.

Orr_Hands

A Best-selling Book

I don’t read best-selling books. It’s not by principle, it usually happens because the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. So instead of sharing a best-selling book, I want to share a book that deserves to be a best-selling book: The Hands: An Australian pastoral by Stephen Orr. It is the story of a family on an isolated ranch in Australia. Orr describes beautfully the hard life of these ranchers but also their culture. Their parents or grand-parents settled there and work hard, their heir feel indebted to their hard work and not losing the farm is the ultimate goal and worth great sacrifices. Orr created complex and plausible characters. I wanted to know what would become of them.

Ervas

A Book Based on a True Story

My billet about Don’t Be Afraid If I Hug You by Fulvio Ervas didn’t get a lot of response from readers. It is the story of an Italian father and his autistic son Andrea who go on a road trip. The first part of their journey is from Florida to Los Angeles. Then they go to South America. It was interesting to read about the places they went but also to read about Andrea. It is the story of the love of a father for his son but without angelism. Life with Andrea is tough sometimes.

kipling_roi

A Book at the Bottom of you To Be Read Pile

My bilingual edition of The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling says “Noël 1989”. It’d been on the TBR since 1989, I think it wins the title of the oldest book of the TBR. I had to read it twice to enjoy it but I found it better than I expected. And Kipling surprised me.

 

 

Neilan_Apathy

A Book Your Friend Loves

Hey Guy, I think Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan fits this category. I know you’ve read it several times with delight. I was in stitches when I read this. Shane, the main character in Neilan’s novel is in jail for murder. We go back to the beginning of the story that led him there. The passages where Shane works as a temp in a insurance company are hilarious. Neilan nails the corporate world in a way that only Max Barry surpasses.

 

A Book That Scares You

I don’t read scary books. However, Zulu by Caryl Ferey and 1974 by David Peace scare me for their dark vision of our societies.

O'Brien_Leaving_Las_Vegas

A Book That Is More Than Ten Years Old

I was blown away by Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. I’ve never read anything like this about alcoholism and the description of how addictive alcohol can be. It is the story of two lost sould who find comfort in each other for a while. It is the idea that two sadnesses can help each other even if they can’t save each other. When a prostitute meets an alcoholic in the articial paradise that is Las Vegas, you need a talented writer not to make it sordid. And O’Brien succeeds. Recommended.

Johnson_camp_morts

The Second Book in a Series

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson is the second Walt Longmire book about this sheriff in Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming. I enjoy Johnson’s style and his set of character. He lives in Wyoming himself and you can feel it in the descriptions of the landscapes and of the climate. This is someone who’s experienced the cold winters he describes. There’s also a lot about the culture of the native Americans of the region. The plot is well done and again, it’s educational.

gracq_beau_ténébreux

A Book With a Blue Cover

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq has the bluest cover. I didn’t like the book much but it fits the bill of A Book with a Blue Cover!

 

 

 

That’s all for my Reading Bingo. I had a lot of fun finding a book for almost each square. I hope you enjoyed playing with me. Have you read any of these books? Which one would tempt you?

PS: I hope the layout is OK on your side. It is on mine but I really had trouble for WP this time.

Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

November 26, 2016 10 comments

Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. (2001) Not available in French.

“Diane thinks it’s a mid-life crisis,” Eddie said. “At least that’s what her therapist tells her. I can hardly tell anymore who’s doing the talking, whether it’s Diane or her therapist.” “Maybe it is a mid-life crisis,” Tommy said. “I admire you for having one. Guy like me, in the shape I’m in now, I can’t afford to have a mid-life crisis.”

stella_eddie_worldEddie Senta has a problem: he’s married to a successful corporate executive, Diane, whose biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby and Eddie, who already has a son from his first marriage, doesn’t want another kid. Diane keeps badgering him with motherhood and Eddie keeps resisting. On top of his problems at home, he’s questioning his professional future. Eddie leads a double professional life. By day, he works as a temp in offices to input data in IT systems. It’s a tedious job but he’s a model employee and temp agencies find him jobs regularly. By night, he breaks into office buildings to find cash and steal computers. His day-job is a smoke screen for his nightly activities and money wise the jobs complement each other. The days are dull but the nights provide the thrill he craves for.

But now, Eddie seriously thinks of quitting his work with the mob to please his wife and be a better role model for his son. The thrill of his illegal activities has also worn off. However, he wants to do a last score before explaining that he’s ready to leave this world. His friend Sarah has given him inside information about her office and the gold that her bosses keep there. She was assaulted by her boss and wants out. Eddie hesitates, his gut feeling says that this job might be dangerous. So here he is in a bar with his friend Tommy, who’s supposed to give him a hand with the job:

I’m waiting for a vote of confidence. Something to tell me to go for it.” “Like a sign from God or something?” Eddie shrugged. “Something like that.” “Because I do a mean Charlton Heston as Moses,” Tommy said. “You ever see me do that one?” He sucked in some air, furrowed his eyebrows and spoke in a deep Charlton Heston-like voice. “I am the Lord thy God. Go for it.” “Heston played Moses,” Eddie reminded him. “How about a voice in the night then? Because if that’s all you need, you got it right here. I’m not God or nothing. Let’s face it; I’m a nobody. But it is dark outside, and I do have a voice. I can sure use something right about now, if that counts for anything. I’m a guy in need of miracles. Trust me.”

Tommy is not the brightest bulb in the set and Eddie knows it. They’ve been friends since childhood and Eddie’s nothing but loyal. They both need the money and Eddie wants to help Sarah. They eventually go for it and find themselves involved in murders. Both the NYPD and FBI are investigating. Eddie’s world might collapse like a house of cards.

Eddie’s World mixes noir and mid-life crisis problems. It’s a daring move but it works, mostly because the humorous style ties the two plot strands together. We follow the murder case and wonder how things will turn out for Eddie. The crime fiction strand is well conducted and plausible. It follows the codes of noir: a man who goes for easy money and is confronted with something bigger than what he can manage. He feels that things could go wrong but a woman’s interests make him go for it anyway. The mob is involved, as is the FBI and the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes the FBI finds it convenient to forget moral rules. Sometimes the mob is more decent than expected.

And besides the crime strand, we have the mid-life crisis strand. We learn about Eddie’s qualms. Quitting his night job isn’t an easy decision to make because he doesn’t know if he’ll fit in his day work’s world.

“And maybe I can’t fit into one or the other,” Eddie said. “I can’t give up the street stuff and do what my wife wants, which is to play ball with the office world, get a steady computer job, and take the Long Island Railroad every morning. And I can’t see myself running coffee errands for wiseguys I don’t respect. What’s that, like lost in the middle someplace? Definitely lost.”

His head is full of questions. Am I ready to settle with a normal life? How can I be a better father? Is my marriage salvageable? Do I want to make this marriage work? His hesitations could cost him more than what he bargained for.

Eddie’s World is good entertainment. I read  it thanks to Guy who reviewed it and gave it to me. Thanks Guy!

A Little Praise for Reading by Pef and other thoughts

November 20, 2016 16 comments

Petit éloge de la lecture by Pef. (2016)

pef_elogeI’ve been overworked for a few weeks and I also had a lot of family activities going on. Consequences: I’m behind with my writing about the books I read and I have a huge pile of unread reviews in my mail box.

This morning I decided to write a global billet about Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Just for the sake of catching up with billets and decrease the TBW pile. Then I started to read the quotes I had captured while reading Eddie’s World and found out I couldn’t settle for a hodge-podge of a billet just to tackle the TBW pile. I owe nothing to the writers of these three books, two of them are dead anyway and I doubt that my billet will bring anything to Charlie Stella’s life or book sales. Still. I owe it to the books and the pleasure I had reading them.

This brings me to another little book I picked: Petit éloge de la lecture by Pef. The title means Little praise for reading and here’s Pef about readers:

Victor Hugo se dit « les pieds sur terre et les yeux ailleurs ». Les lecteurs, qu’ils soient debout, assis, recroquevillés ou allongés sont les purs colocataires de cette phrase. Victor Hugo said of himself that he had « his feet on earth and his eyes elsewhere ». Readers are the real roommates of this sentence whatever their reading position. Standing, sitting, curled up or lying down.

pef_motorduPef is a writer of children books. His most famous collection is the one featuring Le Prince de Motordu. (The Prince of Twistedwords) and his adventures start in La belle lisse poire du Prince de Motordu, which can be translated as The beautiful furry tail of the Prince of Twistedwords. This needs to be read out loud and many thanks to Tony from Tony’s Reading List for understanding French perfectly and finding an English equivalent to Pef’s play-on-words. Pef loves playing with the French language and his prose is bubbly and classic at the same time. The quote above wasn’t easy to translate as it manages to encompass several difficulties between the French and the English language: body positions, the locution qu’ils soient, and the string of adjectives. So for once, the English text is longer that the French. Any alternative translation is welcome in the comments, I really struggled with it.

Back to Pef and his praise of reading. I started this with enthusiasm because I always enjoy reading about someone else’s delight with books. His is a collection of memories about reading moments. He pictures memories brought by books, memories of where you were when you read this particular book but also memories of the books themselves. We are inhabited by the characters we met through our reading. This is why recurring characters from crime fiction series seem like distant relatives to me or why I see Charles Bovary in Carl Joseph von Trotta. Pef’s book is 100 pages long and its 26 short chapters show different reading occasions and materials. Train carriages, holidays, school. Postcards, novels, comics. It is full of joyful descriptions in a gourmet style. He conjures up his favorite writers and reveals the breath of his reading and the depth of his addiction. Like most crazy-in-love-with-books readers, he’d read the phone book if it were the last book on earth, just to keep on reading.

Despite all this enthusiasm, I didn’t enjoy his book that much overall. Or perhaps I was too tired to enjoy it. I found it a bit old-fashioned. Pef was born in 1939 and you can feel his age in his pages because his reading memories relate to realities that don’t exist anymore. I would have preferred a praise by a younger writer, one who still has reading for passion despite video games, films, You Tube time, cell phones and all other distractions offered nowadays. Someone who backs up Pef’s statement:

Nous sommes tous venus au monde pour profiter de cette chance fabuleuse qu’est la lecture, magique, énigmatique dans sa découverte puis dans son apprentissage. We all came to the world to make the most of this amazing opportunity that is reading. It is magic, enigmatic in its discovery and its learning process.

And this is why I want to cheer on a decision the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) recently made. It has considered that libraries should be allowed to lend ebooks the way they lend paper books. It’s not an easy question from a technical point of view but it tends to treat ebooks the same way as paper books. Publishers are not in favor of this decision and the debate is not over.

This is in contradiction with another of the CJEU’s decision on VAT. In almost all EU countries, books benefit from a reduced VAT rate. It is 5.5% in France, compared to a 20% regular rate, so it makes a difference for book buyers. There’s a legal debate over ebooks: can they benefit from the reduced VAT rate or not? France has decided that the substance was more important than the form and applies a reduced VAT rate to ebooks. But according to a statement made in September 2016, the CJEU doesn’t see it that way. Ebooks are said to be “electronic services” and not books and thus shall bear a regular VAT rate. As far as I know, discussions are still going on in Brussels and I hope that France’s point of view wins in the end because, as Musset once said

Qu’importe le flacon pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Never mind the bottle, let’s just drink it.

HAPPY READING

 

Categories: About reading, Pef Tags:

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

November 12, 2016 30 comments

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932) French title: La marche de Radestky. Translated by Blanche Gidon and reviewed by Alain Huriot.

roth_radetskyThe Radestky March is the second book by Joseph Roth that I’ve read. (My billet about Hotel Savoy is here.) It was published in 1932 and it’s famous for describing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth was Austrian and I think that Embers by Sándor Márai is the Hungarian counterpart of Roth’s Radetsky March.

The book opens at the battle of Solferino where the Austrians fight against the French in 1859. France was ruled by Napoléon III at the time and it’s a victory for the French. The Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I is on the battlefield and he’s about to do something stupid that could get him killed by a French sniper. Lieutenant Trotta sees it coming, throws the emperors to the ground and saves his life. Franz-Joseph ennobles Trotta who becomes Baron von Trotta and Sipolje, the small village he comes from. (Now in Kosovo). This distances Trotta from his family and his origins and pushes him to a social class where he feels he never belongs. It cuts this branch of the Trotta family from their roots.

Later, von Trotta discovers in a school text book how the story of the battle of Solferino is taught to the children. It is grossly embellished and he decides to appeal to the emperor to have the facts straightened up. But the emperor leaves it as it’s told, which disgusts von Trotta from the military. Therefore, he will not let his son go to military school and he makes him become a civil servant. The young M. von Trotta ends up prefect in the district of W, in Moravia. His short marriage gives him a son, Carl Joseph, who is actually the main character of the novel.

The Radetsky March is a remarkable book. From a literary point of view, it’s extremely well written. Roth describes the family relationships, the education in the military circles and the lack of warmth in this education. Prefect von Trotta loves Carl Joseph but he’s totally unable to show affection. And this is also a trait that Márai points out in Embers. Carl Joseph is enrolled to military school upon his father’s decision. His father never imagined to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Carl Joseph is not cut out to be an officer as he has no military skills. He can’t ride a horse properly, he’s hopeless with topography and other military disciplines. He can’t choose his career. He has this cumbersome aura that prevent people from really befriending him. He feels awkward with his comrades and he has trouble bonding with people from his generation. He only becomes friend with older men and his lovers are almost mother figures. I won’t tell you too much about the plot and his life but poor Carl Joseph is not up to other people’s expectations. He’s incredibly lonely and he lives his life like a fish out of water.

The heritage of his grand-father weighs on his shoulders. He’s the grand-son of the hero of Solferino never just himself. And this inheritance burdens him with other people’s expectations. He’s the offspring of the hero of Solferino and there is a consensus that he inherited his grand-father’s courage. But his grand-father’s greatness was grossly exaggerated in text books that minded more of propaganda than of historical accuracy. So, Carl Joseph measures his actions against the shadow of a man who never really existed.

Le sous-lieutenant Trotta ressemblait à quelqu’un qui n’a pas seulement perdu son pays, mais aussi la nostalgie de son pays. The sub-lieutenant Trotta looked like someone who not only had lost his country but also the nostalgia of his country.

I pitied him for these heavy expectations and because he lacked the character and intelligence he would have needed either to rebel and choose his path or shine in the path that was chosen for him. In older French translations of books, European names are often translated and this edition of The Radestky March is no exception. As a consequence, Carl Joseph was Charles-Joseph for me. The more time I spent in Charles-Joseph’s company, the more I thought of Charles Bovary. The two men have something in common, both being pushed in a career for which they have no taste and no gift. They’re slow, they’re lonely and lack of social skills. They’re not bad people, just stupid.

The Radetsky March also portrays the decay the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth describes very well the hypocrisy of the military circles. The military are drilled to respect rules, as stupid as they can be. They follow an honor code up to blindness and refuse to see the obvious. The army is disconnected from the world and unaware of the upcoming changes and challenges.

Ils étaient nés en temps de paix et ils étaient devenus officiers en s’adonnant paisiblement aux manœuvres et aux exercices. Ils ne savaient pas alors que chacun d’eux, sans exception, rencontrerait la mort quelques années plus tard. Aucun n’avait alors l’ouïe assez fine pour entendre tourner les rouages énormes des moulins secrets qui commençaient déjà à moudre la grande guerre. La blanche paix de l’hiver régnait dans la petite garnison. Et, comme une draperie noire et rouge, la mort flottait au-dessus de leurs têtes dans la pénombre de l’arrière-boutique. They were born in a time of peace and had become officers by peacefully devoting themselves to parade grounds and exercises. None of them suspected that they would die a few years later. None of them had keen hearing and heard the wheels of huge secret mills turning and already grinding the Great War. The white winter peace has settled on the small garrison. And, like a black and red drape, death was flying upon their heads in the dark corners of the back shop.

The officers do their routine, gamble and drink. They’re isolated and most of them don’t have a family. They keep to themselves. Roth makes fun of them and their blind respect to tradition and their propensity to fret about tiny details. The overall picture gives an idea of an army unfit for the upcoming battles.

The empire is also cracking under the demands for more rights for the minorities. It is a mosaic of people who no longer want to live together. Minorities push at the seams of the old imperial clothes and the old emperor Franz Joseph I sounds totally unfitted for his position. See what Roth puts in Chojnoki’s mouth, a Polish rich man who lives near Carl Joseph’s garrison:

Sceptique, moqueur, sans crainte et sans scrupules, Chojnicki affirmait communément que l’Empereur était un vieillard étourdi, le gouvernement une bande de crétins, le Reichsrat une assemblée d’imbéciles naïfs et pathétiques, il disait l’administration vénale, lâche et paresseuse. Les Autrichiens de souche germanique dansaient la valse et chantaient dans les guinguettes, les Hongrois puaient, les Tchèques étaient nés cireurs de bottes, les Ruthènes étaient des Russes travestis et des traîtres, les Croates et les Slovènes des fabricants de brosses et des marchands de marrons et les Polonais dont il était, des jolis cœurs, des coiffeurs et des photographes de mode. Skeptical, derisive, bold and unscrupulous, Chojnicki often said that the Emperor was a forgetful old man, the government, a bunch of cretins, the Reichsrat, an assembly of naïve and pathetic morons. He said that the administration was venal, weak and lazy. Austrians from German origins waltzed and sang in guinguettes, Hungarians stank, Czechs were born flatterers, Ukrainians were Russian in disguise and traitors, Croats and Slovenes were brush makers and chestnut sellers and Poles, as himself, were flirts, hairdressers and fashion photographs. 

Prefect von Trotta has no idea of how to deal with the nationalist upheavals in his district. The central power of the country doesn’t know what to do. The old emperor is cristallised in conservatism and lacks of political insight.

It is the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I who is a central character of the book. He’s the deus ex-machina of the novel. It’s a cheeky literary device, to use such a historical figure that way, but it works. The emperor puts in motion the change of social class of Trotta. He refuses to change the narration of the text books despite Trotta’s request. He will intervene several times when the von Trottas need him. The emperor is like a father figure to them.

Il [von Trotta] aimait l’Empereur qui était bon et grand, supérieur et juste, infiniment lointain et tout proche, particulièrement attaché aux officiers de son armée. Mourir pour lui aux accents d’une marche militaire était la plus belle des morts, mourir au son de la Marche de Radetzky était la plus facile des morts. He [voon Trotta] loved the emperor who was good and great, superior and fair, aloof and close, especially attached to the officers of his army. To die for him to the sound of a military march was the most beautiful death, to die to the sound of the Radetsky March was the easiest death of all.

Franz Joseph I had one of the longest reigns in Europe. He was in power from 1848 to 1916. I was in Vienna last September and there was an exhibition about him, sinc 2016 is the centenary of his death. It was explained that there are plenty of images of him since he had his portrait done at least once a year since his childhood. His mother groomed him to ground his power on a cult of personality. See a sample of these images.

00_images_franz-joseph_i

I thought that this exhibition was very complacent, only showing the good side of the man. I regretted that there was no attempt to put in perspective the decisions he made. After all, he was very conservative and probably made poor choices along the way, like everybody else. I was ill at ease in this exhibition, feeling too much blind praise and nostalgia in it and not enough critical mind at work. Here’s Roth about Vienna:

On voyait déambuler, dans la large Ringstrasse, les habitants de cette ville, joyeux sujets de Sa Majesté apostolique, tous laquais de sa cour. La ville tout entière n’était que la gigantesque cour du château. You could see the inhabitants of this city stroll on the large Ringstrasse. They are the happy subjects of His Apostolic Majesty, all lackeys of the court. The whole town was actually the gigantic courtyard of the castle.

There was a cult around the Habsburg family and I’m not sure it’s deserved. This was my second visit to Vienna and my impression of the city center is that it still participates to the cult of the Habsburg family. In the comments written in the museums, in St Stephen cathedral, I felt an unhealthy nostalgia for lost grandeur. When in London, I didn’t have the impression that the city was turned into a museum longing for the Victorian era. In Vienna, even my children got sick of hearing about the wonderful Sissi and the great Maria Theresa. I loved that Joseph Roth didn’t follow this line of thinking. He is irreverent and critical, maybe because he was an outsider, as a Jew from Galicia.

The Radetsky March is a wonderful read for its literary merits (not obvious in this billet since I had to translate the quotes), for its humor, for its characterization and its insight on the Austro-Hungarian empire. A must read to understand Europe’s past and if possible to be coupled with Márai’s Embers.

2016_german_lit_monthThis billet about The Radetsky March is my contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. Incidentally, November is the month to celebrate the end of WWI and Franz-Joseph I died on November 21st, 2016.

 

 

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 13 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 27 comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

Le Cid by Pierre Corneille

October 30, 2016 18 comments

Le Cid by Corneille (1637) I found an online translation by A.S. Kline here.

le_cid_afficheLe Cid by Corneille is one of the most famous play of the French theatre. It’s as famous as a play by Shakespeare and it is written in alexandrines which are to French classic theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. Lots of famous quotes and expressions come from this play. So, it’s not surprising that it’s part of school syllabuses. When I was fourteen, I studied Le Cid in school. It is a truly painful memory of students reading aloud and stumbling alexandrine after alexandrine and butchering the text with great gusto. I’m sure some of you have the same kind of memories about Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth.

Well, we were in Paris this weekend and wanted to go to the theatre and Le Cid happened to be played at the Ranelagh theatre.  It is directed by Jean-Philippe Daguerre. I bought tickets wanting to make new memories of this play and give my children the opportunity to watch Corneille before they had to read him for class. I was also curious to see my response to it now.

Le Cid is set in Castille at the court of the king Don Fernand. Chimène and Rodrigue are in love and when the play opens, Chimène has just heard that both of their fathers approve of the match. Alas, Don Gomès, Chimène’s father is not too happy to hear that Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s father, was promoted as governor of the Prince of Castille. Don Gomès considers that he should have been chosen by the king. He’s jealous of Don Diègue and picks up a fight with him. Unfortunately, Don Diègue is too old to go into a duel and his arm fails him. Time for the first cult lines:

Ô rage! Ô désespoir! Ô vieillesse ennemie!

N’ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infamie?

O anger! O despair! O age my enemy!

Have I lived simply to know this infamy!

Humiliated, Don Diègue asks Rodrigue to wash away the insult and fight Don Gomès for him. Duty calls. Rodrigue is now between a rock and a hard place: either he fights for his father’s honour and loses Chimène or he betrays his father and keeps Chimène. But that’s the other cult thing about the play: the proverbial choix cornélien (literally Cornelian choice/dilemna.) or bluntly described “Whatever the decision you make, it’s going to suck big time.”

Rodrigue decides to follow the voice of reason, ie duty and challenges Don Gomès to a duel. The odds aren’t in favour of Rodrigue since Don Gomès is an experienced soldier. Don Gomès is sure to win this duel and he’s cocky enough to say the second cult line of this post:

A vaincre sans péril on triomphe sans gloire There is no honour for me in victory:

The lack of risk will deny me glory.

(Please note that for once, the French is more compact than the English.)

Rodrigue wins the duel and now he has killed his father-in-law-to-be. Chimène is not very happy with it and it’s her turn to face a choix cornélien. To seek revenge for her father or to let go and choose her lover, that is the question. Again, duty calls. She goes for revenge and since she’s a female, she turns to the king for that.

Now king Don Fernand has just lost a valuable soldier in Don Gomès and he’s not willing to lose another one by punishing Rodrigue. He tries to go around the honour code, probes in Chimène’s heart and pushes her buttons to make her drop her revenge schemes. But she’s too far gone on the duty road to turn around. So she follows through and the king is forced to consider her request.

However, Rodrigue is saved by the bell. The Moors are approaching and Rodrigue is sent to lead the army to the battle. He comes back after a glorious victory and his retelling the battle takes us to the next cult line of this post:

Nous partîmes cinq cents, mais par un prompt renfort,

Nous nous vîmes trois mille en arrivant au port.

We were five hundred, but with swift support

Grew to three thousand as we reached the port,

Given the splendid outcome of Rodrigue’s war expedition, the king tries again to deflate Chimène’s revenge wish. While she moans in private and fears for her lover’s life, duty is still her strongest drive. She keeps on demanding revenge and comes with a new idea. The king shall find a volunteer to fight Rodrigue in her place and she will marry the winner. Don Sanche, who’s secretly in love with her makes himself known and becomes her champion. Rodrigue wins the duel and proves to be the better man and doesn’t kill Don Sanche.

Now that both Chimène and Rodrigue have done their duty toward their families, they can have their happy ending. After all, this is a tragi-comedy, not a tragedy.

So, what’s the verdict? We all loved the play, even my wary husband. It was lively with fantastic sword battles on stage, live music and comical moments. After a scene or two, we got used to the alexandrines. The director bet on the comedy side of the play. The king has a lisp and looks slightly ridiculous. Don Gomès comes out as an arrogant hothead whose misplaced pride creates a succession of fights. I believe that this version is faithful to the spirit of the text and the atmosphere of the 17th century theatres. It was wonderful and I’m happy that my children’s first encounter with Corneille’s work happened that way. My response to the form of the play was very different from the one I had at fourteen.

However, my response to the substance of the play is surprisingly consistent with my earlier experience. Blind obedience to duty seems to bring more corpses than solutions or happiness. Or, more precisely, the honour code by which Rodrigue and Chimène abide leads to death and desolation. It reminds me of Gandhi’s saying An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. As my twelve-year old son pointed out When does it stop? Lucky Chimène, Rodrigue is wise enough to stop the destructive merry-go-round they hopped on and put an end to fights and untimely deaths. I didn’t like Chimène then, I still don’t like her now. I don’t find her obstinacy to play by the rules admirable. The king gives her several outs. She never takes them and to me that’s just plain stupidity. I don’t understand her choices and actions. I found her high maintenance then, and I still find her complicated now. As my daughter bluntly puts it “This Chimène chick, she doesn’t know what she wants”. She wants an out but doesn’t dare to take it. She invents the last challenge but when she thinks Don Sanche killed Rodrigue, she says she won’t marry Don Sanche. Fickle should be her middle name. Anyway. My opinion of Chimène is not that important. She left the French language with an expression avoir les yeux de Chimène (to have Chimène’s eyes) and it’s used to designate a woman in love or something one looks at fondly or is interested in.

The most important part of the evening is that I’m reconciled with Corneille and my children don’t dread plays in alexandrines so much anymore. That’s good because my daughter has to read The Misanthropist by Molière for next week.

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