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Embers by Sándor Márai

May 25, 2015 15 comments

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942) French title: Les braises. Translated by Marcelle et Georges Régnier.

Marai_braisesEmbers is set in 1941 in an odd aristocratic castle in Hungary. Henri is 75, a widower and a former general from the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife died years ago and he lives a solitary life. He’s retreated in a small part of the castle and lives among his servants. One night, a messenger comes with a letter, informing him that Conrad is back. Henri sends a car to fetch him and while he waits for him, he reminisces their childhood, their youth, their friendship in the military academy in Vienna.

They haven’t seen each other in 41 years. Conrad left and we soon understand that they parted abruptly and that Henri has been waiting for this reunion for all his life. He survived everything to be there and alive for this confrontation. We will witness their exchange and see the two men’s story unravel in front of us. I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. I will only say that their talk involves the general’s wife Christine and a love triangle.

Márai explores several paths in this beautiful novel. Through the general’s eyes, we see a lost world, the one he grew up in and saw crumble after the Great War. His father was in the military too and his mother was French. They met in France and lived in Hungary after they got married. We gather that their marriage was complicated as they had opposite personalities. The general’s father was rather stern and closed-off, a soldier to the core while his mother was more open and artistic. It sounds simplistic but that’s the way Márai presents it, even saying that being French led her to be more eager to talk about her feelings. (I still haven’t understood that statement.)

Their son Henri enjoyed is career path. He didn’t have trouble adapting to military academy and had the wealth and charisma to play the role expected from him. He did it effortlessly …because Conrad was by his side. Young Henri needs affection to be healthy and happy. Somehow, Márai makes it sound like an oddity, a weakness while our modern world finds it obvious.

Conrad and Henri met when they were ten. Conrad comes from an impoverished family from Poland (His mother was a relative of Chopin’s) and his parents sacrificed everything to pay for his education. Contrary to Henri, he had a hard time feeling comfortable in military clothes. He’s musical, he has an artistic temper and wearing a uniform is like wearing a costume for him.

He and Henri were close, though. Conrad spent his holidays at the castle and Henri’s family took him under their wing. Conrad and Henri’s mother got along very well as they both loved music. They were are carried away by Chopin’s music while Henri and his father didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. That’s the symbol of the rift between the characters.

The novel could be a theatre play, a tragedy by Racine or Corneille. It’s set in one place with two characters and Henri’s old nanny. Most of the book is a dialogue between Conrad and Henri. Henri is the one doing most of the talking, letting out the result of 41 years of ruminations. He discourses on friendship, memories, revenge and what men learn when they get old. There’s something disturbing about the way Márai describes passion and duty.

Although I loved the book and the description of passionate feelings, I remained aloof, a spectator. I wanted to find out what had happened, I wasn’t bored at all and I found the discussion between the two men very interesting. The novel is full of thoughts about friendship, love, honour, betrayal, ageing and human experience. Although part of these thoughts touched me, the story didn’t engage me emotionally. Sometimes when you read a book, you come across thoughts and feelings that are yours. It can be a relief to find a writer who put words on inner thoughts you’re not able to express and to find out that these confused or semi-formed thoughts are only human. When I read about great passions that lead to dramatic gestures or behaviours, I don’t feel like I’m sharing human experience. I need a bit of suspension of belief to enter the story because if I let my brain take over, I’ll just roll my eyes and think “Really, how is that plausible?” I need it to read Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet. That’s why I have a hard time enjoying Phèdre by Racine or Le Cid by Corneille. I can’t relate to these extreme reactions and grand and long-lasting passions; I remain a spectator.

The same thing happened here. Henri’s course of action sounds improbable to me, especially since it lasted 41 years. I understand burning passion leading to murder in the heat of the moment. But to put one’s life on hold to maintain embers of old feelings and resentment during 41 years and only live to meet Conrad again and hear the truth? I don’t believe in such a steady consuming passion. Perhaps I’m far too practical for that.

In parallel to the personal story between Henri and Conrad, Márai uses his two characters to show the end of an era, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its values. Henri is stuck in his ways. His life didn’t unfold as expected but he never adapted his goals to the new situation. Perhaps it’s a vision from the 21st century, of someone living in an ever changing world where constant adaptation is crucial. Perhaps Márai wanted to emphasise Henri’s shortcomings to picture why this empire declined.

On another note, I noticed that some details don’t add up in the novel. Henri’s nanny is 91 when the novel starts and she’s been with him since he was born and she was 16 then. (Chapter 2) So Henri is 75 but later Conrad says they’re 73 (Chapter 10). Anyway, they were born around 1866. In the first part of the novel, Márai describes how Henri’s parents met and he says they attended a party thrown by the king of France. (Chapter 3) There hasn’t been a king in France since 1848. Somehow I don’t believe that twenty years happened between their meeting and Henri’s birth. I assumed that the said king is actually Napoléon III. I’d be happy to know how this passage in the Chapter 3 is translated into English: do they see the king of France or the Emperor? I wonder if it’s a slip from the translator or if it was in the original text.

Reading my billet again, it’s not as enthusiastic as it should be. Embers is an incredible novel. It’s rather short and still packs a lot of thoughts; the story is gripping and the style is wonderful. Márai was talented, that’s certain. If someone has read it and remembers it enough to discuss it, I’m ready to exchange in the comments, spoilers included.

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 23 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

My #TBR20 or ma PAL20

May 12, 2015 35 comments

In French, a TBR is a PAL, une Pile A Lire.

Like most book lovers, my PAL is high. Too high. I keep thinking I should read the books I own before buying any others. The truth is my PAL is a comfort friend. I love to have shelves of unread books at home, just for the pleasure of browsing through them and having the choice to pick a book that suits my mood. So I buy books on impulse, sure that even if I don’t have time to read them right now, they’ll sit on the shelf and be a comforting possibility. This habit is ingrained and totally unnecessary at the era of e-readers. After all, I can download any book I want to read, provided it is available in an e-version.

I’ve seen the hashtag #TBR20 and followed Jacqui’s journey through part of her TBR. I thought the idea was intriguing and that I ought do it too. I was sitting on the fence until Max’s post here convinced me to participate. I’ve tried book buying bans and self-control and now I’m trying the TBR-watcher approach. I don’t know in which order I’ll read them and it will probably take me four to five months to finish them, but, voilà, here are the happy books nominated to my first #TBR20 experiment:

 TBR_1

TBR_2

TBR20_3Sometimes it’s not easy to read the covers, so here are the titles:

  1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.
  2. L’outlaw by Georges Simenon
  3. Lune captive dans un œil mort by Pascal Garnier (Moon in a Dead Eye)
  4. Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl
  5. U.V. by Serge Joncour
  6. Etoile errante by J.M.G. Le Clézio (Wandering Star)
  7. Heureux les heureux by Yasmina Reza (Happy are the Happy)
  8. Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr by Flemming Jensen
  9. N. by Gyula Krúdy
  10. Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien
  11. Le chagrin entre les fils by Tony Hillerman (The Shape Shifter)
  12. I married a communist by Philip Roth
  13. Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes
  14. Fugitives by Alice Munro (Runaway)
  15. Vienna tales (Various authors)
  16. This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle
  17. The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
  18. Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski
  19. Still Life by Louise Penny
  20. Etre sans destin by Imre Kertesz (Fateless)

Since I’ve finished The Sisters Brothers since I drafted the list, I’ll add Continental Drift by Russell Banks. It’s been sitting on the shelf for ages…

So let’s see how well I do this time. Please let me know if you’ve read some of these books or if you’re interested in reading one along with me.

 

One doesn’t trifle with crime fiction

May 10, 2015 15 comments

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares (1946) French title: Ceux qui aiment, haïssent (translated from the Spanish by André Gabastou)

Preamble: It’s an Argentinean novel but it’s so impregnated with British crime fiction literature that it calls for British spelling. So, American readers, humour written like this is not a typo.

Ocampo_aimeWritten in 1946, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is the first mystery novel in Argentinean literatue. It is written according to the genre of murder parties, Agatha Christie like.

Our narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, retelling the story after the events and coming back to his home sweet home. When the book opens, he’s going to stay at the Hotel Central at the sea resort Bosque del Mar. The hotel is run by his relatives and he’s headed there to kill two birds with one stone: he will visit with his family and write the scenario a film maker has ordered. Contrary to what you’d think, Dr Humberto Huberman is neither a writer nor a doctor in literature but a physician. Writing is his hobby.

After settling in his room at the hotel, he goes to the beach for a walk and overhears a conversation between a party of four. Two sisters, Mary and Emilia are accompanied by a Dr Cornejo and Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel. Mary wants to go swimming and her sister says it’s too dangerous while Dr Cornejo considers that it’s fine. Mary goes and shortly after, she appears to be in distress and Emilia rescues her while the men are still on the beach, fighting for a bathing suit before doing anything. So there are tensions among that group.

During the night, Mary goes missing and is found dead. The police arrive on the premises and soon a terrible storm locks everyone up in the hotel.

Follows an artfully written whodunit which reminded me of the film L’heure zéro by Pascal Thomas. It’s the adaptation Agatha Christie’s novel, Towards Zero. The aim of the authors was to write a mystery novel according to the codes of the genre and it’s wonderfully done. I have read a lot of books by Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and I found the usual scenes and topics of this kind of literature. You have everything: a bystander as a narrator who will play amateur sleuth, a closed-doors situation, several people who could have wished Mary’s death, a sea resort, ridiculous policemen who are in dire need of pointers to lead the investigation, a storm to add danger and isolation, a strange child with a mysterious past, unrequited love, tea-time in the purest English fashion, a character who’s passionate about railways timetables, a scene where everyone’s reunited in the salon to discover who’s guilty and a mirror effect as the victim’s profession was to translate British crime fiction novels into Spanish. It is told in a rather playful tone from someone who’s telling a good story. It’s full of humour and marvellous observations.

And yet, it didn’t work for me.

All the ingredients are there and I wasn’t taken by it. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate never really caught my attention and I didn’t care to know who had killed Mary. I remained aloof and I kept forgetting who was who. It took me a while to finish it when I should have read it in one or two sittings. If the aim of the experience was to write a brilliant pastiche of a mystery novel then it’s achieved. If it was more than an Exercice de Style then for me, the job wasn’t done. I had the same experience with The Yiddish Policeman Union by Michael Chabon. It sounded fake.

Jacqui has a totally different opinion on this one and her review is well worth reading here.

PS : Don’t ask me why the French edition has such a cover. I don’t see that it has anything to do with the book.

 

The eyes of the dead

May 9, 2015 14 comments

Les yeux des morts by Elsa Marpeau (2010) The eyes of the dead. Not translated into English

 

Le sommeil ne vient jamais parce qu’il faut que Gabriel révèle la vérité, celle qui se dissimule derrière la fureur, la poudre et le sang. Les facultés sont parfois freinées par le manteau clinquant de la violence. Le rôle du technicien consiste à déshabiller la scène pour ne laisser plus que quelques lignes de peau nue. Celles que le criminel a laissées en posant son doigt sur le monde. Sleep never comes because Gabriel must unravel the truth, the one hidden behind fury, powder and blood. Faculties may be hindered by violence’s flashy cloak. The role of the technician consists in undressing the scene to leave only a few lines of naked skin. The lines the criminal left behind when he put his finger on the world.

 

Marpeau_mortI bought Elsa Marpeau’s book at Quai du Polar where she also participated to an interesting conference about violence done women and crime fiction. Her last book is about women who got their head shaved for fraternizing with the enemy after the Liberation in 1944/1945. You know me, first I groaned inwardly (“Not again. Another book about WWII in France”) but she made a fascinating point about how women’s bodies are always something to conquer in a war. She explained that, from a feminist point of view, this part of history picked her interest. She was convincing, I’d say and I’m ready to look at her last novel when it gets published in paperback.

Anyway, back to Les yeux des morts. It’s not available in English, sorry. It won the Prix Nouvel Obs-BibliObs of roman noir in 2011, so it might get translated.

We’re in Paris. Gabriel Ilinski works for the police as a crime scene investigation expert. He’s called with his colleagues to a crime scene in a building in near the Gare du Nord. An adolescent was killed; he was obviously a junkie and even if the police do their best, the case is soon filed. Gabriel can’t give up. He noticed that the young man had been at the ER at the Hôpital Lariboisière just before being killed. He smells something fishy there and starts hanging out at the ER. (The Hôpital Lariboisière is one of the most famous hospitals in Paris. It’s located in the 10th arrondissement and is well-known for its emergency services.) Gabriel is fascinated by the ER, it’s almost as if he fell under the spell of the place. The smells, the urgency, the fauna who pass through the doors, the homeless, the doctors and nurses who work there. Gabriel is also attracted to the doctor Louise Delaunay who runs the place.

Gabriel can’t let go and even after his boss Nadja has abandoned the case, he decides to keep working on it. Is there a best way to investigate the workings of the ER than to be admitted as a patient? That’s what Gabriel decides to do…

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot.

Being in Gabriel’s head is not like being in a classic PI or police officer’s head. His obsessive tendencies make you doubt his sanity. He’s a strange man obsessed with the cases he works on. He’s a solitary man. He’s not married, doesn’t have a steady girlfriend and his social life seems limited to his friendship with his boss and former lover Nadja. His home is full of pictures from the crime scenes. What’s his real motivation behind digging out the truth? He has obviously not reached the level of detachment needed to keep your sanity in that line of work. He’s always confronted to violence and his not impermeable to it.

Elsa Marpeau wrote a very unusual crime fiction novel. The setting, the characters, the plot are unusual and utterly plausible. I couldn’t put it down. She writes very well with precise images and there’s a sense of urgency coming out of the pages that suits the ER well. I felt I was in the hospital with Gabriel, I could imagine the place and I think the writer spend some time there to feel the atmosphere.

I hope it gets translated soon.

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

May 3, 2015 23 comments

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes

April 29, 2015 10 comments

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes. (2002). Not available in English (unfortunately)

Despentes_teen_spiritThis is my second Despentes after Apocalypse Bébé. (available in English, this one) and before Vernon Subutex, her latest opus which is sitting on my shelf.

Bruno is thirty, living with his girlfriend and doing nothing. He’s unable to leave the apartment, out of agoraphobia. He watches TV, smokes pot, hopes to write something one of these days. One day, Alice, his former girlfriend from high school barges into his life and tells him she was pregnant when she left him. So Bruno has a daughter, Nancy, who’s thirteen. Nancy has always lived with her mother, thinking her father was dead and when she discovered by chance that he was actually alive, she wanted to meet him. And she made her mother’s life a living hell, so Alice caved. Bruno is rather shocked by the news but is willing enough to meet his daughter. Nancy enters his life and their budding relationship will help them both.

This sound like a nice little novel with hearts and flowers, you could almost smell roses from the loveliness of the description. Except you’re in a book by Virginie Despentes. So it doesn’t smell like roses but it Smells Like Teen Spirit. Virginie Despentes loves rock music and it permeates through her literature.

Bruno is the narrator of the story and he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. He’s depressed because he doesn’t want to grow up. He has to give up some of his dreams, leave behind his self with the rock attitude to adjust to the world of adults. He’s still grieving the loss of his illusions but he needs to turn the page and move on. Before Alice and Nancy, he was hiding away. Alice made him go out of the apartment to meet her, he couldn’t tell her about his phobia, so he pushed himself. She was the catalyst he needed. Her difficulty to raise Nancy leaves some space for him in Nancy’s life; she wanted to get to know him and Alice welcomes any help she can have with her daughter.

Virginie Despentes captured very well the hesitation of adolescence, like here, in her description of Nancy:

Deux versions d’elle-même se disputaient dans un seul corps. Entre la montre Kitty et le bracelet clouté, elle n’avait pas encore choisi son camp. Two versions of herself were fighting in one body. Between the Kitty watch and the studded leather bracelet, she hadn’t picked her side yet.

Sometimes, Nancy sounds like she’s the adult. Between Bruno whose paternity make him accept to cross the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and Alice who struggles to keep sane, she seems the most grounded of the three.

Despentes also captured well the emotions brewing in Bruno. When I wrote about Apocalyse Bébé, I compared Virginie Despentes to Michel Houellebecq, saying why I thought she captured our world better than him. When I read Teen Spirit, I wondered it was a response to Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. Indeed, in this novel written by Houellebecq in 1998 one of the main characters is also named Bruno. He’s as much as a loser as this Bruno and also someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Bruno by Despentes is less self-centered than Bruno by Houellebecq. He doesn’t know how to be a father and as he’s not totally an adult, he manages to communicate with Nancy, with slight touches, with hesitation and feeling his way along. The book was written in 2002, Bruno is 30, so he was born in 1972. Houellebecq’s Bruno belongs to the babyboom generation, like his creator. Despentes’ Bruno belongs to the Generation X. In my opinion, this is the first generation of men fully involved in raising children along women. (at least in France) This is the generation of men who change diapers, don’t think that a stroller cramps their style and get up at night when kids are sick. It makes sense that our Bruno in Teen Spirit doesn’t reject Nancy and makes effort to get to know her. This Bruno has accepted this society made of unemployment, consumerism and lives with it, even if he doesn’t approve of it.

Despentes seems to have more faith in individuals than Houellebecq even if both writers share a dark vision of our society. Alice comes from a wealthy family and Bruno is poor. Spending time with her father, Nancy goes out of her protective shell. She discovers Paris on foot and Bruno shares his concerns about money. I heard Virginie Despentes talk about her work. She said she wants her book to show how violent our society is. She doesn’t mean “violent” in a sense of riots and physical threats. She points out the violence of a society with high unemployment, sometimes pressure in the work place and too much interest in consuming.

I liked Teen Spirit a lot. It’s fairly optimistic and I’m not sure it reflects Virginie Despentes’ other books. I enjoy her punchy style, her take on the French society, her insolence, her rejection of political correctness. She rocks!

Find another short review by Marina Sofia, here

 

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