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My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 33 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

Reading Bingo 2016

November 29, 2016 17 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.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)

German_Lit

I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.

V009_Vue_de_place_San_Marco

I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part One

January 15, 2014 19 comments

Gary_LecturesAs I mentioned in my Let’s read Romain Gary billet, we’re going to wait until May for the Romain Gary Literature Month with a weekly quote from one of his books. For our first week, I picked up a quote from Adieu Gary Cooper that makes me laugh. Lenny is the hero of the book, he’s an American ski bum who skies his butt out to forget about himself and his American origin. He stays in the Swiss Alps with other pathological skiers and he has funny ways with the language. When you read Adieu Gary Cooper, you can see that this one and La vie devant soi have been written by the same author. But back to Lenny. We’re in the 1960s, so they experience drugs:

L.S.D., un sale truc, Lenny s’était embarqué la-dedans une fois, mais tout ce qu’il avait vu, c’était la même chose, seulement en technicolor, et le seul moment différent fut lorsque sa verge s’était détachée de lui, avait mis son anorak et pris ses skis, et il s’était mis à hurler et à courir pour les rattraper, il tenait à ses skis comme à la prunelle de ses yeux. Se faire voler comme ça par l’un des siens…On ne peut vraiment plus compter sur personne. L.S.D., nasty stuff. Lenny had tried once but the only thing he had seen had been the same as usual, only in Technicolor. The only different moment was when his penis had detached itself from him, put on his anorak and taken his skis. He had started to yell and run after them, he wouldn’t give his skis for the world. To be robbed like this by your family…Really, no one could be trusted. (my tentative translation)

The English version of Adieu Gary Cooper is entitled The Ski Bum. I’ve read both books and I’m afraid that the English version is a bit toned down compared to the French. It’s definitely not a translation as the passage I translated earlier is not in The Ski Bum. So, here is now a quote from The Ski Bum.

Albert Camus, prophet of the absurd getting killed in an absurd automobile crash, which proves he was wrong and that there is some inner logic in life.

See you next week!

Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 28 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Too Irishy for its own good

March 28, 2013 28 comments

Foster by Claire Keegan 2010. French title : Les trois lumières.

I bought this book on a whim, in French, something I tried to avoid when it’s Anglophone literature but sometimes I’m just too lazy to read in English.

Keegan_3_lumièresFoster is a very short book (around 80 pages) and is narrated by a child. It’s hard to say when it is set, probably before the 1970s. Her father drives her to a foreign house to spend the summer with relatives she’s never seen. The girl arrives at the house, is quickly left behind by her thoughtless father. We soon understand that her mother is pregnant again, that she’s too tired with her pregnancy, the girl’s siblings and trying to make ends meet to take care of this quiet little girl. Her father seems to be lazy, spending more time gambling than working, leaving all the farm work to his wife. This little girl arrives in a childless household and is welcomed by kind and caring foster parents. They are quite silent, willing to take care of her and she progressively adapts to her new surroundings.

Foster is a lovely book, delicate in its way of unravelling dramas and describing the bond this little girl creates with this couple. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside near the ocean. It’s lovely but a bit too smooth and not exactly predictable, but a bit clichéd and déjà vu. How can I explain this. First the style is too polished and even if it’s good and flowing it’s not that creative. I imagine that the translation (Belgian or Swiss, probably, I spotted a septante instead of soixante-dix, somewhere) is faithful and reflects Claire Keegan’s style.

Second, it reminded me of a comment Caroline left when I wrote about True Believers by Joseph O’Connor. She wrote “I think he writes well but some people would argue that they hate exactly this poor people’e tales because it sounds so Irish cliché.”  I didn’t think this applied to O’Connor’s short stories but perhaps it does to Foster. Just read the first paragraph:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.

So we have a tired and respectful mother married to a useless man who spends the family’s money gambling, lets his pregnant wife organize farm work and housework and can’t even keep his hands off her to avoid another pregnancy since contraception isn’t an option. They live on the edge of poverty, the father doesn’t do anything at home and the mother is too overwhelmed with everything to take care of her children the way they deserve. The other couple has also lived through a traumatic experience.

I think this is too much: too much misery in a book kills compassion. I have the same feeling as when I read Hidden Lives by Sylvie Germain. The story has been seen before in a way, and well, it’s a nice read but I don’t think it’ll stay with me. If I were Irish, I’d be a bit irritated that it fosters the expected clichés about Ireland. I preferred Joseph O’Connor; his characters sounded real.

This book has glowing reviews like here or here at Delphine’s Books and More; or with reservations like here at Savidge Reads

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