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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 10 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (1950) French title: La chasse aux canards. Translated into French from the Dutch (Belgium) by Elly Overziers et Jean Raine.

I’m terribly late with my billets and here I am in June, writing about a novel I read back in January. I am overworked and I don’t have enough time to keep up with everything but let’s be honest, as far as this billet is concerned, I was dragging my feet.

The Duck Hunt is the bleakest story I’ve read this year, it’s even worse than Caribou Island. We’re in the early 1920s in the Dutch speaking countryside of Belgium. The Metsiers live in an isolated farm. Here’s the picture: the father was killed during a duck hunt, the mother has an affair with Peter, the farm hand; Yannie, the mildly-retarded son is head over heels in love with his…sister Ana and the said daughter and sister just broke things off with another farmer, the Fat Smelders. Then Ana meets Jim Braddock, a black American soldier stationed in her village. That’s the cheery setting of The Duck Hunt.

Hugo Claus alternates short chapters, all one-person narratives. We see the events through everyone’s eyes: Peter, Ma, Ana, Yannie, Jim Braddock and even Jules, another villager. The American soldier is the only one who’s called by his full name, probably because he’s the stranger and the foreigner.

Although I admire Claus’s craft –he manages to pack a lot in a short 137 pages – I can’t say I enjoyed or even like The Duck Hunt. I have trouble liking books set in grim villages where unhealthy relationships are born from too much isolation and too much proximity. It gives an unpleasant vibe of consanguinity mixed with crass ignorance. It made me shudder and I wasn’t keen on finishing it and I’ve been procrastinating the billet ever since, reluctant to go back to this disagreeable atmosphere. It’s like The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I really disliked.

It’s obviously a good piece of literature but it’s not what I like to read. After reading this and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I bought The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald because I was in desperate need of a feel-good novel. I’ve just read it and the billet will hopefully come soon.

Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 14 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

March 18, 2017 11 comments

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy. Translation Tragedy

August 31, 2015 24 comments

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy (1922) Translated from the Hungarian into French by Ibolya Virág.

Il est nécessaire que chacun ait sa propre cigale dont les chants et les bercements lui font oublier toute sa vie. It is necessary that everyone has their own cicada whose songs and lullabies make them forget their whole life.

Krudy_NNN.N. stands for nomen nescio and is used to describe someone anonymous or undefined. It refers to Gyula Krúdy who was the natural child of an attorney descended from minor nobility and a servant. He was born in 1878 in Nyíregyháza, Hungary. His parents eventually got married, after their seventh child was born. Gyula Krúdy lived in Budapest where he was famous for being a gambler, a womanizer, a “prince of night”. He’s one of Hungary’s most famous writers. He wrote more than eighty-six novels and thousands of short stories. He contributed to the most important newspapers and reviews of his time, Nyugat included. He died in 1933. Sadly, most of his novels aren’t available in translation.

I usually don’t give biographical elements about writers, anyone can research them and they are, most of the time, not directly relevant with the book I’m writing about. It’s different here as N.N. is autobiographical. Gyula Krúdy wrote it during the winter 1919, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart. He was 41 at the time. N.N. is the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.

It’s lyrical, poetic, full of wonderful images. I’m sharing with you several quotes, I tried to translate them as best I could but honestly, my English is not good enough for Krúdy’s prose. If a native English speaker who can read French has other suggestions for the translations, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments.

On eût dit qu’une femme géante jetait sa jupe sur le monde lorsque la nuit tombait.

 

When the night came, it was as if a giant woman spread her skirt on the world.
Les jardins faisaient des rêves profonds à la manière des vieillards qui rêvent de leur jeunesse, d’étreinte amoureuse, de secrets sur lesquels les jardins des petites villes en savent long.

 

Gardens were dreaming deeply like old people who dream about their youth, love embraces or about secrets that gardens in small towns know a lot about.
Les étoiles d’été regardaient le monde avec une douce indulgence au travers des feuillages épais des chênes.

 

The summer stars looked at the world with sweet benevolence through the oaks’ thick foliage.
Sóvágó savait que des vents glacés hurlaient dans les montagnes, que les arbres restaient cruellement silencieux face aux plaintes désespérées de l’homme, que le prunier n’apprenait à parler que lorsqu’on taillait en lui une potence pour les sans-espoir.

 

Sóvágó knew that icy winds howled in the mountains, that trees remained cruelly silent faced with the desperate moans of mankind; that the plum tree only started to talk when someone used it to carve gallows for the hopeless.

It’s laced with nostalgia. It’s the spleen of a man who is not so young anymore, who has lived through a terrible war and whose country is dismembered. His old world does not exist anymore. He’s the cicada of the novel. He’s had his summer in Budapest, he’s had fun and now it’s over.

Krúdy describes the inn where he used to have a drink and listen to travelers and Tsiganes. He loved listening to their stories of their lives on the road. He remembers his grand-parents, his first love Juliska, his departure to Budapest. More than his former life, he depicts the seasons, the nature and the old habits.

He comes back to Juliska who now has a small farm and meets with the son they had together and that he had never met. He comes back to a simple peasant life and conjures up the smells, the landscape, the food and the cozy homes. His style is musical and evocative. It’s as if the dreamlike style of Klimt’s paintings were mixed with the themes of old Dutch masters.

It’s a difficult book to summarize, it needs to be experienced.

The picture on the cover of my book is a portrait of Gyula Krúdy. Given the theme of the book and the style of this portrait, it’s hard not to think about Marcel Proust here. However, even if the two writers were contemporaries, their writing styles differ. Krúdy’s style reminded me more of Alain Fournier but Krúdy is more anchored in reality.

Let’s face it, this is a terrible Translation Tragedy. (For newcomers, a Translation Tragedy is a fantastic book available in French but not translated into English. Or vice-versa) It seems like something Pushkin Press or NYRB Classics would publish, though.

A word about my copy of N.N. There are useful notes to give information about Hungarian references, from the names of writers or cities to the race of dogs. (I wish they’d do that with Japanese literature as well) The font used is named Janson, as an homage to a typeface created in the 17th century by the Transylvanian Miklós Misztótfalusi. The only flaw of this book as an object is that the pages are a bit hard to turn, and it’s a bit tiring for the hand to keep the book open.

I have read N.N. with Bénédicte from the blog Passage à l’Est. Check out her billets about Eastern Europe literature.

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

July 30, 2015 17 comments

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris (2012). French title: Pain, éducation, liberté. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

J’ai envie de monter les escaliers quatre à quatre. Mais l’immeuble a un ascenseur. Et le Grec moyen prend toujours l’ascenseur. A la réflexion, ce qui nous a démolis, c’est un ascenseur trop rapide.

I want to leap up the stairs. But the building has a lift. And the average Greek always uses the lift. On second thought, an exceedingly swift lift is what destroyed us.

Someone lent me this crime fiction novel by Petros Markaris just as the last big crisis between Greece and the EU took place.

Markaris_painBread, Education, Freedom was written in 2012 and it opens on 2013 New Year’s Eve. On January 1st, 2014, Greece will come back to the Drachma, leaving the Euro behind. Markaris describes the changes it does to people. Of course, that’s dystopian fiction and this has not happened.

Superintendant Kostas Charitos has just learnt that he won’t get any wages during the next three months. The Greek State cannot pay them anymore. Everybody is still present at the station, doing their job, though.

As the head of the crime squad in Athens, he’s called to the scene when Yerassismos Demertzis is murdered. When the police arrive on the premises, a construction site near the Olympic Games stadium, they start investigating. A phone set on the victim’s body rings and a recorded message says the slogan “Bread, education, freedom”.

This is the slogan used by the students who fought in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in November 1973. This uprising was repressed by the Regime of the Colonels but the people supported the students and it eventually led to the end of the regime.

The victim was a key figure of this movement. When a second victim appears, following the same modus operandi and also an important participant of the uprising, Charitos wonders who is trying to kill heroes from the Greek revolution.

Petros Markaris was born in 1937; he was an adult during the dictatoship of the Colonels and witnessed the birth of Greece’s new democracy in 1974. The plot of this novel is straightforward. Don’t expect sophisticated twists and turns. It’s still a fascinating read because it gives you a picture and an analysis of today’s Greece on several aspects.

First there’s a glimpse in Charitos’s private life and Markaris describes how the Greek society lives with the massive economic crisis.

And then, there’s the in-depth analysis of the reasons of the crisis. Bread, Education, Freedom is the last volume of a trilogy about the economic crisis in Greece. This one focuses on the generation who instigated the fall of the Colonels. According to Markaris, their aura is so great that they are untouchable. They trusted powerful positions in the country, becoming entrepreneurs, deans and heads of unions. They took the power and created networks of clients by granting positions and favors. Their revolutionary past is such that they cannot be criticized. Their ideology is the leading voice of the country and there’s no credible opposition, as the right wing is suspect of complicity the the old regime.

Markaris describes something close to what Khadra says about Algeria in Dead Man’s Share. The leaders of the fight against the colonizer or the dictator that ruled their country earned so much prestige in that battle that they can do whatever they want. They took advantage of their past to cash in public works contracts or influential positions in the administration or the unions. The power was confiscated by people whose competences were assessed through their record during the fight for democracy. They made a dictatorship fall to replace it by an oligarchy based on credentials during the uprising and not based on actual competences.

They got drunk on power and the country’s got a bloody hangover.

If someone who’s totally clueless about the importance of literature asks you “What’s the use of literature?”, lend them this novel. Sure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature from a stylistic point of view. It’s not innovative in that sense but it fulfills another purpose. Markaris helps you understand his country and gives you another vision of the crisis that shatters Greece than the one you hear about in the media. For some reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I’ll never read a lengthy essay about Greece’s economical collapse and the reasons why it happened. So I’m glad that writers like Markaris are up to the challenge and decide to use crime fiction to make us see the situation through different lenses.

Bread, education, freedom enlightened and entertained me. It left me a bit desperate for the Greeks and firmly decided to read the two other novels of the trilogy to learn more about the two other reasons why Greece has reached this terrible cul-de-sac. Markaris sees hope in the younger generation and believes that hard times feed creativity and will force Greek’s youth to start again on the right footing. Let’s hope so.

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