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 (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.|
N.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.
This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)
I 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 (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.
Bread, 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.
Little treatise of the privileges of a mature man and other nocturnal thoughts by Flemming Jensen (2011) Not available in English, I think. French title: Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr et autres réflexions nocturnes. (Translated from the Danish by Andreas Saint Bonnet.)
|Aveu réalisteLe quotient intellectuel global sur terre est constant.
Il n’y a que la population qui augmente
|Realistic confessionThe global intellectual quotient on earth is steady.
Only the population increases.
The narrator of Jensen’s chronicles is a mature man. His bladder doesn’t last a full night now, so he has to get up at night and he takes advantage of these nocturnal moments to think and have a little snack. Because, as he says,
|Bon sang, si on n’avait pas le droit de se faire un casse-croûte nocturne, pourquoi y aurait-il de la lumière dans le frigo ?||Damn it, if you weren’t allowed to have a nightly snack, why would there be light in the fridge?|
Snacking at night is an art. He’s on a diet so he has to be silent not to wake up his wife and be wise in what food he eats so that she doesn’t realize there isn’t as much left as should be. He explains how he sneaks out of their bedroom, lurks into the kitchen, doesn’t use the light bulbs but candles to avoid detection. The whole ritual is hilarious.
Our narrator will discuss light philosophical matters, talk about his children and grand-children, the EU, the war in Irak, religion, TV shows and all kinds of topics that go through his mind. Jensen has a great sense of humour, I laughed out loud lots of times. He’s famous in Denmark for his one-man-shows and his sketches for the TV and the radio. The reader can feel it in the way it is written. It could be a one-man-show. (For French readers, it sounds like a show by Gad Elmaleh.)
It’s full of funny passages, aphorisms, rants and hilarious suggestions.
|Sur la foi.Les gens très religieux pèchent tout autant que nous autres. Leur religion leur interdit simplement de le savourer.||About faith.Very religious people sin as much as us. Their religion forbids them to take pleasure in it, that’s all.|
It’s not the book of the century but it’s entertaining and funny. Sometimes we just need a good laugh.
We will be reading our last book from this year’s Book Club. It’s Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin. If you want to join us, I’ll post about it at the end of July and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you.
This week-end we’ve selected twelve novels for our 2015-2016 Book Club and a bonus book for July 2016. Our tour starts in August 2015 and ends in July 2016. We’ve tried to pick books from different genres, different times and different countries. This year, we have four French novels and mostly European writers. Now, what you want to see: THE LIST.
The Last Frontier by Howard Fast is published by Gallmeister, gem-finder extraordinaire. Fast relates the story of the Cheyenne Indians in the 1870s, and their bitter struggle to flee from the Indian Territory in Oklahoma back to their home in Wyoming and Montana. I expect unpleasant scenes but it seems a good and enlightening read.
After this journey to the West, we’ll be back in France to read Heureux les heureux by Yasmina Reza. I loved her play Comment vous racontez la partie and Guy enjoyed Happy Are the Happy which is a good omen for me.
Lebanese writer’s Toufic Youssef Aouad is spelled Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad and I loved his excellent Deat in Beirut. Le pain (Bread) is set in 1916 and is considered as the first “real” Lebanese novel. It has just been translated into French by Fifi Abou dib, Awwad’s grand-daughter.
I don’t need to present Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach, it’s been reviewed a few times already. I discovered him through German Lit Month and I will be reading it for this year’s German Lit Month if it is organized.
Moriarty will be another genre and I expect an easy and entertaining read. Let’s hope it will meet my expectations.
I’m happy to have Agostino by Moravia on our list. I loved Contempt. Guy’s and Jacqui’s reviews confirmed I’ll probably like Agostino. I’m also curious to see how it compares to Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day.
I’m excited to have Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Hungarian literature never let me down and I enjoyed The Pendragon Legend.
Our next book will be another journey, quite different from Szerb’s, though. N’aie pas peur si je t’enlace by Fulvio Ervas isn’t available in English, sorry. It relates the trip a father takes with his autistic son for his 18th birthday. They will travel through the USA and South-America on a Harley Davidson. It’s based on a true story.
After our little adventure in America, we’ll be back in Hungary for Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. This novel was published in 1912 and it reveals the life of women at the time in Hungary and it has a feminist ring which appeals to me.
Un beau ténébreux by Julien Gracq will be made into a play in a few months. It drew our attention to the novel. I’ve never read Gracq, I don’t know what to expect but I’m happy to try a new writer.
For July, Jacqui inspired me with Le rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant. When I read her review, I knew I wanted to read it and explore the connection I felt to Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann. I’m glad my fellow Book Club members agreed to it.
Her review of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald gave me another reading idea. It’s the bonus read for the year. As an avid reader, I have a fondness for books about bookshops.
That’s all folks.
If you’ve read some of these books or want to read them, share your thoughts in the comments. If you want to join us one month or the other, feel free. There’s no rule, just read whatever you want and post about it (or not) whenever you want. Here’s the schedule:
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (1982) Translated into French by Georges and Marion Scali. French title: Les jumeaux de Black Hill.
I’m awfully late for the billet regarding our Book Club read for January. It was On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. I only finished it this week. Sure, work and life got in the way but mostly I wasn’t motivated to finish it, something I’ll try to explain in my billet. But first things first, the plot.
On the Black Hill relates the life of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis Jones in Wales from the beginning of the 20th century to their death in their 80s. I’ve read it in French and it’s lovely. It’s undeniable. It’s well written (and well translated). Chatwin puts a lot of poetry in the description of the land, the peasants and the Jones dynamics as a family. The twins’ mother, Mary was from a higher social class than her peasant husband Amos. They fell in love, she married him against her family’s wishes and their married life was not a bed of roses. Amos was instable, sometimes violent, sometimes mystic. The twins never married (that’s not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) partly because their mother enjoyed having them around and partly because they couldn’t bear to be separated.
Chatwin doesn’t spend pages analysing Lewis or Benjamin’s feelings and vision of life. He makes us understand their personalities and their vision of life through their actions. He shows their special bond due to their twinning. Lewis would have liked a life detached from his brother. He would have wanted to get married and have a family of his own. Benjamin was happy that way and only needed his brother. I found his attitude towards his brother a bit smothering and unhealthy.
Chatwin describes a net of characters around the Jones family –mostly neighbors–and relates their life in a few pages when their path crosses the Jones’ and leave a trace in Benjamin or Lewis’s destiny. All this makes of On the Black Hill a sort of Welsh literary version of a Dutch painting by Brueghel the Elder. It’s picturesque and it shows life in the country.
Two wars appear in the background. Agriculture becomes motorized. The local gentry lose their power after WWI. And life and relationships remain in the same with mutual aid between families, quarrels with neighbors. Nothing really changes in the twins’ routine even if modern life peeks through sometimes.
Honestly, it’s a wonderful book, but just not for me. Chatwin puts a lot of affection in his words, fondness for this rural society who accepts changes but really slowly. On the Black Hill could have been set in another country, in another century and the novel could have been the same. Chatwin conveys the attachment of people to their land, their village and their limited horizon. It’s lovely but not so exciting for this reader.
Stories about rural life tends to bore me unless it’s spiced up by Hardy-esque coincidences. I recognized rural mentality all along the novel and its tendency to accept fate and things as they are without rebelling. There’s this sort of peasant stoicism and acceptance of life as it’s been dealt that irks me. (It irks me in real life too.) I don’t know how to call it. Lack of ambition for anything else than acquiring land? I want to avoid hasty generalization but I can’t put my finger on my annoyance without a bit of generalization.
Well, the book lacked rhythm but only because the twins’ life was slow and mostly uneventful and not due to any flaw of Chatwin’s as a writer. Even if I didn’t love it, it is still a great piece of literature.
I want to say something about the covers of this novel. My copy has the red cover; it’s in the collection Les Cahiers Rouges by the publisher Grasset and they have good titles in this collection. The mass-market paperbacks have ludicrous covers, both in French and in English. The French one smells like Irish misery à la Angela’s Ashes. The English one is so corny that I’m embarrassed for the publisher. Did they confuse it with children lit?