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2017 in books: highlights of my reading year.

January 2, 2018 31 comments

Let’s face it, the TBR is still out of control. I read 56 books in 2017, half of them came from my TBR, the rest were new acquisitions. Oh well, they’ll keep, all these books, right?

My Reading Bingo billet already gave you a vision of my reading year through my bingo card. This is a more personal list of categories to highlight part of my 2017 literary journey.

The book I’d love to find a translator for.

Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte. This crime fiction book resonates with the sultry notes of a jazz club in a black and white movie and dives into the horrors of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. A tribute to jazz, to classic noir novels and films and a sobering reminder of that war.

The book that may change your vision of the emigrants that run aground on the coasts of Sicily.

In Eldorado, Laurent Gaudé shows us two sides of the problem. Through the eyes of an Italian naval officer, we see the weight of rescuing so many people and finding so many bodies. Through the eyes of an immigrant, we see what they’re ready to live through to get to Europe. A very moving book that puts this delicate question at human’s height

A 1930s book that reminded me of Trump’s America.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West. A rotten politician tells speeches whose rhetoric sounds like Trump. Chilling.

A book that will show you another side of Paris.

In Black Bazaar, Alain Mabanckou takes the reader in the black communities in Paris. His vivid descriptions of the 19th arrondissement in Paris will walk you away from the museum Paris that tourists see first.

The book that blurs the lines between literary fiction and crime fiction.

Elle by Philippe Djian. I’m a huge Djian fan and he gets better as years go by. Elle is one of his bests with Michèle as a venomous femme fatale.

Bleak but brilliant.

Caribou Island by David Vann. I wasn’t initially attracted to Vann’s books because they seemed too bleak for me. But after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m so glad I got over my reservations. Alaska is not a place you want to visit after reading Caribou Island, though. The cover of the French edition is stunning as it pictures perfectly the relationship of the older married couple.

Books with unexpected modernity.

I never expected the feminist streak of The Dark Room by RK Narayan and Doctor Glas by Söderberg raises questions about the right to conjugal duty, euthanasia and birth control that I never suspected in a book published in 1905. Both books are novellas and their writers managed to say a lot in a few pages.

Journey into the past.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret. Proust’s last housekeeper relates her memories of her years at his service. It pictures an outmoded world that died with WWI. She was too fond of him to be objective in her stories but she doesn’t hide his flaws. What a pain he must have been. A fascinating one, certainly, but still a pain with his upside-down way-of-life.

Most crazy book in its plot and characters.

Aller simple by Carlos Salem. Sadly, it’s not available in English. It’s a crazy road trip through Marocco and Spain with a poor fellow who’s afraid to be charged for the murder of his wife and the ghost or reincarnation of the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel.

Best blind date with a book.

Dominique Sylvain was present at Quais du Polar. When I discovered that she comes from my region and that The Dark Angel opens with a quote by Romain Gary, I had to read it. Billet to come where you’ll encounter a great duo of female investigators.

Best Sugar Without Cellulite Book

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. I finished it on December 31st and I will write the billet in a couple of weeks. It reminded me of The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy. It’s one of those 19th century books about love and marriage with incredible twists and turns.

Worst reading experience of the year.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Truly awful, a crime to fiction, to quote my billet.

The billet you liked the most.

Last year, your favorite billet had been Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s. This year, it is Book recommendations needed: Australian literature. It was inspiring, I received recommendations for 80 different books.

The billet you missed.

Not a lot of comments or likes for Letters from England by Karel Čapek and I find it unfair. It’s a short book about his travels in Great-Britain. It’s delightful and witty.

A book for the Romain Gary aficionado that I am.

In Un certain M. Pielkieny, François-Henri Désérade writes an autofiction book about looking for M. Piekielny, a person mentioned in Gary’s autobiographical book, Promise at Dawn. Billet to come. I loved it.

 

 

2017 has been a good reading year, but not an excellent one. I didn’t read any Thomas Hardy, and I still want to read all of his books. My work life has been quick paced and it drained part of my energy. I turned to easy books and tried to read in French as much as possible. It took me a month to read the 750 pages of Bánffy’s They Were Counted. I hope I’ll be able to read more engaging books in 2018. As mentioned in my Happy New Year billet, I will read at least one Australian book per month among my selection and my Book Club reads. (The list is here, if you’re curious about it)

If you published your Best of 2017 already, links in the comments are welcome. And of course, I’m curious: what are your reading plans for 2018?

Saturday literary delights, squeals and other news

October 28, 2017 24 comments

For the last two months, I’ve been buried at work and busy with life. My literary life suffered from it, my TBW has five books, I have a stack of unread Télérama at home, my inbox overflows with unread blog entries from fellow book bloggers and I have just started to read books from Australia. Now that I have a blissful six-days break, I have a bit of time to share with you a few literary tidbits that made me squeal like a school girl, the few literary things I managed to salvage and how bookish things came to me as if the universe was offering some kind of compensation.

I had the pleasure to meet again with fellow book blogger Tom and  his wife. Tom writes at Wuthering Expectations, renamed Les Expectations de Hurlevent since he left the US to spend a whole year in Lyon, France. If you want to follow his adventures in Europe and in France in particular, check out his blog here. We had a lovely evening.

I also went to Paris on a business trip and by chance ended up in a hotel made for a literature/theatre lovers. See the lobby of the hotel…

My room was meant for me, theatre-themed bedroom and book-themed bathroom

*Squeal!* My colleagues couldn’t believe how giddy I was.

Literature also came to me unexpectedly thanks to the Swiss publisher LaBaconnière. A couple of weeks ago, I came home on a Friday night after a week at top speed at work. I was exhausted, eager to unwind and put my mind off work. LaBaconnière must have guessed it because I had the pleasure to find Lettres d’Anglererre by Karel Čapek in my mail box. What a good way to start my weekend. *Squeal!* It was sent to me in hope of a review but without openly requesting it. Polite and spot on since I was drawn to this book immediately. LaBaconnière promotes Central European literature through their Ibolya Virág Collection. Ibolya Virág is a translator from the Hungarian into French and LaBaconnière has also published the excellent Sindbad ou la nostalgie by Gyula Krúdy, a book I reviewed both in French and in English. Last week, I started to read Lettres d’Angleterre and browsed through the last pages of the book, where you always find the list of other titles belonging to the same collection. And what did I find under Sindbad ou la nostalgie? A quote from my billet! *Squeal!* Now I’ve never had any idea of becoming a writer of any kind but I have to confess that it did something to me to see my words printed on a book, be it two lines on the excerpt of a catalogue. Lettres d’Angleterre was a delight, billet to come.

Now that I’m off work, I started to read all the Téléramas I had left behind. The first one I picked included three articles about writers I love. *Squeal!* There was one about visiting Los Angeles and especially Bunker Hill, the neighborhood where John Fante stayed when he moved to Los Angeles. I love John Fante, his sense of humor, his description of Los Angeles and I’m glad Bukowski saved him from the well of oblivion. It made me want to hop on a plane for a literary escapade in LA. A few pages later, I stumbled upon an article about James Baldwin whose novels are republished in French. Giovanni’s Room comes out again with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou and there’s a new edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two books I want to read. And last but not least, Philip Roth is now published in the prestigious La Pléiade  edition. This collection was initially meant for French writers but has been extended to translated books as well. I don’t know if Roth is aware of this edition but for France, this is an honor as big as winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which Roth totally deserves, in my opinion.

Romain Gary isn’t published in La Pléiade (yet) but he’s still a huge writer in France, something totally unknown to most foreign readers. See this display table in a bookstore in Lyon.

His novel La Promesse de l’aube has been made into a film that will be on screens on December 20th. It is directed by Eric Barbier and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Nina, Gary’s mother and Pierre Niney is Romain Gary. I hope it’s a good adaptation of Gary’s biographical novel.

Romain Gary was a character that could have come out of a novelist’s mind. His way of reinventing himself and his past fascinates readers and writers. In 2017, at least two books are about Romain Gary’s childhood. In Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, Laurent Seksik explores Gary’s propension to create a father that he never knew. I haven’t read it yet but it is high on my TBR.

The second book was brought in the flow of books arriving for the Rentrée Littéraire. I didn’t have time this year to pay attention to the books that were published for the Rentrée Littéraire. I just heard an interview of François-Henri Désérable who wrote Un certain M. Piekielny, a book shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. And it’s an investigation linked to Gary’s childhood in Vilnius. *Squeal!* Stranded in Vilnius, Désérable walked around the city and went in the street where Gary used to live between 1917 and 1923. (He was born in 1914) In La promesse de l’aube, Gary wrote that his neighbor once told him:

Quand tu rencontreras de grands personnages, des hommes importants, promets-moi de leur dire: au n°16 de la rue Grande-Pohulanka, à Wilno, habitait M. Piekielny. When you meet with great people, with important people, promise me to tell them : at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka street in Wilno used to live Mr Piekielny.

Gary wrote that he kept his promise. Désérable decided to research M. Piekielny, spent more time in Vilnius. His book relates his experience and his research, bringing back to life the Jewish neighborhood of the city. 60000 Jews used to live in Vilnius, a city that counted 106 synagogues. A century later, decimated by the Nazis, there are only 1200 Jews and one synagogue in Vilnius. Of course, despite the height of my TBR, I had to get that book. I plan on reading it soon, I’m very intrigued by it.

Despite all the work and stuff, I managed to read the books selected for our Book Club. The October one is Monsieur Proust by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret. (That’s on the TBW) She talks about Proust, his publishers and the publishing of his books. When Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, Proust had five luxury copies made for his friends. The copy dedicated to Alexandra de Rotschild was stolen during WWII and is either lost or well hidden. The fifth copy dedicated to Louis Brun will be auctioned on October 30th. When the first copy dedicated to Lucien Daudet was auctioned in 2013, it went for 600 000 euros. Who knows for how much this one will be sold? Not *Squeal!* but *Swoon*, because, well, it’s Proust and squeals don’t go well with Proust.

Although Gary’s books are mostly not available in English, I was very happy to discover that French is the second most translated language after English. Yay to the Francophonie! According to the article, French language books benefit from two cultural landmarks: the Centre National du Livre and the network of the Instituts français. Both institutions help financing translations and promoting books abroad. I have often seen the mention that the book I was reading had been translated with the help of the Centre National du Livre.

I mentioned earlier that the hotel I stayed in was made for me because of the literary and theatre setting. I still have my subscription at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon and I’ve seen two very good plays. I wanted to write a billet about them but lacked the time to do so.

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The first one is Rabbit Hole by Bostonian author David Lindsay-Abaire. The French version was directed by Claudia Stavisky. The main roles of Becky and Howard were played by Julie Gayet and Patrick Catalifo. It is a sad but beautiful play about grieving the death of a child. Danny died in a stupid car accident and his parents try to survive the loss. With a missing member, the family is thrown off balance and like an amputated body, it suffers from phantom pain. With delicate words and spot-on scenes, David Lindsay-Abaire shows us a family who tries to cope with a devastating loss that shattered their lived. If you have the chance to watch this play, go for it. *Delight* On the gossip column side of things, the rumor says that François Hollande was in the theatre when I went to see the play. (Julie Gayet was his girlfriend when he was in office)

Illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann

The second play is a lot lighter but equally good. It is Ça va? by Jean-Claude Grumberg. In French, Ça va? is the everyday greeting and unless you genuinely care about the person, it’s told off-handedly and the expected answer is Yes. Apparently, this expression comes from the Renaissance and started to be used with the generalization of medicine based upon the inspection of bowel movements. (See The Imaginary Invalid by Molière) So “Comment allez-vous à la selle” (“How have your bowel movements been?”) got shortened into Ça va? Very down-to-earth. But my dear English-speaking natives, don’t laugh out loud too quickly, I hear that How do you do might have the same origin…Back to the play.

In this play directed by Daniel Benoin, Grumberg imagines a succession of playlets that start with two people meeting up and striking a conversation with the usual Ça va? Of course, a lot of them end up with dialogues of the deaf, absurd scenes, fights and other hilarious moments. Sometimes it’s basic comedy, sometimes we laugh hollowly but in all cases, the style is a perfect play with the French language. A trio of fantastic actors, François Marthouret, Pierre Cassignard and Éric Prat interpreted this gallery of characters. *Delight* If this play comes around, rush for it.

To conclude this collage of my literary-theatre moments of the last two months, I’ll mention an interview of the historian Emmanuelle Loyer about a research project Europa, notre histoire directed by Etienne François and Thomas Serrier. They researched what Europe is made of. Apparently, cafés are a major component of European culture. Places to sit down and meet friends, cultural places where books were written and ideas exchanged. In a lot of European cities, there are indeed literary cafés where writers had settled and wrote articles and books. New York Café in Budapest. Café de Flore in Paris. Café Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon. Café Central in Vienna. Café Slavia in Prague. Café Giubbe Rosse in Florence. (My cheeky mind whispers to me that the pub culture is different and might have something to do with Brexit…) It’s a lovely thought that cafés are a European trademark, that we share a love for places that mean conviviality. That’s where I started to write this billet, which is much longer than planned. I’ll leave you with two pictures from chain cafés at the Lyon mall. One proposes to drop and/or take books and the other has a bookish décor.

Literature and cafés still go together and long life to the literary café culture!

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

The Dance of the Seagull by A. Camilleri. Thoughts about the unusual French translation

May 1, 2016 27 comments

The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.

Camilleri_mouetteI went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.

In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.

It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.

The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.

For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.

Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.

Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.

Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.

The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.

Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.

Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.

But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.

The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.

The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.

In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.

For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.

I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.

Sicile

 

Quais du Polar #6: Translation contest

April 2, 2016 7 comments

Quais_polar_logoI’ll write a post about my days at Quais du Polar once the festival is over. Meanwhile, I want to share with you the fantastic session I went to this afternoon. It was a translation contest organized by the ATLF, the association of French literary translators. There were a lot of people waiting to enter the conference room. More than what the translators expected. The rules of the translation contest are simple: two translators translate the same text by Craig Johnson and confront their translations in his presence. Here we had Sophie Aslanides, Johnson’s “official” translator and Charles Recoursé, an outsider. The translation contest is a way to put forward the inevitable subjectivity of a translation.

Craig Johnson’s novels are successful in France. He made a short introduction to the session, reminding the public that a good translation matters and that a bad translation makes a bad book. He can’t judge the quality of the French translation by himself since he doesn’t speak French but he assumes it is good. Why? Because the French critics of the book reported that the book was full of humor. He said that if Sophie Aslanides managed to give back the humor, then the rest can’t be bad.

He mentioned that his translator knows the US well and it shows in her work. He also reported that working on the translation with her –mainly by answering her questions—made him realize what was difficult to translate into French, like references to football or baseball. It was interesting to hear his side of the translation story.

I’m not going to detail the discussion about differences between the translations but I want to share with you what I learnt about translating from the English to the French language.

I don’t work in the literary world so I am clueless about the workings of the author/publisher/translator triangle. So I was quite surprised by the weight of the publisher on the translation. They approve of significant translation decisions such as choosing the present tense instead of the passé simple. They will highlight (and reject) repetitions in the text even if the original used the same word several times. (Apparently the English language bears repetition better than the French). They may impose translation rules, like whether they expect proper nouns to be translated. This is how a Mrs becomes a Madame or stays a Mrs or how Mount Rushmore becomes Mont Rushmore…or not.

The session was also an opportunity to point out common difficulties in translating English into French. The most obvious one is to choose between vous and tu to translate you. Once the decision is made, the next one is “When do I move to tu between characters that started out with vous?” Charles Recoursé said he usually waits for a significant even to happen: the characters have sex, they share confidences, they bond after a fight or traumatic events. In any case, it is thought through.

Another tricky thing is the translation of gerund, like in this sentence: I continued to breathe deeply and sat there waiting for I’m not sure what. It is tempting to use the “participe present” in French and say en attendant for waiting, but it can be heavy. Sophie Aslanides explained that she tries to refrain from using the participe present form.

Two other difficulties weren’t surprising given how hard these notions are to get when you’re French and learning how to speak English. The first one would be the representation of space. It’s all these down, up, through, toward, forward words that are difficult to learn and equally difficult to translate. The second difficulty relates to the description of a someone’s position. For example, Cragi Johnson wrote I lowered myself into a three-point position which can’t be translated literally. Both translators say that in cases like this, they do the movement and wonder how to say it in French. It’s also the case when a character stands out the door, when in French we don’t have an exact equivalent to stand.

I had also noticed that the French version of an English text is always longer than the original. I learnt that it’s called “foisonnement” and that in average the French text is 15% longer than the English one.

This translation contest also showed that having a recurring translator is an asset, that translating a few pages out of the blue is not easy. Some of Sophie Aslanides’s choices were due to her familiarity with Craig Johnson’s novels. She knows the characters, the atmosphere of the books, she has spent time in Wyoming and knows the setting of the novels. She capitalizes on her experience.

I was amazed at the details she researches. For example, she chose to translate crow into corbeau and not into corneille because contrary to corneilles, corbeaux walk and the text mentioned footprints. The excerpt was about a peyote ceremony. Sophie Aslanides explained how she checked previous translations of such ceremonies for her translation to be consistent with whatever previous notion the reader might have of a peyote ceremony. This is so thoughtful.

My enthusiasm about this translation contest probably shows in my billet. I didn’t know that the publisher had a word to say in the translation and I was truly fascinated by the information Sophie Aslanides and Charles Recoursé shared about their work and the process of translating a book. Before starting this blog, I was never concerned by the work of the translator. They were a sort of ghost writer necessary to read foreign literature. I started to wonder about it when got used to putting quotes in both languages in my billets and when I struggled to translate phrases myself when I didn’t have a professional translation on hand. Then my English improved and I could better spot poor or old-fashioned translations. This session helped me understand better the wonderful work the translators do to open us the window to other literatures and set us free to explore other cultures. Thanks guys.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

March 5, 2016 24 comments

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937) Translated by Peter Hargitai. French title: Le voyageur et le clair de lune. (Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba.)

Preamble: Although all the quotes I inserted in this billet come from the English translation by Peter Hargitai, I have read Journey by Moonlight in French. This English translation dates back to 2015 and its actual title is Traveler and the Moonlight, which is the same as in French. (Le voyageur et le clair de lune). Since Szerb’s novel is better known under Journey by Moonlight, I’ll refer to it under this title in my billet.

The practical life is a myth, a bluff, invented by idiots as a consolation for being impotent as intellectuals.

SZERB_voyageurJourney by Moonlight starts in Venice where Erzsi and Mihály have just arrived from Budapest. They’re on their honeymoon and Mihály is a bit wary. It’s his first time in Italy and we learn from the first page that he has lived in France and England, travelled a lot but avoided Italy like the plague because it was a country for grown-ups. So he thinks. And now that he’s married, he’s an adult and he should be protected against Italy’s power of attraction.

Erzsi and Mihály leave Venice for Ravenna and Mihály’s past catches up with him in the form of János Szepetneki, one of his old classmates. Suddenly, his youth resurfaces and Mihály reveals to Erzsi a whole part of his past that she’s unware of. As an adolescent, Mihály suffered from what I’ll call panic attacks. It lasted until he became friends with Tamás Ulpius, who seemed to have the power to prevent the attacks from happening. Tamás and his sister Éva are free spirits, living in a strange household. Their mother is dead, their father is very strict and their eccentric grand-father encourages their weird activities. There is no schedule in this house and Tomas and Éva do as they please. They love theatre and keep playing dramatic deaths. They have a fusional relationship. Mihály is drawn to their world. He comes from a close-knit bourgeois family. His father owns a small company and the atmosphere at home is loving but conformist. Mihály finds it smothering and he’s madly attracted to the Ulpius lifestyle. They represent freedom. But despite his efforts, Mihály doesn’t really fit in, he feels like a fraud:

“At the same time, I didn’t feel quite right about Tamás and Éva. I felt like I was betraying them. What they regarded as natural and free was for me a difficult, agonizing rebellion. I was too bourgeois. I was raised that way, as you well know. I had to take a deep breath the first time I allowed my cigarette ashes to fall to the floor. Tamás and Éva couldn’t imagine otherwise. The few times I mustered the courage to skip school with Tamás, I suffered from stomach cramps the entire day. My nature was such that I’d get up early, sleep at night, and eat lunch at lunchtime and supper at supper time. I’d prefer to eat my meals from a plate, and I’d never start with dessert. I like order, and I’m terrified of policemen. I tried to conceal from Tamás and Éva a part of me that was order-loving, conscientious and petite bourgeois. Of course they saw right through the roles I was playing, even had opinions on the subject, but were polite enough not to bring it up with me, and kindly looked the other way whenever I tried to save money or had an attack of orderliness.

It’s not easy to leave your background behind and yet adolescence is really the time to question one’s education. Later, another student joins them and the group dynamic changes and Ervin is also an outsider.

Mihály relates his high-school years with Tamás and Éva and explains to Erzsi that Tamás is dead, that he committed suicide a few years before, that Éva got married and disappeared and that the rumour says that Ervin has become a monk. They didn’t keep in touch. Mihály never knew the exact circumstances of Tamás’s death and he never recovered from it. He tried to close the door of his past:

What had his life been like these last fifteen years? He was educated in his profession both at home and abroad. Not the profession of his choosing but the one conferred on him by his family, his father, his father’s company, which did not interest him but which he joined nevertheless. He struggled to learn amusements appropriate for a young aspiring partner of the company. To play bridge. To ski. To drive a car. He bent over backwards to become entangled in adventures of the heart appropriate for a company man, found Erzsi, and entered into a relationship with her which would elicit in society just the right amount of gossip, appropriate to an up-and-coming partner of a prestigious company. And, finally, he married a beautiful, intelligent and wealthy woman with whom he had carried on an affair and whose reputation of carrying on affairs was a notable advantage, befitting a wife of an aspiring partner. Who knows, another year and he may become a full partner. Attitudes about identity, about who one is and what one does go through a hardening process that cuts to the inner core of one’s being until it becomes callous beyond recognition. One starts out as so and so who happens to work as an engineer, and with time he is an engineer and who he really is no longer matters.

He thought he had moved on, that his marriage to Erzsi had sealed the door to this part of himself who yearned for a freer life. He tried to leave his past behind and grow up. The problem is he didn’t move on, he tried really hard to fit the designated mould. The encounter with Janos acts as a catalyst and Mihály unfolds from his mould, he breaks free and he rebounds back to his former self after being compressed.

He leaves Erzsi behind and starts a journey through Italy, revisiting his past, trying to find himself and to put the past to rest. He’s on a travel and on a journey, the French is more convenient here because “voyage” covers both meanings.

Journey by Moonlight is a picaresque novel. We follow Mihály in Italy and Erzsi in France. Mihály needs to find Ervin and Éva. But both have their past resurfacing and meddling into their present. For Erzsi, it’s in the form of her ex-husband who wants her back, even if she left him for Mihály. She had a comfortable life but she wanted to step out of conformity and marrying Mihály was a way to do it.

With just about everything, she’d been a conformist, as Mihály would point out. But then she got bored. Bored to the point of mind-numbing neurosis, and that’s when she sought out Mihály, sensing that he at least was a man, an individual who resisted the insufferable taboos inherent in social boundaries and their rock-solid walls. She believed that with Mihály she could scale those walls, beyond which were wild thickets and forbidden pastures that spread far toward an exotic horizon. But, as it turned out, Mihály was actually conforming through her, using her as a means to become respectable, and he’d only rarely break out and wander off to graze among those forbidden pastures, usually when he got fed up with following the herd and retreated back as far as the thickets.

They had found a middle ground in Budapest but change the setting, add Janos as a deus ex-machina and the fragile balance shatters. What’s as the end of this journey? Will Mihály find his peace of mind? Will Erzsi and Mihály go through a parallel journey or will they meet midway?

Journey by Moonlight is a thoughtful novel about identity, the weight of family expectations and the force of ingrained education. One’s education grounds them. Most of the time, it’s in a positive way. Sometimes, it fills one’s shoes with lead and prevent them from soaring and being themselves. It could be a sad book but it’s not, thanks to Szerb’s subtle sense of humour.

Pataki read somewhere that the only difference between a married man and a bachelor was that the married man could always count on someone to dine with.

It breaks the tension and puts the characters’ inner turmoil in perspective. What is their angst in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. His sense of humour also appears in descriptions:

That was Italy for you, he thought. Pelting each other with history. Two thousand years as natural to them as the smell of dung in a village.

Journey by Moonlight is also a wonderful tribute to Italy. Szerb is cosmopolitan, cultured and a humanist who lived in several European countries. His novel makes you touch the concept of “Europeanity”. He points out clichés but always with affection. About London:

He loved wallowing in London’s melancholy climate, its damp, foggy mist, loyal companion to solitude and the spleen. “London in November is not so much a month,” he said, “as a condition of the soul.”

And about the French:

Finding themselves alone in their first-class compartment, they were soon kissing as ardently as the French. For both, this was left over from their years of study in Paris.

Szerb shows local quirks but indirectly puts forward our common culture, the Europe built by art and intellectuals. The three first parts of the novel start with a quote by a poet. Mihály visits Keats’s grave in Rome. Journey by Moonlight was published in 1937, in troubled times for Europe. Italy, Germany and Spain were run by dictators. Eastern European countries were fragile after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In Szerb, I sense a man of peace, an intellectual who would promote unity against division. In times of Brexit and of the migrant crisis, he’d urge us to remember who we are and that there is indeed such an impalpable thing as European identity. It’s that  something that made our Australian guest gush over the phone “Oh my gosh, they’re so European!”

I’ll end this billet with a book recommendation: if you loved Journey by Moonlight, then there’s a good chance that you’ll like Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary.

For other reviews, find Max’s here and Guy’s here.

PS: Szerb was Jewish. He died in 1945, executed by the Nazis. As usual, my French copy came with no comments of any sort. My English copy has a fascinating afterword by Peter Hargitai. He’s a translator of this novel into English and he paid for its publication. That’s how important it is for him. He was acquainted to Szerb’s widow and taught this novel for years to American students. He wanted to honour Szerb’s memory. His afterword gives a brilliant explanation of the novel and he also reminds us of the horrible fate of Hungarian Jews. (See my billet about Fateless by Imre Kertesz here)

PPS: Don’t ask me anything about the French cover, I’m clueless.

Women in Translation Month: French suggestions

August 6, 2015 25 comments

WITMonth15I’ve seen several posts and tweets about Women In Translation Month organised by BibliobioWhile I’m not fond of positive discrimination, any opportunity for foreigners to discover another country’s literature is fine with me. I’m not going to make a conscious effort to read more women foreign writers this month. In France, we have another approach to translated literature, we don’t see it as a topic worth discussing. Marvelous works of literature are not written in French. Most readers only read in French. Translation is the only means to access to these books. Therefore French readers read books in translation. End of story. I’ve never seen anyone arguing that one should only read francophone literature out of wariness for the translator’s work.

That said, I thought I’d give anglophone readers a list of French women writers who have been translated into English and are worth discovering, in my opinion. Here comes the list:

Novels:

  • The Princess de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette.
  • Indiana by George Sand.
  • The Collected Stories by Colette
  • Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • All Men are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Suite française by Irène Némirovsky
  • Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (*)
  • Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan (*)
  • Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (*)
  • Héloïse is Bald by Emilie de Turckheim (*)
  • Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (*)
  • Sweet Agony by Nancy Huston

Theatre

  • Art by Yasmina Reza

Beach & Public Transports Books

  • Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb
  • Someone I Loved by Anna Gavalda
  • The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Crime fiction

  • The Chalk Circle Man: The First Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery by Fred Vargas (*)
  • Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti (*)

I hope it’s helpful. The titles followed by (*) have been reviewed here. If you pick any of these books after reading this post, I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts about it. Leave your thoughts or a link to your review in the comment section.

Happy reading!

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins

April 6, 2015 20 comments

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins. (2009) French title: B comme bière. Translated by François Happe.

Robbins_beerI recently realized that there’s no French word to say teetotaler. I wonder why. Because it’s a wine country? Because it used to be a Catholic country with wine at mass? Because alcohol has never been prohibited? I don’t have a clue, I only know we don’t have a word to describe someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drink wine or beer because I don’t like the taste of them. Don’t ask me how I survive in wine country without drinking any of it –imagine me enduring wine tasting at the Hospices de Beaune, standing beside friends and waiting for the boring thing to end—or how I survived being a student in a city where a street is renamed Rue de la bière because it’s the local Temple Bar. So, when I saw that B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins promised to explain beer to children, I thought it was meant for me. At last I’d know what the fuss was all about!

Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered why your daddy likes beer so much? Have you wondered, before you fall asleep at night, why he sometimes acts kind of “funny” after he’s been drinking beer? Maybe you’ve even wondered where beer comes from, because you’re pretty sure it isn’t from a cow. Well, Gracie Perkel wondered those same things.

Gracie is almost six and she wonders what this mysterious beverage the adults drink is all about. Her father doesn’t volunteer but her Uncle Moe starts explaining and even promises to take her to visit the Redhook brewery. When Uncle Moe lets her down and the visit is cancelled, she’s very angry and steals a beer can in the fridge. She drinks it, gets drunk and sick and the Beer Fairy appears to her. The Fairy will take her to the beer country to explain to Gracie how beer is made and how it is consumed. Follows a fantasy journey to a fantasy land.

Tom Robbins is funny in many aspects. He has a funny mind and a funny style. For example, the Perkels, like the writer himself, live in Seattle. Even here in France we know it’s a rainy city. Here’s how Tom Robbins decribes rains in Seattle:

Do you know about drizzle, that thin, soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles? Seattle is the world headquarters of drizzle, and in autumn it leaves a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper. When there is also a biting wind, as there was this day, Seattle people sometimes feel like they’re trapped in a bad Chinese restaurant; one of those drafty, cheaply lit places where the waiters are gruff, the noodles soggy, the walls a little too green, and although there’s a mysterious poem inside every fortune cookie, tea is invariably spilt on your best sweater.

The whole book is full of humorous descriptions, witty comments about humanity and its attraction to beer. The Beer Fairy shows the good and the bad about beer, subtly recommending moderation. Everything in life is about balance and not taking yourself too seriously. I had a wonderful time with that book. I read it in one sitting, an evening I needed distraction. It’s a joyful fairytale that will take you to another world. Tom Robbins has a unique angle on things, seeing fun in little details and creating a plausible Beer Fairy. He brings back your childhood, a time when you loved to imagine these hidden worlds or that there was a little man working a switch button to put light in the fridge when you open it.

Beer_Robbins

I have B Is For Beer in French and the translation is outstanding. François Hoppe managed to translate the puns in a very convincing way. It must have been complicated sometimes to find something equivalent without betraying the original text.

It’s the perfect book to pick while traveling or in-between two serious books or before visiting Ireland or Belgium but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. I still can’t swallow beer. 🙂

PS: Something else, for non-European readers. In this book, you’ll read “In Italy and in France, a child Gracie’s age could walk into an establishment, order a beer, and be served”. In case you’d take this seriously, don’t, because it’s not true. You need to be 18 to drink alcohol and it’s forbidden to sell alcohol to a minor, even in a supermarket.

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