Archive

Archive for the ‘20th Century’ Category

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

January 4, 2020 23 comments

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on their outward trip into the USA. She’s post-Catholic, he’s post-Jewish, together they’re going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 7 comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

Betty by Georges Simenon – the victim is not always who you think

December 6, 2019 18 comments

Betty by Georges Simenon (1961) Original French title: Betty.

Betty belongs to Simenon’s romans durs. The book opens with a woman, alone in a bar, Le Trou. (What you’d call Hole in the Wall) She’s adrift and visibly hiding from something or someone. She’s in shock after something terrible happened to her. She’s rescued by a woman, Laure Lavancher, who takes her back to her hotel and nurses her.

Slowly, we discover what happened to this woman. Her name is Betty, she’s recently divorced. Her husband found out that she was cheating on him. He comes from a bourgeois family and the reaction is immediate: he divorces her for cause and she knows she will be cut off from her daughters’ lives.

At first, Betty seems like an Emma Bovary. A woman trapped in a marriage she didn’t really want but accepted because what else was there to be for her? And her husband Guy was nice enough. We see a woman not ready to give up her identity as a woman to become exclusively a wife and a mother. In a way, while I commiserated with Guy –no one wants to be cheated on – I also thought that poor Betty’s life was dull and that she wasn’t made to find contentment in cooking, cleaning and mothering. I felt empathy for her because I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mother, I’d be frustrated too.

But as the story progresses, we see Betty interact with the new people she met in that café, the night we got acquainted with her. And her dark side slowly shows up. I didn’t feel so much compassion then as she moved from the position of victim to that of a predator.

She’s like a black spider, someone who crawls on other people’s backs, discreetly reaches their neck and bites. She took Guy in her poisonous net and her modus operandi remains the same with Laure, the woman who nurses her back to health.

Unsurprisingly, Betty was made into a film by Claude Chabrol. Marie Trintignant is Betty, Stéphane Audran is Laure, and Yves Lambrecht is Guy. I didn’t know that when I read it but imagined it as a film with Béatrice Dalle or Chiara Mastroianni as Betty.

Recommended to crime fiction lovers.

Categories: 20th Century

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong : Sorry, but I quit

November 16, 2019 45 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) French title: Berlin ALexanderplatz. Translated by Olivier Le Lay

This is my second attempt at reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Lizzy and Caroline host it this year for German Lit Month and I thought I’d try again. I stretched my fingers to hold the chunkster, put the sticky notes in the book to mark the weeks of the readalong and started to spend time with Franz Biberkopf, the hero of this 613 pages long novel. (At least in French and in my Folio edition. Don’t forget that, due to the language, books are about 10% longer in French than in English)

Despite my motivation, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz again. I don’t care to know what’s going to happen to Franz Biberkopf. I was reading and pages were gliding over my brain like water on trout’s skin. (Yeah, no more fly-fishing reads for me, I have scars) In other words, I was reading and not imprinting anything.

I tried to force myself and after a few painful reading sessions, I started to wonder why I was inflicting this to myself. For the bragging rights? To tick a box on the 1001-books-you-must-read-before-you-die list? (I’m closeted 1001-books lister) I had to stop and remind myself that nobody cares whether I finish it or not, that reading is my hobby, not my duty. And reading must remain a pleasure, and nothing else. Goodbye to Berlin!

So, I hope that the other participants to the readalong have a great time with Döblin. My thoughts haven’t changed in five years and what I wrote in my previous billet is still valid.

Tschüβ!

%d bloggers like this: