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They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 18 comments

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (1934) French title: Vos jours sont comptés. Translated from the Hungarian by Jean-Luc Moreau.

For December, our Book Club had picked They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, the first volume of his famous Transylvanian Trilogy. Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a liberal Hungarian nobleman from Transylvania involved in politics. He was part of the high society in Budapest and in Transylvania. His Transylvanian Trilogy pictures Hungary before WWI and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Joseph Roth describes this decline on the Austrian side in The Radetzky March, Bánffy shows the other side of the coin in Hungary.

They Were Counted is a great picture of the high society in Budapest. We follow two cousins, Bálint Abády and László Gyerőffy. We’re in 1904 and they’re both in their twenties. Bálint went to university in Vienna and spent a few years in Foreign Affairs abroad. He has just been elected at the Hungarian Parliament. Bálint is now ready to take part in the country’s political future and to take the reins of his estate. László lost his parents when he was young and was raised by relatives. He’s a talented pianist but could not go to music school as he would have liked. He feels that he doesn’t belong to any family, that he’s barely tolerated in high society and it’s a big chip on his shoulder. He’s secretly in love with one of his cousin, Klára Kollonich. His future is uncertain because he would love to be a musician and he doesn’t have the fortune to stay idle and just go to music school.

The century is young, they’re at the beginning of their adult life and they have to choose their path.

Bánffi describes the life in Hungarian high society, a life made of balls, hunting parties in the country. It’s the classic life of European nobility at the turning of the century. According to the atmosphere and the mores, Budapest sounded closer to Paris than to London though.

Bánffi also portrays the complicated political issues that Bálint has to face in Parliament. I suppose that everything is accurate as Bánffi was part of this world. I have to confess I got lost in the intricacies of Hungarian politics. I got the big picture though: they were always in opposition with Vienna, they were not over the missed opportunity of the 1848 revolution and they were fighting futile battles instead of concentrating on real issues to improve their fellow citizen’s living conditions. In mirror to Roth’s Radetzky March, we see a Hungarian nobility who fails to see the real challenges of a changing world and a country hindered by old-fashioned politicians unable to renew themselves. The situation in Transylvania is even more complicated as the Hungarians and the Romanians have to live together and don’t speak the same language. I understood that the Romanians were oppressed by the Hungarians who had the actual power. (Power lent by the Austrian emperor.)

I suspect that of the two main characters, Bálint is the closest to Bánffy himself. He’s open-minded and a progressist. Now that he’s a deputy and that he’s back home on his land, he wants to modernize his country. Bálint’s father died when he was young and during his illness, he left a set of directives to help his wife manage their estate and keep it intact for their son. Now that he’s old enough to manage it, Bálint is determined to improve the economy on his land. He visits with his steward and tries to implement new methods. His naïve enthusiasm bumps into the established order. His men don’t dare to speak their mind in front of him and say yes to everything. They have also implemented a system made of corruption and violence and they don’t want the master to shatter it through misplaced modernism. The conservatism that kills the country is not the prerogative of the noble leading class.

László is more like a Balzacian hero. He goes to Budapest firmly decided to live modestly on his income and study music now that he’s the master of himself and can afford this choice. This lasts a few weeks until he’s sucked into a whirlwind of parties as the new season starts in Budapest. These social events are opportunities to see Klára and it pushes him to attend as many balls and soirées as possible. This high life costs a lot of money though and puts him in a difficult financial position. He’s also too charming for his own good and craves acceptance from this world. With this personality, he was set to be snatched by this life and drown in it.

Both Bálint and László have a complicated love life. Bálint found out too late that he was in love with Adrienne Milóth, someone he could have married. They had a real friendship, made of deep conversations and complicity. But at the time, Bálint was blinded by his affair with a married woman and when he came back from abroad, Adrienne was married to the oaf Pál Uzdy. It’s not a love marriage, Adrienne only wanted to be independent from her parents. On László’s side, we have the classic love for someone he can’t marry because Klára’s parents would not approve of it. Her mother has other plans for her daughters and they all involve climbing the social ladder through prestigious marriages. Nothing new here compared to 19thC literature.

However, Bánffi goes further than putting his heroes in desperate situations. He also shows how stifling their world was for women. They have no freedom at all. They go from their parents’ rule to their husbands’ one. They have no opportunity to have a career and he doesn’t picture the equivalent of literary salons in Budapest. Surely there were some. Bánffy draws a sad picture of the men of his class. They objectify women, they are predatory and wooing means hunting. Even the polished and respectful Bálint acts this way around Adrienne. And at the same time, we see women who cheat on their husbands, select a new lover and weave a well-thought trap to get them. All in all, the relationships between men and women didn’t seem very healthy to me. It’s violent under the politeness. And again, we are in a society that discards half of their brains because these brains belong to females.

They Were Counted is a fabulous picture of Hungary and Transylvania at the time. Bánffy wrote it in 1934 after the war and the collapse of the empire. He’s very lucid about the nobility’s failure to handle changes. This world was dying and WWI only accelerated its agony.

The original title of Bánffy’s masterpiece is Erdélyi Tőtenét – Megszámláltattál. Sometimes I like to check the original title of a book and see if the French title is the direct translation of the original or if it’s something different for the French public. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to Google Translate to see the translation in French and in English. Same result in both languages, the title means Transylvanian torture with anxiety. It gives another vision to the book, doesn’t it?

They Were Counted ends with a double cliffhanger. With 750 pages, it’s a long book and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read the two volumes left. On the one hand, I want to know what will become of Bálint and László. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to start another 600 pages book right now. Still on the fence on this. If you’ve read it, how are the two other volumes?

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 40 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 21 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

November 12, 2016 36 comments

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932) French title: La marche de Radestky. Translated by Blanche Gidon and reviewed by Alain Huriot.

roth_radetskyThe Radestky March is the second book by Joseph Roth that I’ve read. (My billet about Hotel Savoy is here.) It was published in 1932 and it’s famous for describing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth was Austrian and I think that Embers by Sándor Márai is the Hungarian counterpart of Roth’s Radetsky March.

The book opens at the battle of Solferino where the Austrians fight against the French in 1859. France was ruled by Napoléon III at the time and it’s a victory for the French. The Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I is on the battlefield and he’s about to do something stupid that could get him killed by a French sniper. Lieutenant Trotta sees it coming, throws the emperors to the ground and saves his life. Franz-Joseph ennobles Trotta who becomes Baron von Trotta and Sipolje, the small village he comes from. (Now in Kosovo). This distances Trotta from his family and his origins and pushes him to a social class where he feels he never belongs. It cuts this branch of the Trotta family from their roots.

Later, von Trotta discovers in a school text book how the story of the battle of Solferino is taught to the children. It is grossly embellished and he decides to appeal to the emperor to have the facts straightened up. But the emperor leaves it as it’s told, which disgusts von Trotta from the military. Therefore, he will not let his son go to military school and he makes him become a civil servant. The young M. von Trotta ends up prefect in the district of W, in Moravia. His short marriage gives him a son, Carl Joseph, who is actually the main character of the novel.

The Radetsky March is a remarkable book. From a literary point of view, it’s extremely well written. Roth describes the family relationships, the education in the military circles and the lack of warmth in this education. Prefect von Trotta loves Carl Joseph but he’s totally unable to show affection. And this is also a trait that Márai points out in Embers. Carl Joseph is enrolled to military school upon his father’s decision. His father never imagined to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Carl Joseph is not cut out to be an officer as he has no military skills. He can’t ride a horse properly, he’s hopeless with topography and other military disciplines. He can’t choose his career. He has this cumbersome aura that prevent people from really befriending him. He feels awkward with his comrades and he has trouble bonding with people from his generation. He only becomes friend with older men and his lovers are almost mother figures. I won’t tell you too much about the plot and his life but poor Carl Joseph is not up to other people’s expectations. He’s incredibly lonely and he lives his life like a fish out of water.

The heritage of his grand-father weighs on his shoulders. He’s the grand-son of the hero of Solferino never just himself. And this inheritance burdens him with other people’s expectations. He’s the offspring of the hero of Solferino and there is a consensus that he inherited his grand-father’s courage. But his grand-father’s greatness was grossly exaggerated in text books that minded more of propaganda than of historical accuracy. So, Carl Joseph measures his actions against the shadow of a man who never really existed.

Le sous-lieutenant Trotta ressemblait à quelqu’un qui n’a pas seulement perdu son pays, mais aussi la nostalgie de son pays. The sub-lieutenant Trotta looked like someone who not only had lost his country but also the nostalgia of his country.

I pitied him for these heavy expectations and because he lacked the character and intelligence he would have needed either to rebel and choose his path or shine in the path that was chosen for him. In older French translations of books, European names are often translated and this edition of The Radestky March is no exception. As a consequence, Carl Joseph was Charles-Joseph for me. The more time I spent in Charles-Joseph’s company, the more I thought of Charles Bovary. The two men have something in common, both being pushed in a career for which they have no taste and no gift. They’re slow, they’re lonely and lack of social skills. They’re not bad people, just stupid.

The Radetsky March also portrays the decay the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth describes very well the hypocrisy of the military circles. The military are drilled to respect rules, as stupid as they can be. They follow an honor code up to blindness and refuse to see the obvious. The army is disconnected from the world and unaware of the upcoming changes and challenges.

Ils étaient nés en temps de paix et ils étaient devenus officiers en s’adonnant paisiblement aux manœuvres et aux exercices. Ils ne savaient pas alors que chacun d’eux, sans exception, rencontrerait la mort quelques années plus tard. Aucun n’avait alors l’ouïe assez fine pour entendre tourner les rouages énormes des moulins secrets qui commençaient déjà à moudre la grande guerre. La blanche paix de l’hiver régnait dans la petite garnison. Et, comme une draperie noire et rouge, la mort flottait au-dessus de leurs têtes dans la pénombre de l’arrière-boutique. They were born in a time of peace and had become officers by peacefully devoting themselves to parade grounds and exercises. None of them suspected that they would die a few years later. None of them had keen hearing and heard the wheels of huge secret mills turning and already grinding the Great War. The white winter peace has settled on the small garrison. And, like a black and red drape, death was flying upon their heads in the dark corners of the back shop.

The officers do their routine, gamble and drink. They’re isolated and most of them don’t have a family. They keep to themselves. Roth makes fun of them and their blind respect to tradition and their propensity to fret about tiny details. The overall picture gives an idea of an army unfit for the upcoming battles.

The empire is also cracking under the demands for more rights for the minorities. It is a mosaic of people who no longer want to live together. Minorities push at the seams of the old imperial clothes and the old emperor Franz Joseph I sounds totally unfitted for his position. See what Roth puts in Chojnoki’s mouth, a Polish rich man who lives near Carl Joseph’s garrison:

Sceptique, moqueur, sans crainte et sans scrupules, Chojnicki affirmait communément que l’Empereur était un vieillard étourdi, le gouvernement une bande de crétins, le Reichsrat une assemblée d’imbéciles naïfs et pathétiques, il disait l’administration vénale, lâche et paresseuse. Les Autrichiens de souche germanique dansaient la valse et chantaient dans les guinguettes, les Hongrois puaient, les Tchèques étaient nés cireurs de bottes, les Ruthènes étaient des Russes travestis et des traîtres, les Croates et les Slovènes des fabricants de brosses et des marchands de marrons et les Polonais dont il était, des jolis cœurs, des coiffeurs et des photographes de mode. Skeptical, derisive, bold and unscrupulous, Chojnicki often said that the Emperor was a forgetful old man, the government, a bunch of cretins, the Reichsrat, an assembly of naïve and pathetic morons. He said that the administration was venal, weak and lazy. Austrians from German origins waltzed and sang in guinguettes, Hungarians stank, Czechs were born flatterers, Ukrainians were Russian in disguise and traitors, Croats and Slovenes were brush makers and chestnut sellers and Poles, as himself, were flirts, hairdressers and fashion photographs. 

Prefect von Trotta has no idea of how to deal with the nationalist upheavals in his district. The central power of the country doesn’t know what to do. The old emperor is cristallised in conservatism and lacks of political insight.

It is the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I who is a central character of the book. He’s the deus ex-machina of the novel. It’s a cheeky literary device, to use such a historical figure that way, but it works. The emperor puts in motion the change of social class of Trotta. He refuses to change the narration of the text books despite Trotta’s request. He will intervene several times when the von Trottas need him. The emperor is like a father figure to them.

Il [von Trotta] aimait l’Empereur qui était bon et grand, supérieur et juste, infiniment lointain et tout proche, particulièrement attaché aux officiers de son armée. Mourir pour lui aux accents d’une marche militaire était la plus belle des morts, mourir au son de la Marche de Radetzky était la plus facile des morts. He [voon Trotta] loved the emperor who was good and great, superior and fair, aloof and close, especially attached to the officers of his army. To die for him to the sound of a military march was the most beautiful death, to die to the sound of the Radetsky March was the easiest death of all.

Franz Joseph I had one of the longest reigns in Europe. He was in power from 1848 to 1916. I was in Vienna last September and there was an exhibition about him, sinc 2016 is the centenary of his death. It was explained that there are plenty of images of him since he had his portrait done at least once a year since his childhood. His mother groomed him to ground his power on a cult of personality. See a sample of these images.

00_images_franz-joseph_i

I thought that this exhibition was very complacent, only showing the good side of the man. I regretted that there was no attempt to put in perspective the decisions he made. After all, he was very conservative and probably made poor choices along the way, like everybody else. I was ill at ease in this exhibition, feeling too much blind praise and nostalgia in it and not enough critical mind at work. Here’s Roth about Vienna:

On voyait déambuler, dans la large Ringstrasse, les habitants de cette ville, joyeux sujets de Sa Majesté apostolique, tous laquais de sa cour. La ville tout entière n’était que la gigantesque cour du château. You could see the inhabitants of this city stroll on the large Ringstrasse. They are the happy subjects of His Apostolic Majesty, all lackeys of the court. The whole town was actually the gigantic courtyard of the castle.

There was a cult around the Habsburg family and I’m not sure it’s deserved. This was my second visit to Vienna and my impression of the city center is that it still participates to the cult of the Habsburg family. In the comments written in the museums, in St Stephen cathedral, I felt an unhealthy nostalgia for lost grandeur. When in London, I didn’t have the impression that the city was turned into a museum longing for the Victorian era. In Vienna, even my children got sick of hearing about the wonderful Sissi and the great Maria Theresa. I loved that Joseph Roth didn’t follow this line of thinking. He is irreverent and critical, maybe because he was an outsider, as a Jew from Galicia.

The Radetsky March is a wonderful read for its literary merits (not obvious in this billet since I had to translate the quotes), for its humor, for its characterization and its insight on the Austro-Hungarian empire. A must read to understand Europe’s past and if possible to be coupled with Márai’s Embers.

2016_german_lit_monthThis billet about The Radetsky March is my contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. Incidentally, November is the month to celebrate the end of WWI and Franz-Joseph I died on November 21st, 2016.

 

 

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