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20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

August 5, 2020 14 comments

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

Strangers by Yamada – Japanese Literature Challenge

March 1, 2020 22 comments

Strangers by Yamada (1987) French title: Présences d’un été. Translated by Annick Laurent

I read Strangers by Yamada in January for Japanese Literature Challenge. I’m lucky that Meredith extended the reading time up to March. My late billet is still in. Phew!

Strangers is set in Tokyo, during a summer in the 1980s. Harada, a rather famous TV scriptwriter, is forty-seven, recently divorced and has moved into an apartment in an office complex. The building empties at night and he thinks he’s the only one actually living in this tower. He’s estranged from his grownup son, his parents are dead and he doesn’t have many friends. In other words, he’s lonely.

Two things happen during that summer. First, he meets Kei, an accountant who lives in the building too. He thought he was alone there after working hours but he’s not, he has a neighbor. They soon get acquainted and start an affair.

Then, feeling a bit off-kilter after his divorce, struggling a little to adapt to his newfound singlehood, Harada decides to go back to Asakusa, the Tokyo neighborhood he grew up in. He wants to see his childhood house again. When he arrives there, he meets with the new tenants, who look a lot like his long dead parents and welcome him into their home.

How will Harada’s relationship with Kei evolve? Who are the people who live in his childhood home? Harada is a middle-aged man who has to reassess his life after his divorce. His career is successful but not totally fulfilling. His marriage fell apart and he has no contact with his son. He feels adrift and tries to go back to his roots and to find comfort in Kei. I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgic tone and the blanket of melancholy that settles on Harada’s shoulders. He wants to go back to a happy place and looks for it in his childhood memories. But how destructive is it?

Telling more would spoil the novel for potential readers, so I won’t go further in its description. I’ll just say that the ending was a surprise and that it’s not the kind of books I usually read but I liked it anyway. Yamada describes Tokyo with fondness and the city becomes an important part of this atmospheric story. Harada’s visits to Asakusa, the descriptions of the area, its shops and restaurants give a good vision of the neighborhood, a foot in the past, and a foot in the present. And the story progresses towards a strange ending.

Highly recommended.

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.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – life assessment at old age

October 27, 2019 9 comments

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) French title: En lieu sûr. Translated by Eric Chédaille.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event–a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

This is Larry Morgan’s voice, the narrator of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He’s now 64 and he and his wife Sally arrived at the Lang compound in Battel Pond, Vermont. This is the property of Charity and Sid Lang, their long-life friends. (There is was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.) They’re not here for fun, though, but more for a last farewell to Charity who’s losing battle against cancer.

Larry starts recalling their lives and tells us how their friendship started in 1937, in Madison, Wisconsin. Larry and Sid were both teachers in the English department at the local university. It’s the Great Depression and positions are rare. Larry and Sally are poor, they come from the West and from working class. They have to live on Larry’s salary, unless he keeps selling stories and develops his writing.

Charity and Sid come from the opposite side of the country and social ladder: they are a wealthy couple from New England. Sid’s fortune comes from his family’s business and his father was very disappointed when he turned to literature. Charity comes from a family of academics, her father is always buried in a book and in research while her mother runs the house.

On paper, they come from different worlds. In reality, they clicked immediately and bonded over their love for literature. Larry reflects on these early years in Madison, on the start of their friendship and how Sally and Charity took an immediate liking to each other, how it started at this diner party and wonders:

Is that the basis of friendship? Is it as reactive as that? Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?… Do we all buzz or ring or light up when people press our vanity buttons, and only then? Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?

This and the opening quote earlier represent Larry quite well: he’s unassuming. He wonders why Charity and Sid are so fond of them. They graduated from Smith College and Harvard while he went to Berkeley and Sally dropped out of school to support them. They are more worldly than he and Sally are. Even if he doesn’t say it that way, he doesn’t understand what they bring into the relationship that puts them on equal footing.

[Friendship] is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.

Larry is a gifted writer and he brings the aura of talent into their tightknit group.

Sid wanted to write poetry but neither his family nor his wife support him. He was strong enough to go against his family about literature but not enough to fight Charity on writing poetry. She thinks he needs to have an established career as an academic for him to indulge into writing poetry. He doesn’t think he’s a talented enough and gives up. But it gnaws at him and Larry thinks it’s a shame he doesn’t keep on writing poetry even if he might not be a good poet, as long as it makes him happy.

And sure, why should he stop writing poetry just because he’s not good enough to be published? (Something we are not even sure of) Do amateur painters or photographers stop doing their hobby because they’ll never have an exhibition in a gallery? They don’t, and nobody tells them to stop painting or taking pictures. Why do we expect that a writer should be published or stop writing? Isn’t it what we think, in spite of ourselves?

Charity is a force of nature. She has ambition for the four of them and works to reach her goals. The issue is that Sid needs to publish articles about literature, if he wants a promotion. Stegner makes fun of this obligation that takes precedence over being a good teacher:

You hear what the dean said about Jesus Christ? ‘Sure He’s a good teacher, but what’s He published?

Larry loves to write, for himself first, but also because selling short-stories helps paying the bills. Sally and he have no family money to fall back on. They have no safety net and need the money to keep coming in. That’s his first ambition.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else — pathway to the stars, maybe. I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without benefit of drugs or orgies, have more fun.

I love the idea that Ambition is a path, no a destination. In Larry’s eyes, Charity has unconsidered ambition for Sid and that she had to carry him during their hiking on her ambition path because he didn’t quite have it in him to walk this trail alone and succeed. She’s also both generous and stubborn about how things need to be done. She loves control and cannot bear to relinquish it, whatever the cost. Larry and Sally give in because most of the time, they are guests and don’t feel untitled to go against her wishes. Sid does because he knows from experience that he won’t win. He loves her and indulges her.

Crossing to Safety is a celebration of friendship, a scrutiny of its workings, a reflection on two long marriages but it is also an older man looking back on his hardworking life, its ordeals and its successes. Of his marriage to Sally, he won’t say much, probably because it is a happy one. He resents Charity’s micromanaging of Sid’s life, he questions their marriage and the Charity’s domination.

It’s also a novel about old age, on looking back on one’s life and assessing what it was compared to what one imagined when they were young. Larry is on out on the porch, looking and smelling and recherching temps perdu and he tells us:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees –have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

Probably because

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one.

Highly recommended.

PS: I haven’t read Cicero’s De Senectute and De Amicitia but Larry mentions them. I wonder how they influenced Crossing to Safety.

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

August 25, 2019 11 comments

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 9 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother’s and sisters’. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Kites by Romain Gary – supplement with spoilers

May 1, 2018 3 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Kites, here are additional thoughts about the book. It’s preferable to read my other billet before this one because I’m not going to repeat the summary of the novel.

Some biographical elements about Romain Gary are necessary at this stage, before we dive into this billet together. Romain Gary was born in 1914. His name was Roman Kacew and he was a Jew from the ghetto in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) He emigrated to France with his mother Mina when he was 14. After studying law, he spent time in the aviation. When WWII started, he joined the Resistance early in 1940. He wrote his first novel, Education européenne in 1943. It was published in 1945. The Kites was published in 1980, the year he committed suicide.

The last words of The Kites are “car on ne saurait mieux dire” (“Because there isn’t anything better to say than that”) It’s like the end of his personal literary journey. He’s said it all and The Kites is a book that responds to Education européenne. His work has come to a full circle.

Indeed, Education européenne tells the love story of Janek and Zosia, two Polish resistants during WWII. They are in the Polish forest, in winter, trying to hide and fight. The Kites tells the love story between Ludo and Lila and resistance in Normandy. It is a bridge between Poland and France, through Lila and Ludo. It’s the parallel story to Education européenne and Gary refers to the resistance in Poland, in passing. First, Tad, Lila’s brother is presumably in the Polish forest, fighting against the Germans. And in Education européenne, one of the characters is named Tadek. Some passages refer to the Polish resistance, like here:

Il est normal que Lila ne soit pas là à m’attendre, car si nous ne savons pas grand-chose des maquis polonais et des groupes de partisans qui se terrent dans la forêt, je me doute bien que la réalité [Les Nazis] là-bas doit êre encore plus vigilante, plus odieuse et plus difficile à vaincre que chez nous. It’s normal for Lila not to be there waiting for me. We don’t know much about the Polish Resistance and the partisan grups hiding out in the forest, but I can only imagine than reality [the Nazis] must be even more vigilant there than it is here, more odious, more difficult to vanquish.

For me, The Kites is a way for Gary to look back at his first novel, the one that launched him as a writer.

I think there are also biographical elements imbedded in The Kites. Lila is a representation of France, Ludo is a bit like Gary himself and their long-lasting love story is a representation of Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country. See the coincidences:

  • Ludo first meets Lila when he’s ten. According to Laurent Seksik book, Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, young Roman Kacew was 10 when his mother Mina decided to emigrate to France.
  • Ludo doesn’t see Lila for four years before she reenters his life. He’s 14 when they really get to know each other. Roman Kacew and Mina arrive in France when he’s 14.
  • Lila is part of the Polish aristocracy. Lila’s family doesn’t see Ludo as a good party for her. He’s a small French guy, not aristocratic enough. When Gary joins the French aviation, he’s the only one in his class not to be promoted officer at the end of their training. Most probably because he was Jewish. Ludo isn’t good enough for Lila, the French army didn’t find young Kacew good enough for France.
  • However, Lila has accepted Ludo as her lover and she fell for him too.
  • During the war, Lila disappears for a while, like the real France went in hiding, according to Gary’s vision.
  • Lila prostitutes herself to survive, her debasement mirrors France’s debasement of the Vichy Regime. It doesn’t mean it was right, that it was inevitable but it is still an ugly stain in France’s history.
  • Then Lila comes back and resists.
  • When the war ends, she’s broken, stained but still alive and Ludo still loves her.
  • With Ludo’s behavior during the war, he’s now worthy of Lila. He became an aristocrat in post-war France thanks to his actions. The same happened to Roman Kacew. He was made Compagnon de la Libération, he was trustworthy for the new government and he became a diplomat.

That’s a lot of coincidences, no? It’s typical for Gary to write things upside down and make of France a Polish woman and of himself a young French man.

Other biographical elements are present in the Bronicki family. Here’s a quick description of them:

Il m’informa que Stanislas de Bronicki, le père de « Mademoiselle » était un financier de génie ; sa femme avait été une des plus grandes comédiennes de Varsovie, qui se consolait d’avoir quitté le théâtre en faisant continuellement des scènes. He informed me that Stanislas de Bronicki, “Mademoiselle’s” father, was a wizard financier, and that his wife had been one of Warsaw’s greatest comediennes. She had given up her career, but compensated for the sacrifice by constantly making scenes. (p27)

Countess Bronicka seems to share traits of character with Mina, Gary’s mother. She was a former comedienne and she was constantly making scenes. In chapter 17, Count Bronicki is working on a scheme to earn money by selling pelts. There’s a full page about it and isn’t it a coincidence that Arieh Kacew, Gary’s father was a furrier in Wilno?

I’m sure there are other clues that escaped my notice. Gary’s suicide wasn’t done on a whim or during a bout of despair. It was prepared. This was prepared too. And it’s hard not to imagine that he thought that Because there isn’t anything better to say than that it was time to bow out.

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

April 29, 2018 19 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook.

April 16, 2018 13 comments

The Killer Koala – Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook (1986) French title: Le koala tueur et autres histoires du bush. Translated from the English by Mireille Vignol.

I bought The Killer Koala, humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook at the Fête du Livre de Bron and it seemed to be a common collection of short stories published in France. Since I’m reading Australian books this year, it sounded a light and funny read. I wasn’t mistaken, these fifteen short-stories are a wild ride through Australia. Not sure they are good for tourism, though. They might frighten potential visitors.

To write this billet, I tried to find the list of the short stories’ original titles and I discovered that it’s OOP in the English-speaking world and I couldn’t find the table of content of this collection of short stories. So, sorry, I can’t give you the list. If anyone has it, please feel free to post them in a comment below.

Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) is best known for his Noir novel Wake In Fright, a book I’ll read too. The Killer Koala is part of a trilogy of short stories, the other volumes being Wombat Revenge and Frill-Necked Frenzy. He loved the Australian bush and all the stories are related to his supposedly true adventures in the outback. They are too extraordinary to be invented, he said.

I think that all the Australian states and territories have at least one dedicated story. Let’s me see:

  • Queensland, north of Mackay: With poisonous snakes like black snakes and king browns, it’s better not to fall asleep in an aquarium full of them,
  • Northern Territory, near Arnhem: There’s a story featuring the violent sex life of crocodiles and another story is about venomous snakes,
  • Tasmania, Kudulana island and its irate koala that grips you like vise,
  • South Australia, Coober Pedy and its crazy opal miners.
  • New South Wales, near Sydney: another encounter with poisonous snakes,
  • New South Wales, the narrator is at a friend’s farm where he performed a rectal injection on a female elephant,
  • Queensland, Cape York and its deathly crocodiles,
  • Western Australia, in the desert where cunning Aborigines sell camel tours to naïve tourists,
  • South Australia, near Marree: our narrator encounters a strange cat while bringing cattle to the Marree railway station,
  • New South Wales, the Macquarie swamps and its wild boars,
  • Western Australia, near Kalgoorlie and its gold trafficking,
  • Queensland, near Rockhampton, where his crazy dog George keeps bringing him a poisonous snake as a gift,
  • Queensland, Airlie Beach, where he almost drowns when he goes diving in the Great Corral Reef.

After reading these stories, only Victoria seems a safe place to be in Australia. Strangely, there’s no encounter with wandering kangaroos or monstrous spiders or poisonous jelly fishes. They must be too common, I don’t know. Or they’re part of the Wombat Revenge.

Kenneth Cook is the Australian equivalent of Jim Harrison, I think. They both were bon vivant, liked food and alcohol and had the body to prove it. Working out wasn’t their thing. They loved the wilderness in their country, Australia for Cook, the Upper Peninsula for Harrison. Some of the stories also reminded me of Craig Johnson’s Wait For Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories, probably because of the hilarious story involving an owl, a bear, a tourist and a Porta Potty. The three writers share a love for life, a good dose of humanity and a deep respect for the natives.

All along the stories, we see the narrator in dangerous situations, always told with a fantastic sense of humour. This large man who wasn’t in the best shape ends up in situation where he needs to run, walk, flee, swim, crawl or ride a camel to get out of perilous adventures. He’s not as good a gunman as he should be, which endangers him. He’s open and trusting and this leads him to interact with swindlers, nutcases, poachers and other various adventurers. In these stories, he has dubious encounters that almost lead him to disaster. It’s normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything funny and gripping to tell. However, I bet that he also met great people through his travels and thanks to his openness.

When you read The Killer Koala, it’s not surprising that Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in the Australian bush in 1987. If he really lived the way he describes in his short stories, he didn’t treat his body well and pushed it to its limits. I hope he died happy, doing what he loved.

If anyone from Australia has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you want to know what these stories sound like, I found the text of The Killer Koala here.

PS: Funny translation anecdote. I was reading several stories in a row and all involved animals. So, I thought that each story was about a different animal. When I reached the story Cent cannettes, I expected a story about a hundred quills (as ducks or cannette in French) and I read a story about someone drinking a hundred beer bottles (also a cannette in French)!

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 15 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

March 24, 2018 14 comments

The Little Town Were Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (1985) French title: La petite ville où le temps s’arrêta. Translated from the Czech by Milena Braud.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) is a Czech writer considered as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is my first encounter with his work and it was a pleasant journey into the past.

We are in a little town on the banks of the River Elbe, in the early 1930s. Our narrator is a child whose father Franci runs a brewery. His mother is a stay-at-home mom and his uncle Pepi lives with them. We don’t know how old our narrator is but when the book opens, he’s old enough to run around, slip into a bar to get a tattoo from a sailor.

It’s hard to describe this novel. It tells the tragic fate of this family as history catches with them. It starts during the Czech Republic between 1918 and 1935. We are after fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its domination over Bohemia and before the Nazis destructions followed by the Communist catastrophe. This little town has the same fate as Wilno, now Vilnius. It’s as if the Nazis and then the Communists sucked the life out of it. The River Elbe is a waterway to Hamburg, the little town’s harbor brings the world to its inhabitants. It brings life and during the Republic, the place was lively. When the Republic ended, it’s as if this city that was joyously feasting on life was put on a diet.

The narrator relates his years in this little town, his quotidian between a capricious and loud uncle and a mousy industrious father. It’s like Franci tries to even out Pepi’s eccentricities by being the exact opposite. The salt of the book lies in observing the different scenes the narrator shows us. The little town and its inhabitants come to life with their quirks, flaws and qualities. It’s like observing details on a peasant scene painted by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Lots of details, various characters in diverse situations that show everyday life. Hrabal has a great sense of humor which lightens the tragedy of this family and their town. It borders on burlesque sometimes and there’s a definite whiff of nostalgia.

Harbal grew up in a town like this and The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is part of a trilogy that starts with Cutting It Short and ends with Harlequin’s Millions. Highly recommended.

A word about the French cover. I don’t understand it at all. It’s a detail of the painting Australian Beach Pattern by Charles Meer. Frankly, I wonder what it’s got to do with the book. I prefer the English one, with the sailor who could be Uncle Pepi or the one with the city street. The Italian cover gives an idea of the narrator’s voice.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 14 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

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