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Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 2 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

The Snuff-It Princess by Kââ – Crime fiction

June 25, 2017 8 comments

The Snuff-it Princess by Kââ (1984) Original French title: La princess de Crève. Not available in English.

I bought La princesse de Crève by Kââ at Quais du Polar. I was drawn to the great cover and the play-on-word in the title. Indeed, La princesse de Crève is a reference to the famous novel La princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678) The best translation I can come with is The Snuff-it Princess, since the verb crever in this context is a slang word for to die.

My copy of La princesse de Crève is a new edition of Kââ’s 1984 crime fiction novel or polar. I’d never heard of Kââ as a writer. According to Wikipedia, it’s the pen name of Pascal Marignac who also wrote under the names of Corsélien and Béhémoth. Kââ is a reference to the python’s name in The Jungle Book.

La princesse the Crève is a roadtrip/chase classic crime fiction. It’s told at the first person by an unnamed narrator. From the context, we can guess he’s a white man in his late thirties or early forties. He’s literate, amateur of good wines and connoisseur of fire arms. He’s a criminal with principles who has the right connections in organized crime circles. As we say in French, he’s not an altar boy but still acts according to his own moral code.

When the book opens, our narrator is sitting at a terrace, on a look-out. Mr de Warny is going to cross the border between France and Switzerland with 150 000 francs hidden in the trunk. And our narrator and his accomplice have decided to block De Warny’s road and steal the cash before he gets to Switzerland. Everything goes according to plan and they manage to pinch the money right under Roman Markos’s nose, the man behind the money laundering business.

Our narrator decides to let things cool off and chooses to hide in Bruges, Belgium. He’s having dinner at a restaurant when he meets Michelle. She’s on her own. She’s the archetype of the femme fatale, a stunning blonde with smoldering eyes. She captures his attention, he chats her up only to realize that she has hitmen after her. After putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, he understands that Markos’s men are after her. He wonders if it has anything to do with him stealing the money near Switzerland. He decides to help her escape her killers, knowing his life is at stake since he took the gangster’s money.

Who is Michelle and why does she have this string of killers chasing after her? I won’t tell more about the plot. Suffice to say that La princesse de Crève is a road trip from Belgium to the South of France and even Italy. The death toll keeps increasing along the way as more hitmen pop on their road. Michelle and the narrator are constantly on the run and escaping a painful death.

I can’t say I loved La princesse de Crève. It’s well-written but there were too many corpses, too many gun fights and too many precise references to firearms I know nothing about. The constant chase was tiring in the end. There was too much action and not enough insight on the characters’ psychology. I felt like I didn’t belong to the right gender to enjoy it. All this admiration for weapons was too much testosterone for my tastes. It’s as if the genre needed landmarks to meet virility requirements. And yet, as chauvinistic as this description sounds, it’s not. Women have a good place in the novel, Michelle is not a wallflower, she has spunk. And two of the hitmen are lesbians, quite daring for 1984.

You can’t forget that La princesse de Crève was written in the 1980s. Of course, there are these constant stops at cafés to get a phone, the models of the cars used during this roadtrip/chase are well-known cars from this decade. They smoke all the time and everywhere. They pay in francs and it’s strange now that we’re used to euros.

What felt truly dated is this narrator without a past or a future, as if he were born for this moment, this plot. The reader doesn’t know much about him, he’s a bit of a hologram. We only see him in action and we draw a portrait in our head. He’s literate and never vulgar. He enjoys female company and casual sex but doesn’t objectify women. He’s a little romantic and while he never has qualms about shooting an enemy, torture is not his MO. Recent crime fiction doesn’t work that way anymore. Authors create series and the subplot about the main character’s private life is as important as the crime plot. We are used to this now and I missed it. Despite a clever writing, La princesse de Crève lacked substance on the characters developments.

Perhaps it just didn’t work for me and I shouldn’t have expected more than easy entertainment from this book.

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

December 29, 2016 17 comments

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza

Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.

I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.

Yes, I must get a tree.

Re-creation.

All that is left

noel_blancConstance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.

Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.

Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?

Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.

Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.

We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.

Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.

I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.

It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.

Highly recommended.

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 33 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.

ET DIRE QU’ON ENVOIE CES FILLES DANS UNE INSTITUTIONS SERIEUSE (McGILL) POUR APPRENDRE LA CLARTE, L’ANALYSE ET LE DOUTE SCIENTIFIQUE. ELLES SONT TELLEMENT INFECTEES PAR LA PROPAGANDE JUDEO-CHRETIENNE QUE DES QU’ELLES PARLENT A UN NEGRE, ELLES SE METTENT A PENSER EN PRIMITIVES. POUR ELLES, UN NEGRE EST TROP NAIF POUR MENTIR. C’EST PAS LEUR FAUTE, IL Y A EU, AUPARAVANT, LA BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, LE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC. (*) TO THINK THAT THESE GIRLS ARE SENT TO A SERIOUS ACADEMIC INSTITUTION (McGILL) TO LEARN CLARITY, ANALYSIS AND SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM. THEY ARE SO MUCH INFECTED BY JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA THAT AS SOON AS THEY TALK TO A NEGRO, THEY START THINKING AS PRIMITIVES. FOR THEM, A NEGRO IS TOO NAÏVE TO LIE. IT AIN’T THEIR FAULT, BEFORE, THERE WERE THE BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, THE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC.

They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.

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The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 15 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

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In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard

January 6, 2016 14 comments

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)

Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.

Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…

This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.

I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.

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Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.

Bernhard_denis_lavantDenis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.

As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.

This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.

I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.

Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.

As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.

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