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The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

April 9, 2017 29 comments

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis. (2014) Original French title: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule.

Edouard Louis was born in 1992, he wrote The End of Eddy when he was 22. It is an autobiographical novel. Edouard Louis changed his name from Eddy Bellegueule to Edouard Louis when he changed of social class. He used to be Eddy Bellegueule, child of a poor working-class family in Picardie. He is now Edouard Louis, PhD in sociology. And, very important, he’s gay, was gay as Eddy, is gay as Edouard.

The End of Eddy opens with a punchy sentence: I have no happy memories of my childhood. The décor is there, you know you’re in for a lot of miserable anecdotes. And indeed, the first chapter is about with Eddy being bullied in collège (school you go to between 11 and 15) by two boys who call him a faggot. It’s a violent scene that throws the reader head first into the dark swimming-pool of his childhood memories.

His parents have five children. His two older siblings come from his mother’s first marriage. He has a younger brother and a younger sister. At the beginning, his father works in a factory and his mother stays at home to raise the children. When his father loses his job due to backaches problems, his mother starts working as a home help. He says that from early childhood he knew he was different and that he’s always been pegged as gay. He describes his life in his village in a poor neighborhood. It’s an environment where men and women have defined roles, where being a man means being tough. They don’t look into their feminine side. Being a man means playing and watching football, joking around with buddies, being tough, not going to the doctor unless you’re on death bed. In a word, and to match their language, you don’t behave like a pussy. They spend time at the pub, they drink, they fight. Women bear with them but wouldn’t want them differently. There’s a social context that make the story repeats itself: early pregnancies, early marriages, dropping out of school, poor education, poor jobs. Poor people generation after generation.

The social portray pictured in The End of Eddy is a mix of Angela’s Ashes, Billy Elliot, a film by Ken Loach and La vie de Jésus by Bruno Dumont. (Nothing to do with religion, this last one, and everything to do with a character named Freddy and living in a similar context as Eddy) Well, you see the picture. My problem was that Edouard Louis is not as plausible as the other references I mentioned. The global picture rings true but I found that he went too far. Some details don’t seem plausible for the time (we’re in the 1990s, early 2000):

Régulièrement je me rendais dans la chambre des enfants, sombre puisque nous n’avions pas la lumière dans cette pièce (nous n’avions pas assez d’argent pour y mettre un véritable éclairage, pour y suspendre un lustre ou simplement une ampoule : la chambre ne disposait que d’une lampe de bureau. (p26) I used to go to the children room, dark because there was no light in this room. (We didn’t have enough money to install a real lighting, to hang up a sheen or even a light bulb. The room only had a desk lamp)

I’m sorry I find it hard to believe that in the 1990s, in France, you don’t have a light bulb. I would have believed that his parents had trouble paying their electricity bill or that they never bothered to install a light bulb but no light bulb because it’s too expensive? No way.

In the chapter entitled Laura, he says his parents don’t have the telephone and then in the next chapter, he says his mother would call him at home when his parents were out and he was staying home alone. So, where’s the truth? I find hard to believe that they didn’t have a landline.

I have the feeling that he exaggerates details to make the picture more gruesome and miserable. The passages about the filth in houses around him is too much to be true in France in the 1990s. He wrote this when he was 22, and it might explain why he overstates his case when it’s about his family. It’s too soon after he left.

Something else bothers me. I think he downplays his own achievements in school. He writes: J’avais dix ans. J’étais nouveau au collège. (I was ten. I was new at the collège.) But the normal age to start collège is eleven. So, either the novel is inaccurate and he was indeed eleven at the time or he really was ten. If he started collège a year earlier, knowing the French school system, he was probably scouted by his primary school teachers. It means that he was brilliant in school. It is confirmed when he gets in a good lycée (high school) after collège. In the French public school system, where you live defines where you go to school. It’s possible to go to another school only if there’s an academic reason to it. So, if Eddy Bellegueule got in this other lycée, which was not the one he was supposed to go according to geography, it simply means he had outstanding grades on top of his acting skills that got him into the theatre program. All along the book, he downplays this side of his life. He must have had the school system (teachers, school directors…) on his side. They must have helped him out along the way and it’s not mentioned in the novel.

I found the social portrait too harsh and not nuanced enough and I had the feeling that he twisted the facts to give a darker image of his social background, out of spite.

The most interesting and plausible part of The End of Eddy is his inner life as a gay living in an environment where it was shameful. I think the real poignant part of the book is his struggle to conform. He wants to please his parents, he wants to have friends. At the beginning of the book, I found his statements a bit caricatural, like here:

Mes goûts aussi étaient toujours automatiquement tournés vers des goûts féminins sans que je sache ou comprenne pourquoi. J’aimais le théâtre, les chanteuses de variétés, les poupées, quand mes frères (et même, d’une certaine manière, mes sœurs) préféraient les jeux vidéo, le rap et le football. P26 My tastes were almost always automatically feminine oriented. I didn’t know or understand why. I liked theatre, variety singers and dolls when my brothers (and in a certain way even my sisters) preferred video games, rap music and football.

As the novel progresses though, his life as a gay in a homophobic environment rings true. I felt sorry for him and what he describes sounds plausible, unfortunately. Living and going to school in an area where a man is a tough guy, it doesn’t live a lot of room for boys who are different. I think this part makes the book worth reading.

A word about the title. In French, the title is “En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule” which is different from The End of Eddy. The actual translation would be To Break Away From Eddy Bellegueule. The end of Eddy Bellegueule who became Edouard Louis doesn’t happen by chance. It’s deliberate and the English title doesn’t let this on.

Something else. I understand why Eddy Bellegueule changed his name into Edouard Louis. A first name like Eddy is hard to wear in his new social circles, it really sounds like your parents picked it on TV. It gives away your social background and since he wanted nothing to do with it… But there’s more. Bellegueule means handsome mug and in French, avoir une belle gueule is a colloquial way to say that a man is handsome. The association of Eddy and Bellegueule is hard to live with, even without a chip of your shoulder regarding your origins. It sounds like Johnny Halliday or Eddy Mitchel or Mike Brant, all singers who started in the 1960s when producers made singers change their French names into American names because it was cool.

The End of Eddy was published in English recently, I’ve seen several reviews on other blogs. Even if he irritated me a lot at the beginning because I thought he was laying on it thick about his family’s actual and intellectual poverty, I was convinced by his description of his feelings as a gay in this environment.

PS: You can also read Grant’s review here

And I wish that the French publisher mentioned in a footnote that the song Eddy sings in chapter “La porte étroite” is by the French singer Renaud.

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy. Translation Tragedy

August 31, 2015 24 comments

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy (1922) Translated from the Hungarian into French by Ibolya Virág.

Il est nécessaire que chacun ait sa propre cigale dont les chants et les bercements lui font oublier toute sa vie. It is necessary that everyone has their own cicada whose songs and lullabies make them forget their whole life.

Krudy_NNN.N. stands for nomen nescio and is used to describe someone anonymous or undefined. It refers to Gyula Krúdy who was the natural child of an attorney descended from minor nobility and a servant. He was born in 1878 in Nyíregyháza, Hungary. His parents eventually got married, after their seventh child was born. Gyula Krúdy lived in Budapest where he was famous for being a gambler, a womanizer, a “prince of night”. He’s one of Hungary’s most famous writers. He wrote more than eighty-six novels and thousands of short stories. He contributed to the most important newspapers and reviews of his time, Nyugat included. He died in 1933. Sadly, most of his novels aren’t available in translation.

I usually don’t give biographical elements about writers, anyone can research them and they are, most of the time, not directly relevant with the book I’m writing about. It’s different here as N.N. is autobiographical. Gyula Krúdy wrote it during the winter 1919, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart. He was 41 at the time. N.N. is the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.

It’s lyrical, poetic, full of wonderful images. I’m sharing with you several quotes, I tried to translate them as best I could but honestly, my English is not good enough for Krúdy’s prose. If a native English speaker who can read French has other suggestions for the translations, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments.

On eût dit qu’une femme géante jetait sa jupe sur le monde lorsque la nuit tombait.

 

When the night came, it was as if a giant woman spread her skirt on the world.
Les jardins faisaient des rêves profonds à la manière des vieillards qui rêvent de leur jeunesse, d’étreinte amoureuse, de secrets sur lesquels les jardins des petites villes en savent long.

 

Gardens were dreaming deeply like old people who dream about their youth, love embraces or about secrets that gardens in small towns know a lot about.
Les étoiles d’été regardaient le monde avec une douce indulgence au travers des feuillages épais des chênes.

 

The summer stars looked at the world with sweet benevolence through the oaks’ thick foliage.
Sóvágó savait que des vents glacés hurlaient dans les montagnes, que les arbres restaient cruellement silencieux face aux plaintes désespérées de l’homme, que le prunier n’apprenait à parler que lorsqu’on taillait en lui une potence pour les sans-espoir.

 

Sóvágó knew that icy winds howled in the mountains, that trees remained cruelly silent faced with the desperate moans of mankind; that the plum tree only started to talk when someone used it to carve gallows for the hopeless.

It’s laced with nostalgia. It’s the spleen of a man who is not so young anymore, who has lived through a terrible war and whose country is dismembered. His old world does not exist anymore. He’s the cicada of the novel. He’s had his summer in Budapest, he’s had fun and now it’s over.

Krúdy describes the inn where he used to have a drink and listen to travelers and Tsiganes. He loved listening to their stories of their lives on the road. He remembers his grand-parents, his first love Juliska, his departure to Budapest. More than his former life, he depicts the seasons, the nature and the old habits.

He comes back to Juliska who now has a small farm and meets with the son they had together and that he had never met. He comes back to a simple peasant life and conjures up the smells, the landscape, the food and the cozy homes. His style is musical and evocative. It’s as if the dreamlike style of Klimt’s paintings were mixed with the themes of old Dutch masters.

It’s a difficult book to summarize, it needs to be experienced.

The picture on the cover of my book is a portrait of Gyula Krúdy. Given the theme of the book and the style of this portrait, it’s hard not to think about Marcel Proust here. However, even if the two writers were contemporaries, their writing styles differ. Krúdy’s style reminded me more of Alain Fournier but Krúdy is more anchored in reality.

Let’s face it, this is a terrible Translation Tragedy. (For newcomers, a Translation Tragedy is a fantastic book available in French but not translated into English. Or vice-versa) It seems like something Pushkin Press or NYRB Classics would publish, though.

A word about my copy of N.N. There are useful notes to give information about Hungarian references, from the names of writers or cities to the race of dogs. (I wish they’d do that with Japanese literature as well) The font used is named Janson, as an homage to a typeface created in the 17th century by the Transylvanian Miklós Misztótfalusi. The only flaw of this book as an object is that the pages are a bit hard to turn, and it’s a bit tiring for the hand to keep the book open.

I have read N.N. with Bénédicte from the blog Passage à l’Est. Check out her billets about Eastern Europe literature.

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

Happy who like Ulysses has explored

August 19, 2013 16 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. (Egy Polgár Vallomásai). French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois. Not available in English.

du_bellay

Although the title of the book refers to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by Alfred de Musset, I felt that these verses by Joachim du Bellay suited better to the book. Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is a Hungarian writer and this memoir was published in 1934, which means Márai was still young and had many years to live, which of course he wasn’t aware of. The Confessions of a Bourgeois relate his formative years until he became a writer. The first part covers his fourteen first years until the Great War starts. The second part relates his years from 1919 to 1928 and ends when his father dies.

The first part interested me for the description of his hometown, Kassa. He describes the architecture, the society, the rules, the way of life. There’s a fantastic passage about servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie and I intend to come by to it when I read Anna Edes. He pictures a society where Catholic and Jews live at peace, where people speak both German and Hungarian. Márai was born in a family from the small bourgeoisie. His father was a lawyer and he built a successful career. Márai had a strict education with every component of what was considered as good education: high school + French + English + piano. He portrays his extended family, showing the most colourful characters, some wealthier than others. Later, he was miserable in his boarding school in Budapest.

Mes ambitions me liaient à la famille et celle-ci appartenait corps et âme à une classe. Tout ce qui se trouvait en dehors de cette famille et de cette classe –hommes, femmes, intérêts ou relations—n’était que matière informe, brute, impure, assimilable aux déchets. Même à l’église, les pauvres étaient considérés comme des malades responsables de leur état, car ils n’avaient pas sur maîtriser leur vie. My ambitions were linked to my family which belonged heart and soul to a certain social class. Everything that was out of the realm of this family and this social class –men, women, interests, connections—were only made of an undefined, gross and impure clay comparable to trash. Even in church, the poor were considered as sick people responsible for their circumstances because they didn’t manage to shape their lives.

marai_confessionsAfter high school, he went to university in Leipzig. This is the starting point of a decade of living abroad. He lived in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin and then six years in Paris, interrupted by months in Florence and frequent visits to London. He wants to discover “Europe” and in his mind, Western Europe means France and Great Britain. What did he do during these years? He wrote articles for different newspapers, especially for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, lived hand to mouth and went from one rented room to the other. He mingled into all kinds of circles. He went to class but never actually got a diploma. He wandered, dreamed, drank and contemplated life.

There are fascinating passages about Berlin in the early 1920s, insight about the French society in the 1920s. (Some observations match with what Edith Wharton wrote in French Ways and their Meaning.) During that time, he got married with Lola, a woman from Kassa who was also in Berlin. These ten years are the decade during which he matures into a writer. He stores – consciously or not – material for future books.

Then, he eventually decided it was time for him to go home, not in Kassa, but in Budapest. He wanted to come back to his culture, but more importantly, to his language. He didn’t think that a writer could fully express themselves in another language than their mother tongue. (More of that in an upcoming billet) Hence the du Bellay reference.

What did I think of this memoir? First, a word about the translation. My French copy was translated by Georges Kassai and Zéno Bianu. I found it annoying because of the extensive use of quotation marks around words. For example:

Je n’avais aucune intention de “faire carrière” et, au fond, je n’attribuais guère d’importance à mes relations avec ce “journal de province” I had no intention to “make a career” and actually, I didn’t care much about my connection with this “provincial newspapers”

Please tell me why we need quotation marks here. Either it’s the right choice of word, either it’s not, and then the French dictionary is thick enough to provide the translator with a better fit. Isn’t making a choice –no matter how imperfect it is—the job of the translator? It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this under Kassai’s pen. This frequent indecision irritated me.

I’m not much into knowing writers through their memoirs or their detailed bios. I bought this because I wanted to read about Hungary at the beginning of the 20thC to illustrate and understand its literature better. Save for the first part, most of the book (almost 600 pages) is set outside of Hungary. I was very disappointed that he totally skipped the Great War’s years and politics in the 1920s. Two sentences about the war (he was mobilized at 18) and not a word about the devastating consequences it had on the Austro-Hungarian empire and thus, on his life. In once sentence, you learn that he can’t go back to Kassa since it’s now in Czechoslovakia. The war made him stateless. Isn’t this a major event? He mentions the fascists when he relates his stay in Florence, he mentions the economic disaster experienced by the German bourgeoisie, the riots in Berlin. But all this is said on a light tone, in the middle of a paragraph, without analysis or personnel assessment of the events. Frustrating, especially when he writer is a journalist.

What does he say, then? He’s self-centred, talks a bit about the characters that cross his life. He was quite a womaniser and never was seriously involved with a woman and suddenly, he’s married. One meeting for tea and a few months later, they’re married. He must have been in love, given his track record with women but he doesn’t say a word about his feelings. It’s called “confessions” but the man himself remains aloof. He neither uses this book to analyse the world he lives in –which Musset did—nor to expose his inner self—which Rousseau did. It’s just his peregrinations, his thoughts about writing, being a writer and his slow process of turning from an adolescent to a man, an author. To be honest, I didn’t like much the man half revealed in this book. I want to read one of his novels now, to see how this mildly interesting man was as a writer.

What happened to him later? The fled from Hungary in 1948, lived in different European countries and eventually settled for the rest of his life in San Diego, California. He only wrote in Hungarian.

Here’s one last quote:

Mais dans les instants privilégiés de notre existence, une explosion assourdissante –le pianissimo du silence équivaut quelquefois au fortissimo d’une déflagration—nous avertit que nous nous sommes trompés de chemin, que nous n’habitons pas là où nous voudrions vivre, que nous n’exerçons pas le métier pour lequel nous sommes faits, que nous recherchons les faveurs et suscitons la colère de personnes avec lesquels nous n’avons pas grand-chose en commun, alors que nous traitons avec indifférence celles qui nous importent vraiment. Si l’on reste sourd à ce genre d’avertissement, on risque de passer à côté de la vie, de passer une existence mutilée et superficielle. Il ne s’agit nullement d’un rêve, fût-il diurne, mais d’une sorte d’illumination qui nous révèle notre réalité profonde, nos obligations, nos engagements et notre destinée personnelle –tout ce qui, au-delà de la misère échue à la condition humaine, nous appartient en propre. But during the precious moments of our existence, a deafening explosion—the pianissimo of a silence sometimes equals the fortissimo of a blow—warns us that we have taken the wrong path, that we don’t live where we’d like to, that we don’t have the profession we are meant for, that we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter. If one remains deaf to that kind of warning, one risks to miss out on life, to live a mutilated and shallow existence. It has nothing to do with a dream, even diurnal. It is a sort of enlightenment which reveals us our true reality, our obligations, our commitments and our personal destiny, everything that belongs to us, above the misery inherent to the human condition.

I read. It’s like a disease

April 21, 2012 18 comments

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

The Road by Jack London

October 15, 2011 17 comments

The Road by Jack London. 1907.

In The Road, Jack London relates his years as a hobo in America and Canada in the years 1894-1895. The book comes more than 10 years after the journey and there is a good chance that it is constructed for readers and written to be appealing. London had notebooks during those years, we can expect they helped him with the details. I really enjoyed reading this book, it’s full of buoyant life and a precious testimony on the USA in that time. Each chapter deals with a particular theme and I was surprised several times. For example, I thought it was easier to relay on begging than today. People would give him food when he begs, sometimes even inviting him in their homes. However, when he tells his life with other tramps, charity could become more a question of good sense than of good heart:

We [85 tramps] took up a collection and sent a telegram to the authorities of that town. The text of the message was that eighty-five healthy, hungry hoboes would arrive about noon and that it would be a good idea to have dinner ready for them. The authorities of Grand Island had two courses open to them. They could feed us, or they could throw us in jail. In the latter event they’d have to feed us anyway, and they decided wisely that one meal would be the cheaper way.

I will always marvel at the organization of these hobos on one side and at the decision-making process based on profitability on the other side. This is how I see America: able to forget about principles when it’s cheaper to surrender. I was also astonished by the tale of the two thousand tramp army led by General Kelly and its odyssey on the Des Moines River or the violence he encounters sometimes.

The chapter about how to “hold her down” i.e. travel on trains without a ticket is incredible. He relates how hobos are chased by train drivers and employees. He explains all the strategies he used to go on and off the trains and not get caught. All this was extremely dangerous and he traveled in awful conditions soaked up by rain or frozen by a fierce cold.

His description of his stay in a Canadian prison is appalling. He pictures very well the balance of power between the prisoners, the fishy business among the prisoners and with the guards, the corruption, the violence. Eat before you are eaten. Oh, we were wolves, believe me—just like the fellows who do business in Wall Street. You can’t keep the Socialist out of London for long!

The last chapter is about the “bulls”, the cops. The French translator chose to translate the word literally (les taureaux), probably to keep the impressive image of the English. In French, the two animals used to call the cops are vache (cow) or, the most used, poulet (chicken). I know, I know, for an American, calling a policeman a bull or a chicken doesn’t convey the same image at all. From what I see now that I’m looking for the original text of the quotes I’ve chosen, the French translation is exceptional. It manages to keep the originality and the freshness of London’s tone and adapt it to the French. For example, when London says the bulls is horstile, it’s translated by « les taureaux sont diabominables », diabominable being a portmanteau word made of “diable” (devil) and “abominable” (awful).

The Road fascinated Jack Kerouac. On the Road comes from that fascination but it’s already tainted. Although Kerouac’s book is the image of freedom for generation of readers, the book of pure freedom is The Road. London doesn’t search for anything, he just can’t stay long at the same place and wants to be free.

Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp—well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because—well, just because it was easier to than not to.

THAT is why the book oozes freedom and a lot more than Kerouac’s On the Road. In London, there aren’t any drugs or alcohol or sex, no artificial paradises. He doesn’t need anything, he just wants to live from hand to mouth like a real hobo. There’s no spiritual quest and thus no expectation and no disappointment. Any book walking in the same shoes can only be a pale copy. Nothing compares to London’s appetite for a no-string life. When I was reading, I had in mind the beautiful images of the film I’m not there by Todd Haynes, the bits with the little black hobo.

PS: If you’re interested, you can have a look at my review of On The Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, based upon On the Road by Jack Kerouac, itself based on The Road by Jack London. La boucle est bouclée, that’s what we say in French in such cases.

One can forget their past, it doesn’t mean they’ll recover from it.

May 20, 2011 12 comments

Un roman français by Frédéric Beigbeder. 2009. 246 pages. Will be published in English (UK) in June 2012. Prix Renaudot 2009

Dear Frédéric,

May I call you Frédéric? I think I can after reading Un Roman français; after all, you’ve already let me enter into your head. Notice how English is comfortable here, I don’t have to choose between “tu” and “vous”. Convenient.

I received your book as a Christmas gift and I read it because I chose it for the Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather not. For instance when the OH says ‘you’ll really like this’ and you’re thinking ‘no, I really won’t…’ Yeah, I know, that hurts your pride a little. If that can help, Michel Houellebecq is in my hell’s challenge too. Feel better?

It’s not your fault if I’m suspicious when famous people write books. And you’re famous, well at least in France’s media cosmos. Even I who don’t watch TV or read Elle or tabloids have heard your name. In short, I don’t really know your public character and I started reading your book reluctantly but with fresh eyes. So what’s the verdict? I enjoyed it. Aren’t readers won against their will the most precious ones?  

You say you started writing this autobiography in your head when you were arrested for cocaine abuse on the street. The chapters about your experience in jail aren’t my favourite ones. Don’t you exaggerate a little?

You’ve had a nice childhood and you know it. Your family has always been rich, partly aristocratic and with high connections. Your parents got a divorce; that happens. Your father was absent and week-ends at his place were more about partying than family life. Your mother changed of lovers but was present. Your elder brother looks perfect and you decided you could exist only by being his opposite. You two used to fight constantly.

All this is really banal.  

You’re at your best when you describe your mal de vivre, your clumsiness and your vision of life as a child, like here: “I spent all my childhood fighting against blushing. Someone talked to me? Rosy blotches blossomed on my cheeks. A girl looked at me? My cheekbones turned garnet. The teacher asked me a question in class? My face flushed bright crimson. I had imagined techniques to hide my blushing: redo my shoelaces, turn back as if there were suddenly something fascinating to look at right behind me, run out of the room, hide my face behind my hair, take off my jumper.”

I could feel the tenderness for your daughter Chloë and I appreciate you don’t try to disguise you fail her as a father sometimes. I enjoyed reading your book for its honesty. You genuinely tried to bring back the little boy you were. You also manage to give back the flavour of these years in France. I’m younger than you but I recognised parts of my own childhood. However, I wonder how your translators will deal with Mako Moulage and all those French references but it brought back those years.  

Something else, Frédéric. Stop dropping names and making literary comparisons such as “She was a tall, blond girl bended over her piano like a heroine in a novel by Henry James”. You use them as mental crutches to rely on but you don’t need them. Your writing is good enough, when you write such phrases as “When I left the church, I saw the sun dissolving into the branches of a cypress tree, like a gold nugget in a giant’s hand.” You don’t need to ask for literary approval by invoking the lares of all the dead writers you admire.

You wrote “I haven’t found a better definition of what literature can bring: hearing a human voice” Well, I heard yours.

Best regards.  

PS: I rescued your novel 99F from the archive room at work where it laid abandoned. I’ll probably read it.

 

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