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The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 33 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

September 2, 2018 32 comments

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa (1922) French title: Le banquier anarchiste. Translated from the Portuguese by Françoise Laye.

The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa is a novella in which a banker explains to his audience why he is a true anarchist. It has been on my TBW (To Be Written) since April. Why? Mostly because I didn’t know how to write about it. So, it’s Catch 22. I can’t write about it properly but if I don’t, I’ll break my cardinal rule which is “write about all the books you read”.

I feel that if I start allowing myself to skip a billet, other books will be left behind as well. Where does that leave me? I still can’t write a passable billet about The Anarchist Banker but I can’t procrastinate anymore.

Solution? A short cut.

Read this witty, incredible novella where a banker will demonstrate with a lot of self-assurance that he is the only genuine anarchist in the world. If anarchist banker wasn’t such an oxymoron, the reader could believe in the banker’s reasoning.

He demonstrates that anarchism is a good system but since it’s impossible to implement, in the end the only possible system is the bourgeois system.

Pessoa has a fantastic sense of humour. His tone is both light and serious, the man totally convinced by his brilliant reasoning. He’s so ridiculous in his beliefs that it enhances the comedy of situation. This is something that could have been written by a philosophe from the Age of Enlightenment, like Montesquieu.

It is also a fascinating book to read when you think about politics and politicians. It makes you realize how a politician can convince you of something, step by step. He unfolds a reasoning in which each step holds some truth, he asks you to validate each step and one step after the other, he leads you to a path you would never have followed if you’d seen the whole journey on the map right from the start. It’s subtle and frightening and we’ve all heard politicians start with an assertion you cannot refute and then build something totally fallacious from it.

That’s what could happen to the reader here if the constant irony wasn’t a lifeline that reminds you that this reasoning is flawed.

The Anarchist Banker is also a masterful demonstration of how an idea can become the roots of a dictatorship, how radical changes in a society cannot be implemented because it’s impossible to do so everywhere at the same time and successfully. So the new system must be forcefed to the population and only an authoritative system can do it.

I really can’t tell you more about The Anarchist Banker. I highly recommend it as a masterpiece of literature but also as an educational read about all those politicians who want to attract voters through simplistic thinking.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 13 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 9 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

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