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Literary escapade : Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann – dedicated to Marcel Proust

July 6, 2019 21 comments

This week I had the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann in Paris. It’s a literary hotel dedicated to Marcel Proust and in the neighborhood where Proust lived his whole life. The building itself brings you back in time:

Proust in on the façade and inside, the decoration is Proust-inspired, in the lobby, the staircase, the rooms and in the breakfast room. There’s a timeline to disclose Proust’s biography, the room card have a Proust jacket and quotes from In Search of Lost Time are printed on the walls.

The rooms are Proust inspired, each of them is named after a character of In Seach of Lost Time and marketing did its best to play on the Proust pattern. See here the bathroom door, the nightstand and the coffee corner.

They did not put cork-padded walls like in Marcel’s bedroom and I’m not sure you can send the staff on nightly errands Proust used to do with his faithful servant Céleste Albaret.

All this marketed décor could be a bit tacky if the hotel had stopped there, after staging a Proust atmosphere. The charming part is in the display tables full of Proust memorabilia. There are display cabinets and tables in the lobby, with letters written by Proust to his friends. The visitor can admire a dress made by Doucet, the famous dressmaker of Proust’s time.

Here’s a display dedicated to Céleste Albaret, who gave us a lot of details about Proust’s quotidian in her memoir. It’s her Rememberance of Things Past and it’s a lovely read. My billet about it is here.

I think it’s moving to see her letters, her pictures here, in a place that celebrates her master. She shared precious information with Proust’s readers and we should all be grateful that she decided to talk instead of taking her memories to her grave.

There’s also a marvelous map of Paris and the places Proust used to shop to or visit.

Each place comes with a caption, its location and whether it still exists or not. I could have stayed in front of it forever to imagine a literary walk to follow Proust and Céleste’s footsteps.

The lobby includes a library full of books by Proust or about Proust.

This hotel truly celebrates literature and goes beyond exploiting the “Proust trademark”, if such a thing exists in our world. After all, I was the only guest walking around, spending time by the displays and taking pictures of everything I could. I can’t be cynical about this place because I felt a genuine love for books and literature. I thought it was charming and I take any opportunity to promote literature and reading as a good thing. There are never too many reasons to praise books and authors.

If you’re in Paris one of these days and feel like checking out the lobby, the address is 11-15 rue de Constatinople, 75008 Paris. Meanwhile, you can see better photos on their website.

I wasn’t going to participate to July in Paris hosted by Tamara because, being French, I feel like I’m cheating. But this billet goes well with the event, so I’ll join in.

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 15 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 4 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

___________

(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 28 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – Interesting but difficult to read

February 27, 2019 19 comments

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1952). French title: La Conversion.

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. James Baldwin. Go Tel lt on the Mountain.

Too late for what?

Welcome to Harlem, 1935 and meet John Grimes, the teenage son of a Seventh Day Adventist substitute preacher, Gabriel. We’re on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and he’s confused.

The first part of Baldwin’s debut novel focuses on John, his home and his family. In appearance, nobody remembers his birthday, not even his mother. We’re in a poor apartment and his mother Elizabeth has trouble dealing with John’s young brother Roy and his little sister Ruth. Roy is a troublemaker, daring in a way John would never dream to be.

Gabriel’s shadow hovers over the family. He might be a man of God but he’s no angel. John hates him fiercely because he’s a preacher and violent man. His mother Elizabeth is under his yoke, somehow feeling unworthy of her husband. Gabriel has a daywork during the week and preaches during the weekend but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. We see that John lives in an unhealthy atmosphere.

For his birthday, John escapes to Manhattan and watches the white man’s world. And he wants to be part of it. This means escaping Harlem and his fate. John is also slowing understanding that he’s gay. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1952, homosexuality is not openly discussed. But the hints are there for the reader to see. John is only starting to understand his sexuality and he has a crush on Elisha, the preacher’s son.

And he watched Elisha, who was a young man in the Lord; who, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, had been given power over death and Hell. The Lord had lifted him up, and turned him around, and set his feet on the shining way. What were the thoughts of Elisha when night came, and he was alone where no eye could see, and no tongue to bear witness, save only the trumpetlike tongue of God? Were his thoughts, his bed, his body foul? What were his dreams?

John knows deep down that he’s attracted to men but, in his world, it’s too big for words. John is gay, he’s tempted by the outside world, he’s intelligent and he hates his father. Why would he want to be a preacher like his father? Instinctively, he wants more for himself and cannot deny his sexual orientation. Who he is isn’t compatible with a preacher’s life.

Too late for what? Too late to be a straight religious black man in Harlem.

But he’s fourteen and not ready to give up on other people’s expectations. His conversion is his goal, something expected from his family but also something that could bring him closer to Elisha, the preacher’s son. He has doubts that he tries to conquer but they keep creeping up his mind:

And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shore of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight and he, a witness.

He wants to be saved. Badly.

The second part of the book is a Sunday morning service in Gabriel’s church. The whole family is there, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the children and Florence, Gabriel’s sister. Baldwin takes us in Elizabeth’s, Gabriel’s and Florence’s thoughts. They mull over their past and the reader sees their personal journey and John’s origins.

Gabriel used to drink and sleep around before he was saved. Florence was pious and stayed at home, taking care of their mother and spending time with her best friend, Deborah. Gabriel was still wasting his life away when Florence left for New York, to leave her hopeless brother behind and try to have a better life in the North. Deborah was sadly well-known in their town because she had been raped by a group of white men. She’s also very pious and Gabriel later marries her. After Deborah’s death, Gabriel comes to New York too and marries Elizabeth, John’s mother. He met her through Florence. Two despairs don’t make a hope, as they will soon discover it.

They have the past of common black people in the South and John belongs to the first generation that hasn’t known the South and has lived in New York his whole life. In a way, they’re like emigrants, the parents coming from another country, another past and the children belonging to their present, to this new territory they moved to. For the adults, it’s time to look back on their past and think about it:

But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective, to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.

The dedication of Go Tell It on the Mountain is For my mother and my father. John looks like a young James Baldwin. Bright. Gay. Stepson of a preacher who married his mother when she was pregnant with him. Born in Harlem. Destined to explore the world. This novel was published in 1952, when Baldwin was living in Paris. Perhaps the geographical and emotional distance helped him write it.

For me, as interesting as it was, it was a very difficult read because of all the religious aspects. They put me off. The grand spectacle of the Sunday service was tedious to read. I was happy to read about the characters’ past, but all the religious parts bored me to death. I don’t know if they were necessary. Maybe they were, especially for foreign readers like me. Church services with events like this

The silence in the church ended when Brother Elisha, kneeling near the piano, cried out and fell backward under the power of the Lord.

as a regular occurrence is not part of my cultural background. At all. Living in Paris, Baldwin probably knew that some of his readers would need details. The Sunday service is supposed to be a powerful scene but I watched it from afar, thinking they were crazy to put themselves into such a state of mind for religion. In the end, we don’t really know where Baldwin stands, as far as religion is concerned. What does he really think about these ceremonies?

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a complicated read for me, one I can’t say I enjoyed. I expected more family confrontations and less sentences with God, Lord, the prophets and the saints in them. However, I think it’s an important book to read to understand Baldwin’s work.

Other billets about Baldwin’s work: Going to Meet the Man. A must read.

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