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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 18 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

July 14, 2018 22 comments

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara. (2016) Not available in French

Lisa has organized an Indigenous Literature Week from July 8 to July 15th and I picked one of her suggested read, Marie Munkara’s memoirs, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Marie Munkara is an Aborigine of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent. She was born on the banks of the River Mainoru in 1960 and lived her first three years with her family on Melville Island, an island part of the Tiwi Islands. For non-Australians like me, let’s look at maps to see where all these places are located. First a map of Australia showing where the Northern Territory is and where the Tiwi Islands are in said Northern Territory:

Now that we all have our geography in mind, let’s go back to Marie Munkara. Marie Munkara was 28 when she found her birth card at her adoptive parents’ place in Melbourne. She knew they weren’t her birth parents but she was shocked to discover her Aborigine background. When she was three and a half years old and like many Aborigines of her generation, she was taken from her birth parents to be raised by white parents. She belongs to the Stolen Generations. She was sent to a white family in Melbourne.

They chose me from a photograph, so she said. One of the many that had been shown to them in the welfare office as they sipped their cups of tea. Each of those photographs represented a kid who had been removed from their family while strangers organised their fate and then sent them on to other strangers. They call it child-trafficking nowadays but back then it was the government’s attempt at turning Australia into another Britain. By assimilating the black minority into the white population they hoped that the pesky problem of the blacks would eventually take care of itself by them either dying out or doing as they were told and relinquishing their culture and ways forever.

On top of the horror of being taken away from her parents, she was also given to a couple with an abusive mother and a pedophile father. Three layers of abuse were piled upon her little being. Munkara describe her difficult life with her white parents. She had to learn how to speak English and live in a world that didn’t really want her. She survived and tried to make the best of her circumstances.

After the joys of playgroup came school, which was even better. Here I learnt how words were put together, and the crazy rules of the English language, and after that reading just happened. I opened up a book one day and realised that I could read, and after that the world became a bigger and better place.

Her ability to survive abuse from both white parents is admirable. When she learns about her origins, she decides to fly to Darwin and visit her birth mother. A good part of her memoirs relates her living in Tiwi Islands with her birth mother, her siblings and her extended family. She has trouble adjusting to the Aborigines’ way of life which I found was between their traditional world and the Western ways.  Everything is a challenge for her. She was raised by prude Catholic white people in a town that’s probably one of the most British in all Australia. Shock of culture barely covers what she was confronted to.

She engaged in all her family’s activities, embracing their everyday life with gumption, totally out of her comfort zone. She has to learn everything about hunting, fishing, choosing a proper dress code, cooking. It’s not easy but she doesn’t give up. Her family welcomes her in their homes and in their lives as if she was expected. And yet, it must have been difficult for them too. Her personal journey to reconcile her two identities is long and heartbreaking at times. I wondered what she would end up doing since she didn’t fully belong to any of her two worlds.

I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them. The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents. The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both. I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. But I can’t because this journey is all mine. I don’t want the days when they brush me aside because I can’t get it right. I want there always to be beautiful days when the space between us is full of light and love.

Most of her journey consists in reacquainting herself with Aborigine’s vision of life, rituals, traditions and customs. She never sugarcoats what she lives and she also uncovers a side of Australia she never knew of before. For example, she sees that her birth mother limps and she’s horrified to learn she has leprosy.

Leprosy. I am shocked because I thought lepers only existed in the Bible and lived in poor countries like India and Africa. I thought they walked with bells around their necks warning people to keep clear and lived in colonies where they couldn’t infect anyone and where their limbs and appendages dropped off. I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems.

Her adaptation to her mother’s way-of-life isn’t smooth. Life in Tiwi Islands is very far from what she’s always known and her mother has reactions she can’t expect and can’t understand. The whole environment is a challenge for her and sometimes it’s hard on her.

I am disheartened by the brutality of life in this place. It’s everywhere. Dogs with broken legs that have never been set limping down the road, birds trying to fly with wings shattered by a kid’s slingshot, big green turtles turned onto their backs and carved up alive, their hearts still beating, joeys tortured. For a few minutes I long for white middle-class suburbia where ugly crap is hidden behind doors and white picket fences where I don’t have to see it.

What she describes reminded me of Kim Scott’s novel, True Country. The setting is fictional but similar: an Aborigine who lives in white Australia goes to live among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Munkara pictures the same scenes in a hostile but beautiful nature, the poverty and rampant violence. In both books, I was shocked about how much alcohol is consumed. And I guess Scott is also disheartened by Indigenous people’s living conditions. There seem to be little progress there. Thanks to Scott’s book, I wasn’t surprised by what I read about her new living conditions.

I was mostly angry for her. I can wrap my head around colonizing a place for economic reasons. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying there’s a logic behind it, greed. What I can’t fathom is this arrogance of Christianism. In this case, the Catholics decided to found a mission in this Tiwi island for no other reason than bringing “superior civilization” to these poor blackfellas. And these Catholics were so sure of their worth, of their superiority and of their evangelization duties that they found normal and even desirable to retrieve children from their families. And we’re in the 1960s, not in the 16th century. This is something I can’t understand. How could they? How could the Australian government encourage it and make it legal? And to top it off, they placed her in an abusive family, proving there was no proper screening of the foster/adoptive families. This institutionalized child trafficking is appalling.

We had that kind of institutionalized child deportation in France too with the Enfants de la Creuse scandal where 2163 children were sent to mainland France from La Réunion island from 1963 to 1982. The idea was to bring fresh blood in rural departments with low natality and high rural exodus.

In Canada, 150 000 Indigenous children were sent to the Canadian Residential School system.

We, white people really have a lot to apologize for.

Despite all the misery in Munkara’s life, this is not bleak book. She’s often quite funny in describing her experiences with her family and the confrontation of life as she knew it and life as she gets to live it with her mum. It’s challenging but rewarding. While she struggles with their different views on hygiene, personal property and modesty, she learns to enjoy the nature in her surroundings and a more relaxed approach to life.

Read more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem Land.

This read also qualifies for Australian Women Writers challenge.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 11 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

May 30, 2014 20 comments

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 1964 French title: Paris est une fête.

This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.

Hemingway_Moveable_FeastThe second book of the month for our Book Club was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Literally, a moveable feast is a feast in the Christian calendar that changes of day every year, like Easter. In the foreword, Patrick Hemingway explains the title as meaning a memory or even a state of being that had become a part of you, a thing that you could have always with you, no matter where you went or how you lived forever after, that you could never lose. An experience first fixed in time and space or a condition like happiness or love could be afterward moved or carried with you wherever you went in space and time. So, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s Rememberance of Things Past and the French title betrays that intention. When I read Paris est une fête, I expect to read about partying in the French capital. There’s nothing like this in Hemingway’s book, quite the contrary.

Hemingway relates moments of his Parisian life in the early 1920s with his first wife Hadley. Their son John was already born. During these years, Hemingway dropped journalism to concentrate on writing and he shares his daily Parisian life with us. I discovered that there were braziers outside of many of the good cafés so that you could keep warm on the terraces, just like today. But unlike today, it was safe to fish in the Seine. You could also buy goat milk fresh from goats led by a goatherd. Can you imagine goats in the streets of Paris? These affectionate details reminded me of what Proust describes when the Narrator lies in bed and listens to the street awaken below his windows.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not a reader who tends to dig into a writer’s life. I like to know the highlights of their existence but I’m not very interested in the details, their états d’âme or their writing techniques. So I had not read anything about Hemingway as a man. I had the image of a tough writer who drank a bit too much, someone brave enough to enrol in WWI and cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. I didn’t picture him as domesticated as he appears in this memoir, like here with his son nicknamed is Mr Bumby:

So the next day I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake.

I never expected his wife to call him Tatie either. For a French reader, this is totally weird as Tatie means Auntie in French. Can you imagine the Great Hemingway preparing baby bottles and being called Auntie? I thought the only bottles he held were full of alcoholic beverage.

I discovered a Hemingway faithful to his name…earnest. He was dedicated to his writing. He worked regularly, kept himself in check to avoid temptations that could spoil his writing, like going to the races, meeting with friends who liked partying…He mentions his writing schedule, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing. (I don’t like the expression creative juices, it makes me think of oranges but I don’t know another way to say it)

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway_ParisHe was quite content with a simple life with his literature, his wife and son. He says they were poor but they managed and I found him down-to-earth, low maintenance. I enjoyed reading about his Paris literary scene and I’m surprised he never interacted with French writers. He stayed in an Anglophone environment. He talks about Ford Maddox Ford –his body odour was terrible, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein –she never talked to wives, only to artists and Ezra Pound –a nice fellow, which is difficult to imagine when you read about him on Wikipedia. It’s hard to reconcile Hemingway’s literary Paris in 1920s with the one I have in mind. For me, these years are the ones of the Boeuf sur le toit, of Cocteau, Gide, Gallimard and parties. Hemingway’s Paris is more like Sándor Márai’s Paris in Les Confessions d’un Bourgeois. (Btw, they both worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung in those years.) When I read his chapters about Scott Fitzgerald, I couldn’t help thinking that Hemingway was luckier in his choice of a wife. Or more precisely, he fell in love with an easier person to live with. Literature is a writer’s mistress and his wife accepted it better than Zelda.

Style-wise, his memoir resembles his novels. I like that he used French words when he couldn’t find an English equivalent. Obviously, he used French words for food specialties and for specific drinks, but not only. For example, he uses the word métier, which means profession or job or trade but the French meaning isn’t exactly the same. It’s a word I never know how to translate into English, I found it interesting that Hemingway kept the French word. Otherwise, it’s full of simple sentences and he makes an extensive use of the conjunction and.

I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working.

Or

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it.

 I understand that this style was a revolution when it was first published but I like my literature a bit more ornate. It was polished, he gave a lot of thinking into his writing but it doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I read The Old Man and the Sea in school and hated it. (To be honest, stories with animals, whatever their philosophical meaning don’t appeal to me. I suffered greatly with The Lion by Joseph Kessel and I don’t think I’ll ever read Moby Dick. So it’s not a surprise I didn’t like this Hemingway) I wasn’t thrilled by A Farewell to Arms mostly because of the style and the love story, which is a lot to feel lukewarm about.

But now, after A Moveable Feast, I want to read The Sun Also Rises.

PS: note to the publisher: when French passages are involved, sometimes there are mistakes in French spelling and grammar. You say un jeu de jambes fantastique and not a jeux des jambes fantastiques. And a French native speaker would never say Tu ne sais pas vu? Is that intentional?

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Eight

March 5, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesThis week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.

There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:

Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là. I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)

In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.

I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.

PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin

January 19, 2014 13 comments

A Parisienne in Chicago by Marie Grandin. 1894. French title: Une Parisienne à Chicago.

Voyager. Ce mot devrait se pouvoir définir ainsi « Voir avec intérêt pour se souvenir avec bonheur et profit » To travel. This world should be defined as such : “To watch with interest in order to remember with happiness and profit”

Marie Grandin (1864-1905) went to Chicago in 1892 with her husband Léon Grandin who was a sculptor. He was hired to work on a fountain for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This exposition was to celebrate the fourth centennial of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. When she came back to France, she wrote the memoir of her trip in the USA. It was rediscovered in the 21st century thanks to the work of two academics from each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marie Grandin starts her memoir with her trip on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Lucky her, she wasn’t sea sick. She first spends some time in New York before taking the train to Chicago. Here’s her arrival in New York and her description of the Manhattan skyline:

Au réveil, un radieux et féérique décor s’étalait devant nous. En face, la terre bordée de chalets qu’ombrageaient de luxuriantes verdures ; dans la baie immense que formait l’océan, une multitude innombrable de bateaux de toutes espèces qui se croisaient en tous sens et, sur le côté dominant la mer, la colossale statue de « la Liberté éclairant le monde », du sculpteur Bartholdi. When we woke up, we saw a glorious and fairy landscape. In front of us, the land was lined with cabins in the shadow of luxuriant greenery. In the immense bay formed by the ocean, there were lots of ships of various shapes cruising in every way. On the side towards the sea, there was the colossal Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by the sculptor Bartholdi.

Grandin_françaisIsn’t that incredible? With the image of New York we have now, it’s quite difficult to imagine cabins and greenery. Her stay in New York is interesting to read. I didn’t know there used to be overhead trains in the city. She says it was quite dreadful for the people living by because of the noise and the fumes of the locomotives. On her way to Chicago, she visits the Niagara Falls. I never imagined that it was so touristy at that time. She pictures rentals of rubber boots and coats and locals making money out of tourism while tourists are herded through a defined path. The only different thing compared to nowadays was the absence of tourists shoving other tourists out of the way to take pictures.

Then Chicago. The couple lived in several boarding houses, which allowed her to share the life of the average American from Chicago. She describes everyday life like cooking, washing clothes and shares all kind of details. For example, she says that men and horses used to put wet sponges inside their hats to fight against the heat and the risk of sunstroke. I enjoyed reading about shops, life insurances, travel insurances, food safes. She was in America during the campaign of the presidential election. (Hamilton vs Cleveland) and she was surprised by the way the campaign was done and how citizens were involved in it. There were a lot of meetings, door-to-door visits to convince electors and parades to promote the candidates. She visited schools, slaughterhouses, went to Milwaukee when it was on fire.

Grandin_EnglishShe needed to adjust to the cold and the snow in winter, and she tells us about skating on Lake Michigan and how inhabitants coped with snowy and slippery roads. I loved the description of street merchants selling pop-corn and peanuts and how she had to explain carefully what it was to her French readers. That was totally unknown in France and if peanuts were common when I was a child, we still didn’t have pop-corn. I don’t think they sold popcorn in French cinemas before the mid-1990s.

Apparently, the population of Chicago being composed of a lot of German immigrants, French people weren’t that welcome in the city. She makes comparison with Paris, of course, and it’s even more interesting for a Frenchwoman. It counterbalances Edith Wharton’s blind Francophilia in French Ways and their Meaning. She compares the educational system and notices how the philosophy of teaching is different from France. I believe it’s still the case. She’s astonished by the relationships between masters and servants, servants having too much freedom in her opinion.

She observes relationships between men and women and assesses that men marry women for love and not for money whereas the French looked at the bride’s financial prospects and her dowry. Perhaps it’s right, I think I remember Sándor Márai mentioning the same thing about the Parisian society. Marie Grandin marvels at the kindness of American husbands. She finds them more caring than the French ones, more participative in housework. Personally, I thought that what she describes sounded more like treating women as fragile little flowers who shouldn’t be burdened by anything. I understand better Wharton’s flamboyant plea for a more equal partnership in marriage.

An anecdote. Once, a burglar broke into the boarding house she was living in. The men of the house managed to frighten him and he flew out of the premises. Nobody was injured and nothing was stolen. Marie Grandin says:

D’ailleurs, aucun des survenants n’était armé, et la surprise que j’exprimai parut les surprendre à leur tour.« Etre armés ? Pourquoi ?- Mais pour tirer sur cet affreux coquin !La notion scandalisa tout à fait ces braves gens. Le voleur n’ayant pas paru en vouloir à leur vie mais simplement à leur bourse, ils ne se jugeaient pas en droit de l’atteindre dans son existence. Quant à s’en rendre maîtres autrement pour le livrer à la justice, cela ne leur semblait guère plus utile, ledit voleur, dès le lendemain, pouvant être sous caution rendu à la liberté. By the way, none of the men was armed and the surprise I expressed seemed to surprise them too:“To be armed? Why?”Well, to shoot at this awful scoundrel!”The notion totally scandalized these brave people. The burglar never intended to harm them; he only wanted their money. They didn’t consider that they had a right to kill him. To get the better of him and bring him to the justice didn’t seem more useful as the said burglar could be bailed out the next day.

I found that passage really interesting as the situation would probably be reversed now. The right to have a weapon and use it for self-defense didn’t seem that necessary at the time in that part of America. Today, these men may have a weapon and the Frenchwoman would be, if not surprised, quite frightened by it.

I also liked the description of the exposition and like her, I marveled at American pragmatism. They organized day-care for children so that they could play with nannies while their parents visited the exposition. That was something completely new to her.

On her way back to France, she visited Washington DC and I can’t resist quoting another passage:

Le palais de la présidence, White House, la Maison Blanche, est une construction assez simple et dont l’accès est des plus faciles. Il suffit de demander la permission d’entrer, et l’on passe successivement dans différentes pièces qui n’ont en somme rien d’intéressant. Une fois par semaine, régulièrement, le Président reçoit toutes les personnes qui veulent bien lui rendre visite. The palace of the presidency, the White House is quite a simple building; it’s easily accessible. You only need to ask for permission to get in and you stroll through a succession of rooms which are not that interesting. Every week, regularly, the President welcomes all the people who kindly call on him.

Isn’t it incredible when you know how things are now?

All in all, Marie Grandin thought that the Chicago society was way more relaxed than the French one and that women had more freedom. She portrays a dynamic city and today’s reader can discover that part of today’s American way of life has its roots in that time too.

The only flaw of the book is its style. Marie Grandin is not a great stylist from a literary point of view. She candidly describes what she sees and sometimes it sounds great, and sometimes not so much. She probably paid more attention to what she wanted to say than to how she was going to say it. She has a style mannerism, which consist in putting long adjectives before nouns. In French, adjectives can be put before or after the noun they refer to. Most of the time, they are after the noun. Usually, the adjectives put before the noun are short ones. (Une petite fleur) but it’s not a rule (une fleur bleue). Marie Grandin repeatedly put long adjectives before nouns. (un funéraire parpaing, un monumental escalier, d’enfantins cerveaux, féminins talents) It sounds weird and heavy and there were too many of them. Good thing for English speaking readers, this is lost in translation!

I suppose it seeps through my words but I can’t tell you how much fun I had reading this. I love learning about the living habits of the past and particularly about how people like you and me used to live. I’m more interested in these everyday details than in political strategies and this book was fascinating to me. It points out differences between the way the French envision life and social rules and the way the Americans do. Sometimes what she describes is still true.

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