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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

June 2, 2019 15 comments

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) Available in French.

I never read women’s magazines, mostly because I find them vapid. I’m more of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) person as far as waiting rooms are concerned. A few weeks ago, I forgot my book at home and flipped through Grazia and stumbled upon a fascinating article about Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. I knew I had to read this and indeed, I devoured it in one sitting.

Nomadland is a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder who spent three years living on and off with vandwellers, people who left their brick-and-mortar homes to live in an RV. They move from place to place and survive on seasonal jobs. The seasonal jobs consist in working at campsites or amusement parks in the summer, at an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush or harvesting sugar in Minnesota. Bruder had her own RV, and moved around with them.

We follow Linda, a sixty-four-year-old woman who just finished to prepare her tiny RV and leaves her family to work at a campsite in California. She and her friend Silvianne will work there the whole summer. Through Linda and her friends, we slowly discover the parallel world of vandwellers, the horrible working conditions of these seasonal workers, their annual gathering in Arizona during the winter, in a place named Quartzsite.

There are three sides to Nomadland, and none of them will leave you indifferent.

The most emotional one is discovering this nomadic community, hearing about the personal stories of the people Jessica Bruder met. Most of them are old and should be enjoying retirement but their pension is not high enough for them to do so. They have to work. Some are broke because of the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their house due to a foreclosure. They lost their pension because all their money evaporated in the crash. They had health issues, went through a divorce or lost their job. They had what we call in French, des accidents de la vie, the ones that are covered by social benefits in Europe.

I felt a lot of respect for the people she met. They endure difficult living conditions because no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, living in an RV is hard. It’s tiny, it’s cold during the winter, it can break down and if you’re a city, you need to be invisible. I enjoyed the part about Quartzsite and the RV’ers reunion. It’s full of workshops to help people live better in their RV.

They stay positive, feed their hope for a better future or have decided that this way of life was best for them. They bonded. Some have blogs and Facebook pages. They live on the edge and I couldn’t help wondering what would become of them. They’re all ageing. What happens when they get sick and can’t work anymore? Where are they going to live when they are too old to move around in such a small space? Who will take care of them?

The most infuriating side of Nomadland is reading about working conditions at Amazon. Let me tell you something: besides kindle books, I will never buy anything from Amazon again. Never. The working conditions described here are despicable. We’re talking about exploiting people with an unequaled cynicism. (By the way, in Europe, the unions of 15 countries had a meeting on April 29th, 2019 to fight together for better working conditions at Amazon in Europe. Their slogan was “Treated like robots by Amazon. We are humans, not robots”)

I’m talking about inhuman working conditions regarding the environment, the stupidity of the job to be done, the cadences to be kept and the general management of employees. Their working conditions is the cost of your receiving your parcel on time.

By cynicism I mean: offering free painkillers in the breakrooms because employee ache everywhere; publishing recommendations in an in-house magazine for new employees about getting in shape before coming to be sure they’ll hold on; exploiting the easy RV’ers workforce through their recruitment site Amazon CamperForce and get tax credits for it. Here’s one story about a CamperForce experience:

When Barb and Chuck showed up in Quartzsite for the first time, they were still recovering from their three-month stint at CamperForce. Like their coworkers, they’d faced a triple trial there. First came physical exhaustion. (“Muscles I never knew I had are shouting at me after ten hours of lifting, twisting, squatting, reaching,” Barb reflected.) Then came Kafka-style madness. (After forty-five minutes spent hunting for a bin with enough room to stow a product, Barb had to repeat “breathe, breathe” to stay sane in the warehouse, which she nicknamed “Amazoo.”) Last came flat-out survival: the stress of subzero temperatures in an RV built for warmer climes. (The rig’s water supply got cut off after a filter froze and burst. Then its pump broke. Chuck lost a day of work getting repairs done.)

And the lovely Linda ended up with a repetitive motion injury from using the handheld barcode scanner. It left behind a visible mark, a grape-sized lump on her right wrist. Even worse was what she could not see: a searing pain that radiated the length of her right arm, from thumb to wrist, through elbow and shoulder, ending in her neck. Lifting an eight-ounce coffee cup or a cooking pan was enough to trigger an agonizing jolt. She believed it to be a bad case of tendonitis, but knowing that hadn’t helped abolish the affliction. A year after, she still hadn’t recovered from it. I have lots of quotes and all of them made me really angry. How can they treat people that way? Farm animals have better working conditions than that.

Now, are you going to fatten Jeff Bezos with your next Christmas shopping?

The most educational side of Nomadland was the questioning about poverty and how a rich country as America has come to this. Jessica Bruder doesn’t give lectures but peppers her story with facts and analysis. To sum it up, several factors concur to the problem: rents have increased a lot faster than wages, the American retirement-finance model showed its limits during the 2008 crisis (where is your pension when the financial markets collapse?) and all this is a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims. I’ll add wild capitalism that pushes on the selfishness button we all have in us and a criminal laissez-faire of politicians. Some things cost nothing on the country’s budget: regulations about loans, about the minimum wages, about retirement plans and protect people from corporate wolves.

But this is not a blog about economy or politics, it’s a literary blog. Why should you read Nomadland? Besides the informative content, I thought that Jessica Bruder’s writing was engaging. She writes well and wants us to share her experience. She went all in, living in an RV herself and her comments about how that felt were invaluable. She did more than interviewing vandwellers. She shared their lives, earned their trust and opened our eyes on a parallel world. I hope that Linda is doing well, I’m rooting for her and her projects. Her resilience and optimism are commendable and Jessica Bruder gave her a voice.

Rush for this book, it’s a gem.

PS: This book is in the Beach and Public Transport category, not because it’s fluffly but because it’s so well-written that it’s easy to read.

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis – Insightful

February 3, 2019 10 comments

Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (2018) Original French title: Qui a tué mon père.

Ta vie prouve que nous ne sommes pas ce que nous faisons, mais qu’au contraire nous sommes ce que nous n’avons pas fait, parce que le monde ou la société, nous en a empêchés. Parce que ce que Didier Eribon appelle des verdicts se sont abattus sur nous, gay, trans, femme, noir, pauvre, et qu’ils nous ont rendu certaines vies, certaines expériences, certains rêves, inacessibles. Your life proves that we are not what we do but in the contrary, we are what we haven’t done because the world or society was in the way. Because what Didier Eribon calls sentences have descended upon us, gays, trans, women, black or poor and these sentences have made some lives, some experiences or some dreams unreachable to us.

Who Killed My Father is a short non-fiction book by Edouard Louis, the young author of The End of Eddy. It was published on May 3rd, 2018, the exact date is relevant. Edouard Louis is also a graduate of EHESS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Sociology is his territory.

In Who Killed My Father, he comes back to his complicated relationship with his father and his social background. We understand that his father had to stop working because of a work-related accident, that his back is wrecked and that his life has been even tougher than what is described in The End of Eddy.

This short non-fiction opus is a description of the social violence done to his father and by extension, to a large part of the working class. He describes the impact of public decisions on social benefits from his father’s perspective. Through snippets of life, we see what political decisions make on the life of a man broken by hard working conditions. He gives specific examples, gives the names of the politicians who promoted a particular measure and throws them back what this or that decision entailed for the recipients of social benefits or for poor workers.

This is his father. He’s a representative of an important part of the population whose life conditions are degraded after liberal capitalism won the economic sphere and politics became a synonym of managing short-term finances.

Describing how his father was forced to take a job that was not compatible with his health condition, he rocks the boat of the generally admitted law that any job is better than no job. It becomes an excuse to accept with jobs with appalling working conditions. At the Davos summit, Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director mentioned her meeting with poultry workers in the US who had to wear nappies because they had no toilet breaks. I didn’t ven know it was legal. Shocking, right? But not surprising when you’ve read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison.

The end of Who Killed My Father is the following:

Le mois dernier, quand je suis venu te voir, avant que je parte, tu m’as demandé : « Tu fais encore de la politique ? » — le mot encore faisait référence à ma première année de lycée, quand j’avais adhéré à un parti d’extrême gauche et qu’on s’était disputés parce que tu pensais que j’allais avoir des ennuis avec la justice à force de participer à des manifestations illégales. Je t’ai dit « Oui, de plus en plus. » Tu as laissé passer trois ou quatre secondes, tu m’as regardé et enfin tu as dit : « Tu as raison. Tu as raison, je crois qu’il faudrait une bonne révolution » Last month, when I came to visit, before I left you asked me: “Are you still involved in politics?” – the word still referred to my freshman year of high school, when I subscribed to an extreme-left political party and when we argued about it because you thought I’d end up in trouble with the law with my participation to illegal demonstrations. I told you “Yes, I am. More than ever”. You let three or four seconds pass, you looked at me and finally said: “You’re right. You’re right, I think we need a good old revolution”

Publication date: May 2018. Beginning of the Yellow Vests movement: November 2018. Genuine participants to this movement: people like Edouard Louis’s father.

I read Who Killed My Father before the movement started. It stayed with me because it hit me right in the face. Edouard Louis sometimes irritates me, and certainly, he’s got his own issues. But I think it’s good for the country to have thinkers who come from the working class and who understand things that are oblivious to the ruling bourgeoisie because this reality is simply not part of their quotidian.

I wondered what Edouard Louis thought of the Yellow Vests movement and I found a great article here at The Inrocks.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

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

December 26, 2018 19 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.

Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 36 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

April 18, 2018 5 comments

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

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.

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