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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – A must read.

March 17, 2019 9 comments

If Beale Street Coult Talk by James Baldwin (1974) French title: Si Beale Street pouvait parler.

Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. James Baldwin

This is a way to tell the reader that what happens in Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk can happen everywhere in America. It’s painfully banal.

Fonny and Tish, the main characters, could be anyone. Fonny is twenty-two and Tish is nineteen. They live in Harlem in the early 1970s. They’ve known each other since they were children and are now a young couple in love. Marriage is in the air. Fonny wants to be a sculptor and works as a short order cook to make ends meet. Tish works in a fancy department store, in the perfume stand, where hiring a black clerk shows off how progressive the store is. They’re looking for a loft in the Village, to start their life together and for Fonny to have a workshop.

As soon as the book starts, we know that Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s accused of raping a woman from Porto Rico. Tish is pregnant with their baby. Tish is our narrator, her voice a haunting presence, aged by her circumstances. She recalls her life with Fonny, their love and tells us about their fight to get him out of jail. 

If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young and hopeful couple crushed by a system who wants its black population staying in designated neighborhoods and nowhere else. Except jail.

Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies. And perhaps I clung to Fonny, perhaps Fonny saved me because he was just about the only boy I know who wasn’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores – and he never got his hair conked: it just stayed nappy. He started working as a short order cook in a barbecue joint, so he could eat, and he found a basement where he could work on his wood and he was at our house more often than he was at his own house.

And indeed, Fonny’s only crime is to move out of Harlem to the Village, to dare to be a sculptor.

That same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re supposed to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.

That’s probably his only crime.

Fonny’s fall is staged. The victim was raped on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side and Fonny lives on Bank Street in the Village. As Tish points out, it’s a long way to run with a police officer on your heels. I put random addresses in Google Maps to see the distance between Orchard Street and Bank Street and it says it takes two hours and a half to walk from one street to the other. What marathon runners Fonny and this cop must have been to cover this distance.

The system is meant to crush them and no one will lift a finger to point out the obvious: that this procedure is ludicrous and unfair. Fonny’s white lawyer, Hayward is genuinely on the case. But the system throws any hurdle it can on the way. And his dedication on the case is suspicious to his peers, he starts to be an outcast in his profession.

It’s a haunting story because of Tish’s voice. She’s dead calm, telling her story with precision and resignation. And yet she fights and stays strong. Her family and Fonny’s father Frank gather around the young couple. They fight with all their might but their power is limited by their financial means and the color of their skin.

The only ones who don’t fight are Fonny’s mother and sisters. These churchy persons rely on God’s goodwill. If Fonny is meant to go out of prison, God will take care of it. They even feed the white power’s fire by speaking ill of Fonny, their own family. It’s so against actual Christian values that it would be laughable if it didn’t have such tragic consequences.

From the beginning, the reader knows that this is real life, not some Hollywood tale with a fairy godmother who saves the day. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain recently. In his debut novel, Balwin, the son of a preacher, hadn’t made up his mind regarding religion. In Beale Street, he has.

Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.

I also watched I Am Not Your Negroa documentary that leaves you shaken. Beale Street includes a lot of Baldwin’s thinking about America. In an interview, he explains that he’s between Martin Luther King’s views and Malcom X’s position. His ambivalence toward religion makes him challenge the non-violent attitude. The power of love cannot conquer all, as Tish and Fonny finds out. Worse, pious people can be your enemies, through their passivity and their feeling of superiority.

But he also says that he cannot hate all white people because he had a white school teacher when he was little and she took him under her wing. Seeing a bright child, she brought him books, took him out and helped him be more than what society had decided a black boy should be. Her kindness rooted in him the knowledge that not all white people were made of the same cloth.

Beale Street reflects that as well, as three white citizen help Fonny and Tish along the way. A landlord who doesn’t mind renting a loft to a black couple. An Italian woman who comes to Tish’s defense when she’s harassed by a white man. And of course, Hayward, the white lawyer who doesn’t give up.

King’s views might be too optimistic and Malcom X’s views might be too extreme. Baldwin stands in the middle. He’s implacable in his description of America, both in Beale Street and in I Am Not Your Negro. He throws punches with facts and cold anger. He’s rational and spot on, except when he says he doesn’t believe that a black man could become president of the USA within 40 years. He doesn’t spread hatred, he just wants the white population of the USA to acknowledge that African-Americans contributed to the construction of the country, that America is their legitimate homeland.

But Beale Street is a lot more than a political novel. It’s a delicate picture of young love. Baldwin writes graceful pages about Tish and Fonny’s new love, how their friendship turned into something more, how strong they are together and how solid their bond is. It’s described beautifully, through little touches here and there, in small moves and looks. No grand gestures here, only feelings that grow timidly, find a suitable compost and bloom beautifully. Their love has solid roots, they should have a future together, one that is robbed from them.

Baldwin is a master at mixing a lovely romance with strong political ideas and a great sense of place. Even if Beale Street could be any place in America according to Baldwin, in this novel, there’s no denying that we are in New York. Again, I’m amazed at his talent. His voice walks on the difficult line of being accusing but not yelling. He chooses a love story to throw uncomfortable political truths at us. And yet the romance is not a prop for politics. It has its own beauty, its own worth. And, this, my reading friends, is only achieved by masters of literature. 

Not “Highly recommended”, but like Going to Meet the Man, a Must Read.

See other reviews here, one by Claire and one by Jacqui

Pavane for a Dead Princess by  Park Min-gyu – A bittersweet Korean novel

March 3, 2019 8 comments

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu (2009) French title: Pavane pour une infante défunte. Translated from the Korean by Hwang Ju-young and Jean-Claude de Crescenzo.

For February, our Book Club read was Pavane for a Dead Princess by Korean writer Park Min-gyu. The book opens on a poetic scene. Two lovers meet up on a snowy day, they barely speak, too overwhelmed by their reunion. He wasn’t sure she would be there. The scene seems to come out of In the Mood for Love.

Then we go back one year in time. The narrator, who will remained unnamed, briefly evokes his childhood. His father was a struggling actor supported by his wife. She’s plain, too plain and simple to have such a handsome and lively husband. Success comes and wife and child are discarded as yesterday’s paper. They don’t fit in this man’s glamorous new life and they are erased from it. The narrator’s mother collapses, goes back to her hometown and the narrator stays by himself in Seoul.

We’re in 1986, he’s 19. Soon, he drifts away. He’s still in high school but drops out and starts working in the underground parking lot of a large department store. He works in the fourth underground level, in the bowels of the department store and helps shoppers park their car. He befriends Yohan who makes sure the narrator stays appointed to this level. There are downtimes at this level and Yohan and the narrator have time to speak.

They start having drinks in a bar named Kentucky Chicken. They meet there, talk, and eat a lot of fried chicken. (Fashionable food in Korea in the 1980s, according to the translator) Yohan and the narrator were both in dire need of a friend.

Then the narrator, who inherited his father’s good looks, falls in love with an ugly coworker. With a touching sensitivity, Pavane for a Dead Princess tells the tentative romance between the narrator and the girl, who remains unnamed too. She can’t believe he’s genuinely interested in her since she’s so unattractive. But they have a connection. They are both thrown in life without a proper toolbox. He hasn’t really recovered from the collapse of his parents’ marriage. That’s his baggage. She’s ugly and Park explains clearly it impacts her life. People stare at her on the streets, she cannot find a proper job and she has no hope of marrying. That’s her baggage. Yohan is their porter, he lifts their baggage off their backs long enough for them to walk towards each other.

Pavane is a difficult book to describe. Nothing much happens but the slow and deep romance between the two protagonists. Not much is described, little brushes here and there and the reader knows that behind shy looks and conversations, a solid relationship is taking roots. Both are out of the Korean mainstream: they don’t want –or can’t—invest in looks and appearances. They don’t want to keep up appearances. That makes them outsiders. And Camus is one of the authors that the narrator reads and likes. The narrator feels as detached about his life as Meursault. The girl grounds him. He has to tame her like the Fox in The Little Prince, another recurrent literary reference in the book.

This brings us to another key aspect of Pavane: the cult of beauty and the mad race of consumerism. Park portrays Korea and Seoul in the 1980s, as a negative of the narrator. He’s a high school dropout in a dead-end job. He lives alone with his cat and has only one friend, Yohan. He doesn’t go with the flow of the country. Korea is in the 1980s as all Western countries are. People want to earn more money, to be successful and show off their cash through material possessions. It was the time Madonna sang Material Girl. Their goals are dictated by raging capitalism. A good degree. A demanding but well-paying job. A big car. A big house. A partner who works just as hard and children who enter competitive schools. And good looks.

Capitalism is taking over and the narrator lives on the fringe. Park is very critical about the impact of capitalism on people’s lives and on their artificial need to buy more and more. It’s an empty race to buy the next shiny thing publicity tells you you must have. In a way, Pavane is a subversive book with main characters who refuse to play by society’s rules.

Pavane is full of Western cultural references. Its title is a piano piece by Maurice Ravel. Music is important throughout the novel as the narrator describes his state of mind via songs. I put up a playlist while I was reading and it really suits the atmosphere of the novel. Chapters are named after songs or lyrics and it’s mostly Western music that our characters are listening. Classical music, classic country, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Pavane is an odd book with a surprising ending, concocted by a facetious writer. It’s my first Korean book and I’m not sure it’s representative of Korean literature. It’s a cousin of Norwegian Wood by Murakami and His Kingdom by Han Han. Murakami lovers will probably enjoy Park Min-gyu.

Park’s style is full of poetry, of odd comparisons and images. Yohan’s discussions with the narrator are embroidered with vivid, unusual and still spot on metaphors. It’s offbeat, humorous and philosophical. The heroes’ favorite joint has two misspellings in its neon signs. The mistakes are like Freudian slips, it gives the place some character, a bit of poetry and philosophical air. It’s written BEAR instead of BEER, Yohan and the narrator bears their lives. Hope is on the front, a mix between Korean alphabet and English. The mistakes become a symbol of the narrator’s and Yohan’s lives as outcasts. They come here together to bear and to hope.

I went through Park’s mirror and immersed myself in his story, drawn by his voice and I cared for his characters. I can picture it as a graphic novel too, with grey and light blue tones. I also liked the author’s note. After reading a book, I often wonder if I’d like to meet (or would have liked to meet) its author. In this case, it’s definitely yes. He seems to be a discordant voice in Korean literature and I’m interested in discordant voices.

Warmly recommended.

Of course, Tony has already reviewed it. Read his thoughts here.

For the fun of it, here’s the playlist:

  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Baby One More Time by Britney Spears
  • Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel
  • The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
  • My Old Kentucky Home (I picked the Johnny Cash version)
  • Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles
  • Something by The Beatles
  • Black Bird by The Beatles
  • Michelle by The Beatles
  • Petit Poucet (Ma mère l’Oye) by Maurice Ravel
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • Gymnopedie by Erik Satie
  • Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan

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

February 27, 2019 19 comments

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

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

Too late for what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wants to be saved. Badly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

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

November 18, 2018 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

November 11, 2018 24 comments

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. (2012) French title: Le tabac Tresniek. Translated from the German (Austria) by Elisabeth Landes.

The Tobacconist is my first read for German Lit Month organized by Caroline and Lizzy. I’m not sure I need to introduce this novel as it has been reviewed numerous times.

The young Franz Huchel is sent from his village on the Attersee in Upper Austria to work as an apprentice at a tobacconist in Vienna. The owner, Otto Tresniek is an old friend of Franz’s mother and has accepted to take him under his wing.

Franz arrives in Vienna at the end of the summer 1937, a few months before the Anschluss. He stays with Otto Tresniek and is introduced to the tobacconist-newsdealer trade. He learns about the different kind of cigarettes and cigars and slowly gets used to reading all the newspapers everyday as a proper newsdealer should, in Otto Tresniek’s mind.

Up to that stage of the book, I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the Salzkammergut region were nice, it looked like a good coming-of-age novel in troubled times. We’re in page 43 in my French edition when Sigmund Freud enters the story and everything went downhill from there.

I disliked that Robert Seethaler felt he needed the crutch of a larger-than-life character like Freud to give substance to his story. He had a good start, why were anonymous Vienna inhabitants not enough to hold the story?

Then Franz spends a Sunday at the Prater amusement park, gets acquainted with a mysterious girl who disappears on him. This part was nice and should have ended there, as a lesson learned for young Franz. But he becomes obsessed with this girl, talks about love with Freud and decides to look for her. He finds her, her name is Aneszka and she comes from Bohemia. That thread peters out oddly and suddenly we leave his angst and Aneszka behind without really understanding why.

In the background, the Nazis take power in Austria, in the country but in the minds too. The tobacconist is attacked, the Nazi dictatorship settles in the country and the first visible deaths arrive. But to me, that part wasn’t convincing either. There is no real exploration either of what happens to the country on a political level or on what it does on people’s everyday lives. There are hints but not built well enough to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

The Tobacconist felt like a series of missed opportunities. To picture Vienna in 1937. To dissect how the Nazi took power in Austria. To show how a young country boy adapted to the big city and to the political context. To recreate the life of ordinary people in the Vienna of that time.

There are good ideas in this book but for me, they didn’t click together and made a convincing puzzle. And, as you can see, I have no quote to share because I didn’t highlight anything in the book. If you’ve read The Tobacconist, I hope you’ll share your opinion about it in the comments, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

For more enthusiastic reviews, see Lisa’s here and Susanna’s here.

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended.

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

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