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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 2 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

August 7, 2019 16 comments

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique – Life of a lonely boy in Lima in the 1950s

July 31, 2019 4 comments

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique (1972) French title: Le monde de Julius. Translated from the Spanish (Peru) by Albert Bensoussan.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique was our Book Club choice for July. It is the second book by Bryce-Echenide that I’ve read. The first one was Tarzan’s TonsillitisAlfredo Bryce-Echenique was born in 1939 in Lima, Peru. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his upbringing:

Bryce was born to a Peruvian family of upper class, related to the Scottish-Peruvian businessman John Weddle Bryce (1817 in Edinburgh – 9 March 1888), ancestor of the Marquesses of Milford-Haven and of the Duchesses of Abercon and Westminster. He was the third son and the fourth of the five children of the banker Francisco Bryce Arróspide and his wife, Elena Echenique Basombrío, granddaughter of the former President José Rufino Echenique. Bryce studied elementary education at Inmaculado Corazón school, and high school at Santa María school and Saint Paul’s College, a British boarding school for boys in Lima.

These biographical elements are important to know because the Julius of A World For Julius seems to be young Alfredo’s alter ego.

Set in Lima in the 1950s (I think), A World For Julius relates six years in Julius’s childhood. When the book opens, he’s five years old. His father is dead, he lives with his mother Susan, his older brothers Santiago and Roberto (Bobby) and his sister Cinthia. They belong to a very rich family, live in a mansion in Lima, surrounded by servants. Cinthia and Julius are very close and her untimely death will leave a hole in his life.

Cinthia dies abroad, in Boston, where her family brought her to attempt a last medical treatment. I understood she died of tuberculosis. Susan’s reaction to her daughter’s death is to go on a trip in Europe with her older sons, her friend Juan Lucas and thus leaves Julius behind in the servants’ care. When she comes back, she’s married to Juan Lucas.

A World For Julius depicts the solitary life of a sensitive child who has a lot of imagination. His mother is not motherly and only the servants seem to really care about him. The whole book is based upon three recurring pillars: Juan Lucas and Susan’s socialite life, and later Santiago’s and Bobby’s, Julius’s life in school and life in the servants’ quarters.

Juan Lucas only cares about himself, enjoys playing golf, doing business and having Susan with him all the time. He’s extremely wealthy, takes a lot of care about his appearance, doesn’t want to age. He loves corrida, cocktail parties and eating at restaurants. He’s not a bad man, but he likes things to go his way. He married Susan and tries not to think to much about the kids she brought with her. He’s not a family man and doesn’t intend to behave like a father. Nothing he likes is compatible with a steady family life. He has no interest in the boys’ education and treats Santiago and Bobby more as a big brother than as a parent. He doesn’t know how to interact with Julius. The boy is too sensitive, he likes playing the piano, he’s quiet, not interested in sports, everything Juan Lucas is not.

Susan is beyond pretty and spoiled. Everyone forgives her everything since she’s polite, sophisticated and so lovely. She’s putty in Juan Lucas’s hands because she’s very much in love with him and too lazy to contradict him. It’s easier to go with the flow and indulge him than push for her own wishes. She has almost no motherly instincts. Going to Julius’s end-of-year school party is a torture, she forgets to buy presents for his birthday, kisses him in passing but never really cares about what’s going on with his life. She asks no questions about school and discovers at the end of the year that he’s first in class.

Santiago and Bobby don’t care about their brother either.

Poor Julius is left on his own and only receives affection from the servants. The team who handles the household is composed of Vilma the nanny who takes care of Julius, Nilda the cook, Carlos the driver, Celso and Daniel who do various tasks in the house. They are a tightknit group with their own lives and interactions.

Julius stands at the intersection of two worlds: he doesn’t belong to his parents’ socialite world because he’s too young and not really interested in it and by class, he doesn’t belong to the servants’ world, even if that’s where he prefers to be.

Julius grows up on his own. Sometimes his mother remembers his existence and bestows a short-lived affection and a few hugs. He seeks the attention of people from lower social classes, the school bus driver, construction workers, the house servants and beggars he sees on the street.

A World For Julius has lengthy descriptions of parties among the upper classes in Lima. I had trouble figuring out when it was set but from a few hints here and there, I gathered it was in the 1950s. We see Julius in school with classic children drama around fights, candies and interactions with the nuns. And we follow the servants’ stories at the mansion and outside of it.

A World For Julius is obviously autobiographical. It is a vibrant picture of Lima at the time but also a moving portrait of a lonely boy who can’t find his place in a house where people who should take care of him don’t. Children don’t deserve vapid and neglectful mothers. He was lucky to have caring nannies and a friendly driver.

The power of A World For Julius resides in its inventive narration. It’s told by an omniscient narrator who sounds like an African griot. It’s in spoken language, full of creative descriptions of people with nicknames to place them. It uses repetitions to help the reader remember the characters. It has a certain rhythm that keeps you reading.

Julius is an attaching character and my heart went out for this little boy who doesn’t get the affection he needs to grow up confident and certain of his place in the world.

Highly recommended.

This is my contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu.

 

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 10 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

June 23, 2019 7 comments

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen (2002) French title: Le Brodeur de Huê Translated by Sylvie Servan-Schreiber.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen was our Book Club read for May. Kien Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Kien Nguyen left Vietnam, spent some time in a refugee camp in the Philippines and arrived in the USA in 1986. He became a dentist and The Tapestries is based on his grandfather’s story. It’s his second novel.

The Tapestries opens on a wedding day, in the Hue citadel, in 1916. At the time, Vietnam was a French colony named Indochina. Ven is getting married to a groom she has never seen since a matchmaker organized the wedding. She is given away by her grandfather to the rich Nguyen family. She will discover that her groom, Dan, is seven years old. She’s 23 and has been chosen by her in-laws as a free nanny.

Soon after the wedding, Master Nguyen is accused of treason and hung. Ven manages to save Dan. The Judge Toan who was in charge of arresting the whole family takes the opportunity to confiscate all the Nguyen’s wealth. Their beautiful estate is ransacked and Ven and Dan will have to find a way to survive. Ven decides that the best place to hide Dan is to have him hired in the lion’s den as a servant.

We’ll follow the fate of these two ill-matched spouses, Ven’s devotion to Dan, Dan’s romance with his enemy’s daughter, his resilience and his newfound happiness in the art of embroidery.

I guess it’s supposed to be an ode to a beautiful romance, a fresco of the end of the Vietnam empire and traditional way of life, a picture of the French colonization and imperial Vietnam, before WWII and the long years of war against the French (1946-1954) and the Americans (1955-1975)

It could have been an excellent novel but for me it was a tedious read. The characterization wasn’t subtle enough. The bad were very nasty. Ven was very devoted. Dan was very good. The romance was corny and implausible, even if it’s supposed to be true since it’s based on Nguyen’s grandfather’s life. I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories where a character has to hold a grudge to honor their family. I’m with Gandhi, An Eye for an Eye will make the whole world blind. And Dan seemed to agree with that too.

Then I thought that the writing was clunky. The descriptions of the Vietnamese customs and landscapes were interesting but they showed it was a book intended for Western readers. They wouldn’t have been part of a real Vietnamese book. To make a long story short, it was a disappointment.

I find that books set in a country but written by authors who have emigrated are hard to pin down. Sometimes they are not written in the author’s native language, like Aki Shimasaki’s, Gao Xingjian’s or Peter May’s novels. I always wonder if their vision of their native country is distorted by their emigration and their new country. Do they romanticize their native country? How in touch are they with it and its current atmosphere? The Tapestries is a historical novel, how does Nguyen view the history of Vietnam and what’s the accuracy of what he describes?

I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re really looking for an easy read with a touch of exoticism but you could have that with the Calhoun series by William G Tapply.

Has anyone read it too? If yes, did you like it?

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 2019 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

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

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

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

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Chut!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Chut!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

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

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

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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