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Spanish Lit Month : No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

July 31, 2017 10 comments

No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (1990) French title : Sans nouvelles de Gurb. (Translated by François Mespero. Original Spanish title: Sin noticias de Gurb)

Lucky me, this year, Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard is extended to August and to Portuguese Literature. Since I’m on holiday in Spain and Portugal, I’m more than happy to participate. This billet is my first about Spanish literature this year. Don’t count on me to write a billet on a book by Javier Marias, I’m not a fan. But like last year with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub, I picked up two crazy books, No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza and One Way Journey by Carlos Salem. I loved Salem’s Swimming Without Getting Wet and I wanted to read another one by him. But that will be another billet.

First published by instalments in El Païs, No Word From Gurb is a novella by Eduardo Mendoza. It is the diary of an alien who landed in Barcelona from his planet. He’s accompanied in his mission to explore the planet Earth by his partner Gurb. In order to explore our world inconspicuously, they pick a physical appearance in a catalogue. Gurb went out looking like Madonna and went missing. The book was written in 1990, you can imagine the kind of attention he must have brought to himself walking around looking like Madonna.

The unnamed narrator and author of the diary decides to leave their spaceship to look for Gurb. From the 10th to the 24th of this month, we follow our narrator in his adventures in Barcelona. And it’s huge fun as he explores both the city and human condition.

As mentioned before, we’re in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Olympic Games and the city is a work in progress. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous as the Narrator soon experiences:

8h00 Je me matérialise à l’endroit dénommé carrefour Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. Je suis écrasé par l’autobus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. Je dois récupérer ma tête qui est allée rouler à la suite de la collision. Opération malaisée du fait de l’affluence des véhicules.

8h01 : Ecrasé par une Opel Corsa

8h02 : Ecrasé par une camionnette de livraison

8h03 : Ecrasé par un taxi

8h04 : Je récupère ma tête et je la lave à une fontaine publique située à quelques mètres du lieu de la collision. J’en profite pour analyser la composition de l’eau locale : hydrogène, oxygène et caca.

8:00 I materialize myself at a place named crossroads Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. I am run over by the bus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. I have to fetch my head that rolled away after the collision. Difficult action because of the flow of vehicles.

8:01: Run over by an Opel Corsa

8:02: Run over by a delivery truck

8:03 : Run over by a taxi

8:04: I fetch my head and I wash it in a nearby public fountain. I take advantage of the task to analyze the local water: hydrogen, oxygen and poo.

They are some roadworks everywhere, museums are closed for renovations and when the Narrator wants to buy an apartment, the realtor asks him if he wants to buy one in the Olympic Village. The whole city runs around the upcoming event.  Mendoza gently mocks the city council of Barcelona.

La pluie de Barcelone ressemble à l’activité de son Conseil municipal : elle est rare, mais quand elle tombe, elle est d’une brutalité stupéfiante. The Barcelona rain looks like the activity of its city council: it is rare but when it happens, it is of a stupefying brutality.

One of the local councilors encourages the Barcelona inhabitants to trade their car for a bike to improve traffic in the city center. Our Narrator comments:

Peut-être les gens se serviraient-ils davantage de bicyclettes si la ville était plus plate, mais c’est un problème insoluble car elle est déjà entièrement construite comme cela. Une autre solution serait que la municipalité mettre des bicyclettes à disposition des passants dans la partie haute de la ville, ce qui leur permettrait de se laisser glisser très rapidement jusqu’au centre, presque sans pédaler. Une fois au centre, la même municipalité (ou, en son lieu et place, une entreprise concessionnaire) se chargerait de mettre les bicyclettes sur des camions et de les renvoyer dans la partie haute. Ce système serait relativement peu coûteux. Maybe people would use their bikes more often if the city were flat but it’s an intractable problem because it’s already built that way. Another solution would be that the city put bikes at the disposal of people living in the highest part of the city. They could glide quickly to the city center, almost without pedaling. Once in the city center, the municipality (or a private company) would load the bikes on trucks and bring them back to the upper neighborhoods. This would be a cheap system.

We’re in 1990. I don’t know if this existed somewhere. However, I know that in 2005 the city of Lyon, which is about as flat as Barcelona, signed a contract with JC Decaux to provide free bikes around the city. It is well-known to Lyon inhabitants that people ride bikes down from the Croix-Rousse neighborhood but never up and that trucks need to bring the bikes up there. Visionary Narrator, it seems.

The Narrator also interacts with different people in Barcelona, a café owner and his wife, a concierge, his neighbors and various salespeople in shops. Once he gets acquainted with a corporate executive and Mendoza makes fun of the business frenzy in Catalonia.

Besides exploring Barcelona’s way-of-life, the Narrator also experiences human condition. He takes colloquial expressions at face value and it gives hilarious deadpan entries in his journal, like this one:

8h05 : J’essaye de rentrer chez moi en traînant des pieds. Ou l’expression (courante) ne correspond pas à la réalité, ou alors il existe une méthode que je ne connais pas pour traîner des deux pieds en même temps. J’essaye de laisser traîner un pied et de faire un saut en avant avec l’autre (pied). Je me retrouve à plat ventre. 8:05: I try to go home, dragging my feet. Either the common expression doesn’t correspond to reality or there is an unknown-to-me method to drag both feet at the same time. I try to drag one foot and to leap with the other at the same time. I end up sprawled on my stomach.

The whole novella is peppered with funny moments like this, the contrast between the action and the serious tone creates a fantastic comical effect. I loved his attempts at hitting on his pretty neighbor or his ideas to get acquainted with his neighbors or his obvious love for human food.

This is a book that we’ll make you laugh and unwind. There’s no artistic purpose to this novella, it’s fun for fun’s sake. In other words, it’s a perfect Beach & Public Transport Book.

 

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (1950) French title: La chasse aux canards. Translated into French from the Dutch (Belgium) by Elly Overziers et Jean Raine.

I’m terribly late with my billets and here I am in June, writing about a novel I read back in January. I am overworked and I don’t have enough time to keep up with everything but let’s be honest, as far as this billet is concerned, I was dragging my feet.

The Duck Hunt is the bleakest story I’ve read this year, it’s even worse than Caribou Island. We’re in the early 1920s in the Dutch speaking countryside of Belgium. The Metsiers live in an isolated farm. Here’s the picture: the father was killed during a duck hunt, the mother has an affair with Peter, the farm hand; Yannie, the mildly-retarded son is head over heels in love with his…sister Ana and the said daughter and sister just broke things off with another farmer, the Fat Smelders. Then Ana meets Jim Braddock, a black American soldier stationed in her village. That’s the cheery setting of The Duck Hunt.

Hugo Claus alternates short chapters, all one-person narratives. We see the events through everyone’s eyes: Peter, Ma, Ana, Yannie, Jim Braddock and even Jules, another villager. The American soldier is the only one who’s called by his full name, probably because he’s the stranger and the foreigner.

Although I admire Claus’s craft –he manages to pack a lot in a short 137 pages – I can’t say I enjoyed or even like The Duck Hunt. I have trouble liking books set in grim villages where unhealthy relationships are born from too much isolation and too much proximity. It gives an unpleasant vibe of consanguinity mixed with crass ignorance. It made me shudder and I wasn’t keen on finishing it and I’ve been procrastinating the billet ever since, reluctant to go back to this disagreeable atmosphere. It’s like The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I really disliked.

It’s obviously a good piece of literature but it’s not what I like to read. After reading this and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I bought The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald because I was in desperate need of a feel-good novel. I’ve just read it and the billet will hopefully come soon.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

Javotte by Simon Boulerice

October 11, 2016 7 comments

Javotte by Simon Boulerice (2012) Not translated into English.

I was browsing through the shelves of French Canadian literature in a bookshop in Québec City when I spotted Javotte by Simon Boulerice. I wanted to read something contemporary, something about today’s French Canadians and not a bleak tale about peasants or the working class in the 1940s or the life a new immigrant in Montreal. I wanted to read a light novel anchored in the present and devoid of clichés. So Javotte it was.

Javotte Tremaine is 17 and when the books opens, she tells us how a car accident broke her feet and left her without a father. It’s a short chapter of barely one and a half page but it sets the tone of this first person narrative.

C’est une douleur exceptionnelle : mes deux pieds ont cassé en deux. Un instant ils étaient là, ces pieds, élancés pareil à ma silhouette, sur le tableau de bord où je les peinturais de rouge. (…)

L’instant d’après, mes pieds sont broyés, dans une forme nouvelle et compliquée. Ils sont là, devant moi. Ils reposent sur le tiroir cassé de la boîte à gants, comme dans un écrin. Mes pieds : deux bijoux émiettés.

It is an excruciating pain: my two feet have broken in two. One moment they are here on the dashboard, these feet, long and slim like my figure. I was painting them up in red. (…)

The next moment my feet are smashed into a new and complicated shape. Now they’re here before me. They lay on the broken drawer of the glove compartment as in a jewelry case. My feet: two crumbled jewels.

boulerice_javotteIt is tragic but told from a quirky angle. Javotte is a novella composed of short and punchy chapters and we’re always sharing Javotte’s thoughts. She’s your typical adolescent full of angst and self-deprecation. She thinks she’s gangly and ugly. She plays it tough and considers herself mean even if her self-protection walls aren’t as tall and thick as she’d like them to be. She has a huge crush on Luc, the star player of the basketball team at the high school. She’s jealous of the pretty Carolanne who captured Luc’s attention.

If Javotte could be summed up to this, it would be banal, another teenage book about adolescence, a pale Québec cousin of the Linnea trilogy by Katarina Mazetti.

But Javotte also lives with a coldhearted mother who holds her responsible for her husband’s death and favors her younger daughter Anastasia. (Or so we’re told, through Javotte’s eyes) Her relationship with Anastasia is rocky. It’s not based on equal footing and Javotte manipulates her gullible younger sister.

Javotte was close to her father and her loss is indescribable. Her grief doesn’t show in a straightforward and obvious way. It puzzles people around her. She seems odd. She’s a little nasty.

All these elements could lead to a bleak story laced with melodrama but Simon Boulerice dodges the drama bullet. His Javotte is bold. She experiments life. She has a peculiar thought process and seeks comfort in odd places. Out of spite and to have something on her, Javotte engages in casual sex with Carolanne’s father, Stéphane. This secret makes her feel powerful. There’s absolutely no romance in this relationship, only lust and opportunity. You can imagine that Javotte is not into political correctness. Its main character is blunt, it’s rather graphic, it talks about homosexuality, aids and is about a girl who’s far from the cliché of romantic teenagers. I bet it would make it on the Frequently Challenged book list in the US if it were translated into English.

Behind this assertive façade, Javotte isn’t that strong, that indifferent to others’ reactions. She’s looking for affection, something scarce in her life after her father’s death. I liked her spunk.

Au retour en classe, notre prof de français nous demande de nous définir. Un adjectif et une comparaison.

Carolanne écrit : « Belle comme le jour »

Luc écrit : « Sportif comme Saku Koivu »

Camille écrit : « Intelligente comme Simone de Beauvoir. »

Moi, j’ose : « Suave comme un verre de lait. »

Notre prof trouve que je me démarque par mon originalité.

Je suis du même avis.

Back in class, our French teacher asks us to write a definition of ourselves. With an adjective and a comparison.

Carolanne writes: “As beautiful as daylight”

Luc writes: “As athletic as Saku Koivu”

Camille writes: “As intelligent as Simone de Beauvoir”

Me, I dare to write: “As suave as a glass of milk”

Our teacher thinks my quirkiness stands out.

 I agree with her.

You know what? Me too.

PS: Unfortunately, Javotte is not available in English. I hope that an Anglophone publisher picks it one of these days.

 

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

October 6, 2016 20 comments

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888) French title: L’homme qui voulait être roi.

book_club_2Timing is important in reading books and what happened to me with Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King is a good illustration of that principle. This was our Book Club choice for September and I wasn’t quite in the mood to read it but it was September and well, a schedule is a schedule. So I started it anyway. I have it in a bilingual edition. At first, I thought I’d read it in English and glimpse at the French if need be. I ended up reading the French translation without much enthusiasm. I gave it a one star on Goodreads and left it aside. Then I realized it was high time to write my billet about it. Blank mind, I couldn’t remember a coherent thing about the story. Since it’s only 70 pages, I decided to read it again in a ebook version and in English. And this time, I really enjoyed it tremendously and moved it from one to four stars on Goodreads. Timing and mood are key factors in my appreciation of books. I’m glad I didn’t study literature in school, reading on demand for classes would have been difficult. But back to The Man Who Would Be King.

 kipling2This novella published in 1888 is set in India and relates the story of two loafers who decide to become kings of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan. These two adventurers/kings are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot. The narrator is a journalist who met Carnehan on a train and passed a message from him to Daniel Dravot. After he was back publishing the newspaper he works for, the two loafers come and see him to explain how they’re on their way to become kings of Kafiristan. The narrator is skeptical about their chances to succeed in their crazy scheme as Afghanistan is a dangerous country and a war zone.

A couple of years later, Peachy comes back, worn out and scarred, and relates his and Davrot’s adventures in Kafiristan. He describes how they managed to take control of the area, submitted the natives to their rule and became kings. Davrot was the actual leader in this adventure but he didn’t survive.

On the second reading, several things caught my attention.

Kipling’s tale depicts a classic case of colonization: the whites arrive, they take advantage of the natives’ belief that they are some god. (Think of Cortes and the fall of the Aztec empire). They pacify the country with superior or at least unknown weapons (rifles) and train the people to use firearms. Eventually, they convert the natives into farmers to keep them under control and to develop the land. The colonizers are adventurers who aren’t very educated but bold and power-thirsty. Davrot and Carnehan don’t even speak proper English. They barely know how to read. Yet they attach some of the local chiefs to their cause. And as long as the priests support them, things run smoothly. As soon as they lose the priests’ support, everything goes awry. In the end, the military that Carnehan had created and trained turns their back on them overthrows them with the assistance of the priests. The three powers don’t always have aligned goals. And as a good Judaeo-Christian writer would have it, the fall of the new kings will be caused by a woman.

But there’s more to The Man Who Would Be King than the moral tale of men who decide to be kings and dominate other humans out of greed and thirst for power. It is also strangely premonitory of the decolonization that would occur 60 years later in India and Kipling is critical of both the colonialist administration and the local power. The British administration chooses to turn a blind eye to corruption and violence in the Indian rulers.

The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. Native States were created by Providence in order to supply picturesque scenery, tigers and tall-writing.

I wonder how this paragraph was received in 1888. Perhaps the readers of the time thought he was joking since he had a dry sense of humour. It shows here in his interaction with Carnehan:

“I am hoping that you will give him the message on the Square — for the sake of my Mother as well as your own.” Englishmen are not usually softened by appeals to the memory of their mothers, but for certain reasons, which will be fully apparent, I saw fit to agree.

It also appears in his description of his job at the newspaper where he stays up as long as possible before starting to print the paper, just to be able to insert a last hot piece of news that would arrive through a late telegram. It is a serious responsibility but he paints his obligation with irony.

I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, was aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing.

In a few sentences, Kipling manages to describe the atmosphere on the train or the climate in India. Here, our narrator is in the train from Ajmir to Mhow in Intermediate class:

There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.

We try to imagine the colourful crowd, the noise, the smell but also the poverty of these travellers thrown together in this Intermediate class.

Scrutiny of human nature, vision on colonisation and politics, glimpses of a country and its inhabitants, there’s a lot in these mere 70 pages. This was my first Kipling and I expected a stuffy colonialist writer. In the end, I discovered an author with a good sense of humour, a lucid vision of colonisation in India and affectionate descriptions of the land. Most of all, Kipling describes the madness that overcomes Daniel Davrot when he gets drunk on power. The French playwright Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu Roi in 1896, twelve years after Kipling published The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the very different settings, I can’t help wondering if Kipling inspired Jarry.

Anyway I’m glad my blogging habits pushed me to read it a second time because otherwise I would have missed something.

The anti-Maria Chapdelaine?

August 17, 2016 10 comments

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Blais_EmmanuelFirst day in Montreal and I was in a bookshop. Being abroad and being able to browse through books that are all in French is so unusual that I feel compelled to mention it. That’s where I got A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. Published in 1965,  it won the Prix Médicis in France. A prestigious prize. I’d heard of Marie-Claire Blais and this one seemed a good one to start with.

Emmanuel is a new born in a household of peasants in Québec, probably at the beginning of the 20th century, although it’s not clearly defined. He’s something like the sixteenth child of the family. His grand-mother Marie-Antoinette is the only one who takes care of him, his mother doesn’t seem interested in him. Gradually, we discover the dynamics and the living conditions of the family. There are so many girls that they are seen as a collective entity rather than individuals. The mother has lost several children and the reader feels that she doesn’t have the energy to take care of this one or perhaps she’s afraid to get attached in case he dies too. One child, Jean Le Maigre is slowly dying of tuberculosis. His favourite brother, Le Septième, runs wild. Their sister Heloïse was thrown out of the convent because she was too exhalted. The father is a brute. The mother is ignorant of her sexuality. The Catholic church has an overwhelming power on the life of these peasants. The priest is everywhere. Children are sent to religious schools where some of the teaching priests are pedophiles. The classic theme saint or whore is present. The church meddles in the people’s sex lives, telling the women they have to accept conjugal duty. As a result, the mother’s sex life is more a succession of rapes than a relationship and she’s constantly pregnant. Neither she or her husband imagine for one minute that they should stop having children because the priest told them that they should accept babies as they come. The priest even pushes as far as saying that they are lucky to lose so many children because God claims them.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book at all. All the religious stuff put me off and made me angry. Strangely, the rates on Goodreads seem split between readers. Good rates come from Anglophones and bad ones from Francophones. I wonder if the translation did something to it or if Anglophones fare better with this hateful mix of poverty and religion. It still puzzles me.

Then comes the beauty of blogging. As I was writing my billet about Maria Chapdelaine, I started to make a connection between the two books. It feels like A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a pamphlet against the idiotic conservatism of Hémon’s book. Instead of glorifying the life of the peasants of the era, Blais shows us another picture. These people were dirty poor. The children didn’t have time to go to school and when they went, they were taught by country teachers with no diploma. They had land but could never make a decent income out of it no matter how hard they worked. The church held people’s minds in an iron fist and used their power in a way that created more problems than it solved. It’s bleak, bleak, bleak. Violent. Desperate. Hopeless. And the winter is crushing. Life in the countryside is made of hunger, cold, ignorance and poverty. The condition of women is appalling: they work, they lay children, they are under their husband’s thumb.

From what I understand, the 1960s were a big change in Québec. Like in most Western countries, you might say. In 1959, Jean Lesage was elected and started the Révolution Tranquille. Major social changes were implemented and the Catholic church started to lose their power. Blais’s book was published in 1965. Considering its context and my reading of Maria Chapdelaine, I can’t help thinking it was written against Hémon’s classic tale of the Canadian settlers. It doesn’t make me like it more but I understand it better. Another novel with an agenda. One was trying to write a edifying tale and the other tries to take this fairy tale down. It makes me think of statues going down after a revolution.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

August 7, 2016 24 comments

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.

fitzgerald_bookshopThe Bookshop was our Book Club choice for July, along with Rendezvous in Venice, so my billet is a bit late but I didn’t manage to write it before going on holiday. 

Although it was published in 1978, The Bookshop starts in 1959 and is set in Hardborough, a small seaside town in East Suffolk. Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who intends to open a bookshop. Hardborough is still a very rural town who needs the basics…

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Florence’s idea comes as a surprise to her fellow villagers. She decided to purchase the Old House, a building that has been empty for years and that nobody really wanted. It has a second building that she intends to use as a warehouse.

From the beginning, Florence is against a wall of people who’d rather she abandoned her project. Her opponents are quite vocal albeit polite in surface. After all, you’re in the kingdom of the legendary English sense of understatement. (The word in Hardborough for ‘mad’ was ‘not quite right’, just as ‘very ill’ was ‘moderate’.)

Some think her enterprise is inappropriate for a woman :

 ‘You live by yourself, don’t you? You’ve just moved into the Old House all by yourself? Haven’t you ever thought of marrying again?’

This reminded me of the director of a crèche I met when I was looking for a daycare solution for my daughter. Since the fare depends on your earnings, she had all the documents about our financial situation and she asked me “Given what your husband makes, why don’t you just stay at home?” Hello, flash news, working is not all about the money. And like me, Florence, who used to work before her marriage, liked having a job, colleagues and being out of her house. So she’s rightfully irritated by this suggestion.

Other inhabitants are blunter, like Milo who has a job at the BBC in London:

Milo looked at her more closely. ‘Are you sure you’re well advised to undertake the running of a business?’ he asked.

Mrs Violet Gamart, the Mrs Verdurin of Hardborough, invites Florence to a party with the sole purpose of convincing her to drop her project and let her buy the Old Place to create an art centre. In appearance, she’s in favour of a bookshop but not in the Old Place.

The only genuine support she gets is from the elusive Mr Brundish. He’s like royalty in Hardborough and his opinion matters especially since he doesn’t socialise with anyone. Mrs Gamart would love to have him in her circle of acquaintances but she never managed to get an invitation. Mr Brundish’s open support to Florence only stirs up Violet’s jealousy and her determination to stop this bookshop.

Quaint little Hardborough should be named a viper’s nest. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the village also behaves like a compact social body who will do whatever it takes to expurgate a foreign body that would try to settle. And Florence Green is seen as one of those foreign bodies.

Florence brushes away the warnings and proceeds with her business venture. She’s convinced that things will settle down. Green is the colour of this book: Florence is too green with village politics and with the running of a business. The passages where Florence tries to understand the ins and outs of a general ledger are hilarious. Florence is also a little lost with purchases for the shop. And Violet is green with envy because of Mr Brundish’s attention to Florence.

Will the bookshop and Florence find their place in Hardborough? How will the power games unfold?

I enjoyed Florence’s story and appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald skills at describing the little jibes and the atmosphere of the small close-knit village. She has her way with words like here:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

Isn’t that wonderful?

However, I had trouble connecting with Florence. I found her a bit too nice and a bit spineless. Or perhaps she puts so much trust in human nature that it borders plain naïveté.

What I didn’t like at all was the poltergeist/rapper thing. (Poltergeists are called “rappers” in Hardborough ) We learn at the beginning that they say the Old House is haunted. I thought it would remain a rumour, something to discourage Florence from buying the place. But no. It’s mentioned throughout the book and I don’t see the point. Why was this device needed in the story at all? I’m not too fond of ghost stories and since I couldn’t understand the use of the ghost here, it rather put me off.

But this is a small detail that shouldn’t deter readers from trying The Bookshop. It’s only on me, not a flaw of the novella.

For another review of The Booshop, go here and read Jacqui’s excellent take on it.

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