The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.
I 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!
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.
It 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 (1888) French title: L’homme qui voulait être roi.
Timing 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.
This 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.
A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.
First 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. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.
The 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.
Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant. (2003) Original French title: Le Rendez-vous de Venise.
In Rendezvous in Venice, Philippe Beaussant tells a story about art, about family and transmission, about mentoring and love. The first part of this billet is without spoilers and the second part explores the novella a bit farther but includes spoilers.
Pierre stumbles upon his dead uncle’s notebook. Uncle Charles was his mentor as an art historian and Pierre was his assistant during the last fifteen years heard of Charles’ life. He thought he knew everything about him. Charles was a bachelor, he appreciated women as works of art but never really as flesh and blood people. Or so Pierre thought. Reading through the notebook, he realizes that a long time ago his uncle had a passionate love affair with a younger woman named Judith, that this love story had its turning point in Venice.
Pierre is stunned. He never knew this side of Charles and he starts wondering whether he knew him at all. Pierre is also involved in art as an academic. He learnt everything from Charles, who was well-known in their academic world. He inherited Charles house and lives there with his old servant. The décor remained untouched. The memories of Charles were to remain untouched and this notebook upsets their careful order.
Rendezvous in Venice is a wonderful little book that masterfully mixes personal stories and art. As Pierre remembers Charles, he brings back their discussions about art and portraits of the Italian Renaissance. It is told with the words of a man who loves paintings and painters, who wants to share his passion with people beyond his inner circles of scholars. And I love academics who reach out to the masses who don’t have their erudition and will never have it but are still capable of finding beauty in a painting by Botticelli. Several portraits are mentioned in the novella, all with a heady mix of reverence and familiarity.
There’s a Proustian atmosphere to Rendezvous in Venice. Anyone who loves In Search of Lost Time will love it too. I will explore this side of the novella in the second part of this billet. The open reference to Proust could be irritating but it’s not. It is done with fondness. It is made of the same deep knowledge and feeling as the references to paintings that I mentioned earlier.
Beaussant knew these paintings and books so well that he could interlink them with his own story without it being awkward. It is made to share something wonderful and not to show off academic knowledge. Rendezvous in Venice is written by someone who wants to uplift you with their knowledge and not put you down with your lack of education.
This is a book to read after a visit to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. This museum was the mansion of a rich couple who were passionate about art, and especially about the Italian Renaissance. The museum displays their collection, in their house and their apartments are furnished for the visitors to see. The mansion is Boulevard Haussmann, not far from where Marcel Proust used to live.
I heard about Rendezvous in Venice on Jacqui’s blog and you can find her review here. Thanks Jacqui, I owe you one. It was a delight.
For readers who have read In Search of Lost Time, you will feel Proust at every corner while reading Rendezvous in Venice. The choice of Venice is not a coincidence. If it were just about Renaissance paintings, Florence would have been more appropriate. Venice is a key place for the Narrator in Proust, one he dreams about a lot.
Then, there’s Charles, the uncle who has the same name as Charles Swann. Swann and Odette’s story is told in Swann’s Way. The reader discovers Swann, passionate with paintings and art, seeing in Odette the features of a woman in an old portrait. Uncle Charles also sees Judith that way. Both Charles seem to have the same perfect manners of cultured people.
Page 50 of my edition we are reading extracts of Charles’s notebook and he mentions his memory, the way he plays with names related to Judith in his head. Her way of speaking is compared to a sonata. (J’en dégustais le son, comme on écoute une sonate. or in English, I tasted their sound as one listens to a sonata.) In The Guermantes Way, Proust plays with names of places and people. The Vinteuil sonata is also a pattern through In Search of Lost Time but plays an important role in Swann’s love for Odette.
Page 52, Charles describes in his notebook his attempts at bringing back Judith in his memories. The way he describes his quest is a lot alike Proust’s. It is a way to concentrate in yourself and remember. It is a lot like the passages after the death of the Narrator’s grand-mother or the grief after Albertine’s death. Uncle Charles grieves the death of his relationship with Judith.
A few pages later, Uncle Charles says J’ai compris que notre amour était mortel. (I understood that our love was mortal) which is exactly what happens with Charles in Swann’s Way. Both Charles understand that art is immortal and human love is mortal. They just choose a different path. Swann marries Odette and they have a daughter, Gilberte. Uncle Charles breaks up with Judith after she tells him that she wants a child with him. Judith marries someone else and has a daughter with him, Sarah. If we go further, the love story of the next generation also goes the other way. The Narrator falls in love with Gilberte but nothing comes out of it. Pierre falls in love with Sarah and they have a child together.
And page 80, in the middle of Charles’s notebooks, there it is, the open reference to Proust. The Narrator had dreamed of Venice. The volume Albertine disparue is the one that matches with the tone of Uncle Charles’s notebooks. In this volume, the Narrator mourns Albertine’s death and his lost love and he finally goes to Venice. Uncle Charles has to write about Judith, still mourning their relationship.
Pierre inherited of Uncle Charles’s house and Sarah moves in for a while. Mariette disapprove of the disruption. Sarah is impulsive, different from Pierre. Françoise didn’t like Albertine and hated that she moved in with the Narrator. When Sarah leaves Pierre, Mariette will say:
|Mademoiselle Sarah…Son placard est ouvert…Il est vide. Elle a emporté ses affaires? Elle est partie?||Miss Sarah…Her dresser is open…It’s empty. She took her things? She left?|
Albertine Gone opens with Françoise exclaiming Mademoiselle Albertine est partie! (Miss Albertine is gone) Let’s face it, both servants are happy to see the intruder leave.
The whole novella breathes Proust. Swann and the Narrator’s love for art. Mariette, Uncle Charles’s old servant who sounds exactly like Françoise. Uncle Charles is very ill and bedridden for the last years of his life but still continues to work as an art historian like Proust himself who finished In Search of Lost Time in bed.
There are probably other references that I missed but I shared the ones I noticed with you.
Three Horses by Erri De Luca (1999) French title: Trois chevaux. (Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.)
|Une vie d’homme dure autant que celle de trois chevaux.||A man’s life lasts as long three horses’ lives.|
Three Horses is a novella by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. The book opens with a foreword about Argentina to remind the reader of its geography and of few facts about its recent history. Argentina welcomed 7 million of immigrants before 1939 and half of them were Italian. From 1976 to 1982, it was governed by a lethal military dictatorship and 40 000 persons went missing. It ended in 1982 when they failed to invade the Falkland Islands, a territory under British rule and as big as half of Sicily.
The narrator is a fifty years old man who works as a gardener for an old friend. After the introduction, we know that the narrator something to do with Argentina. He’s a quiet and literate man who keeps to himself. He’s contemplative and seeks solace in books. It’s clear from the start that he wants a quiet life made of physical labor, simple food and lots of reading. We slowly learn about his past, discovering how he ended up as a meditative gardener. He’s Italian and fell in love with an Argentinean woman, Dvora. He followed her to Buenos Aires and married her. They settled there and were caught up by history; Dvora was killed during the dictatorship and he survived.
The narrator’s past, his beliefs and his personality slowly come to life through delicate sentences. He enjoys nurturing plants and takes pleasure in gardening. He befriends other lonely souls and immigrants and meets Làila who brings Argentina back into his life.
|Elle ne s’efface pas de mon corps, l’Argentine, peu de poils ont repoussé sur l’ulcère de la guerre et des assassins.||Argentina cannot be erased of my body. Little hair has grown on the ulcer of war and murderers.|
He’s a survivor from grief and violence. He’s not healed and still lives in a survivor mode. It’s difficult to go further in describing the narrator’s life or his state of mind without spoiling the novel. So I’ll leave it at that.
It is a slim novel written in a luminous and poetic prose. I have a lot of quotes, all due to De Luca’s unique way with words. Here’s the narrator walking in the wilderness…
|J’apprends à ne pas craindre les serpents, des bêtes sages qui lèchent l’air.||
I learn not to be afraid of snakes, these wise beasts who lick the air.
…or waking up in his apartment
|Oui, je me lève à cinq heures, mais volontiers. L’air de la mer fait parvenir ici un peu de son odeur.
La maison craque à cette heure-là, pierre, bois, bâillements. Puis elle se tait au parfum du café. Une cafetière sur le feu suffit à remplir une pièce.
|Yes, I wake up at five a.m. but willingly. The air coming from the sea brings a bit of its scent here.
The house creaks at this hour, stone, wood and yawns. Then it goes quiet with the perfume of coffee. A coffeepot on the stove is enough to fill a room.
I could picture his early mornings in a waking house.
Three Horses is a deeply Mediterranean book. The narrator is in osmosis with his environment and he’s like a living part of the scenery. The setting is almost a character in the novella. The sun, the sea, laundry pouring out of windows and basil in pots. De Luca’s writing appeals to all the reader’s senses. It brought back memories of holidays in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Greece. The scent of the sea is like an olfactory background melody. The sun heats up the vegetation and makes it exhale puffs of perfumes. Pine trees, wisteria or rosemary. De Luca makes you feel the sea breeze on your skin and the burning heat of the sun at noon. The reader hears the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seagulls. The narrator cooks and it reminds you the taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and smooth cheese. Each time I’m in a Mediterranean region, I feel content. Each time I read a book set somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, I long to be there with the characters. This one is no different with its powerful sense of place. I also enjoyed the slow pace of the narrator’s life, so far from my own.
Above all, I loved the narrator’s relationship with literature and books. Literature plays a central role in his life and I could relate to it.
|Les jours se passent comme ça. Le soir, chez moi, j’écrase des tomates crues et de l’origan sur des pâtes égouttées et je grignote des gousses d’ail devant un livre russe. Il rend mon corps plus léger.
C’est ce que doivent faire les livres, porter une personne et non pas se faire porter par elle, décharger la journée de son dos, ne pas ajouter leurs propres grammes de papier sur ses vertèbres.
|Days go on like this. Home at night, I mash raw tomatoes and oregano on freshly drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book. It makes my body lighter.
That’s what books are for. They should carry a person, not be carried by them. They should take the day’s load off one’s back, not add grams of paper on one’s vertebras.
Isn’t that the best thing after a long day? To unload the day’s thoughts and events on the wharf of a book cover and to sail away to the wind of a writer’s prose?
He also made me question my relationship with physical books.
|Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire de livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère.||I read used books because pages turned many times and branded by fingers have more weight to the eyes, because each copy of a book can belong to several lives. Books should stay unattended in public places to move around with passersby who would take them for a while. And then they should die like people, used by tragedies, contaminated, drowned after falling off bridges with people who committed suicide, stuffed in a woodstove in winter, torn apart by children to make paper boats. In other words, books should die of anything but boredom and private property or condemned to serve a life sentence on a shelf.|
Thought provoking, huh? Why do I keep all my books? Is it selfish to keep them on the shelf instead of giving them away? Most of them I will never read again anyway. Food for future thoughts.
Three Horses is a slim novel laced with the horrors of war, a man who still look for a way to live and thinks that literature is a wonderful crutch. Highly recommended.
PS: Update after first publication. I forgot to mention Caroline’s review of Three Horses. Her review made me buy it and you can see why here.