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Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

August 23, 2017 13 comments

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Columm McCann (2015) French title: Treize façons de voir. Translated by Jean-Luc Piningre.

I am slightly late with this billet as Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann was my Book Club read for…June. I definitely don’t manage the BTW (Billets To Write) pile according to the FIFO method. Thirteen Ways of Looking is made of four stories, the eponymous novella and three short-stories. (What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?, Sh’khol and Treaty)

Let’s start with the novella. The main character is an eighty-two-year-old retired judge from Brooklyn. He’s a widower and he needs a caregiver, Sally because his body now betrays him. His days are made of little rituals and it soon becomes clear that he’s going to die from a violent death. We are in his head, following his musings about his late wife, his quotidian, his career as a judge and all the little humiliations that his failing body imposes on him. I enjoyed that part very much, it reminded me of the depiction of old age in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.

Our body ages quicker than our mind and we often need reminders of our actual age because, inside, we never feel as old as what our ID says. For our protagonist, the mirror seems to lie and reflect a stranger instead of him

He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eye pools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He feels humiliated to need diapers, handlebars and various reminder that his body doesn’t obey to him anymore. And he muses

And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won’t follow? What a wonderful thing it would be to live as a brain for a little while. To be perched in a jar and see it all from there.

A wonderful concept for times when our body takes precedence over everything because it aches or we are sick. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor but it’s hard for him to be old. I would have been happy with following his train of thoughts and revisit his life with him. I was not really interested in the events around his death. He was interesting enough on his own, without the added drama. His quirky mind was enough for me.

All war, any war, the vast human stupidity, Israel, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, all the I’s come to think of it, although at least in Iceland they got it right. Odd that. You never hear a peek of war from Iceland at all, but then again who’d want to be firing bullets over a piece of frozen tundra?

Indeed, who’d want that? Come to think of it, if said tundra has oil below, all bets are off.

The three short stories are very different from one another.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is the story of a novelist who committed to write a short story for Christmas and inspiration deserts him. The story shows the writer turning ideas in his head until he settles on the character of a female soldier who phones her family for Christmas. We follow his creative process and here we have another story about writing. Someday, some writer will be original and decide to write about the technicity and angst of something else. Let’s say bookkeeping. That would be a change.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland. A mother lives with her mute adolescent son in a cottage by the ocean. It’s Christmas, and she got him a wet suit for he loves to swim. She wakes up to find that both he and the wet suit are gone. The story describes the sheer terror of a mother who might lose her only son. This one was difficult to read because as a parent, you can relate and feel in your bones the horrible moments this woman is living.

The one I preferred is Treaty. Beverly is an aging nun. She lives in America now and she struggles to fit in with the other nuns. Beverly –she is never called Sister Beverly, which is a telling detail—smokes and is considered as a rebel. One day, she watches television and sees a man from her past on the screen. We learn that Beverly used to work in South America and had been kidnapped by rebels. She was badly abused, beaten up and raped for months when she was held captive in the jungle. Now the man who used to torture her is on TV because he’s the main negotiator of a peace treaty on behalf of his country. The horrors of her past come back to her but also the difficulty she had to keep on living after she was freed. McCann describes her inner struggles masterfully.

She struggled for so many years with absolution, the depth of her vows, poverty, chastity, obedience. Working with doctors, experts, theologians to unravel what had happened. Every day she went to the chapel to beseech and pray. Hundreds of hours trying to get to the core of it, understand it, pick it apart. Forgiveness for herself first, they told her. In order, then, to forgive him. Without hubris, without false charity. Therapy sessions, physical exams, spiritual direction, prayer. The bembrace of Christ’s agony. The abandonment at the hour. Opening herself to compassion. Trying to put it behind her with the mercy of time. The days slipping by. Small rooms. Long hours. The curtains opening and closing. The disappearance of light. The blackened mirrors. The days spent weeping. The guilt. She sheared her hair. Swept the rosary beads off the bedside table. Took baths fully clothed. No burning bush, no pillar of light. More a pail of acid into which she wanted to dissolve.

We assume that she was better equipped than most to move on but even as a nun and a very pious person, forgiveness is not easy to find. Before being a nun, she’s human and her weakness makes her an engaging character.

Sometimes, writing a billet long after reading a book is a good way to know how much stayed with you. So, verdict for Thirteen Ways of Looking? I remember the novella quite well. Beverly stayed with me but I had absolutely no memories of the two other stories, even the terrifying one with the Irish mother and her missing son.

Although I was impressed by McCann’s impeccable style, I didn’t get on with the stories that much. It probably doesn’t help that I had no knowledge of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, a poem whose verses adorn the chapters of Thirteen Ways of Looking. Like I said, I would have been happy with the old man’s life story and a peaceful death in his bed. And Beverly made a lasting impression. If you have read and reviewed it, don’t hesitate to leave a link to your review in the comments.

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

August 13, 2017 13 comments

Datsunland by Stephen Orr (2017) Not available in French.

I loved The Hands by Stephen Orr so much that when Wakefield Press requested reviewers for Orr’s new collection of short stories, I asked for an advanced copy of Datsunland. And to be honest, it’s hard to write about it. Usually, when I write a billet about a collection of short-stories, I try to find common points between stories but here, I have a hard time finding them, so I’m going to write a billet that sounds like a six-degree-of-separation post, each story leading me to the other. It’ll make you see the variety of the stories.

The stories are set in different countries at different times from the beginning of the 20th century to nowadays. Several involve religious characters and they’re all on a scale going from weird to unbalanced. The Keeping of Miss Mary is about Brother Philipp, a teacher at Lindisfarne College who takes care of Miss Mary in his home. So far so good. Except that Miss Mary has been on a wheelchair since a car accident when she was twelve and nobody knows that she lives with Brother Philipp. He sees her as a challenge since she stopped believing in God after her accident but he’s also attracted to her and he enjoys the companionship, even if it seems one sided. It’s the sad story of a loving man whose religion condemned him to celibacy and who would have loved to have his own family. He found another path to have it and comply with his faith.

The Syphilis Museum is about Bill a fervent Catholic who loves his town, his religion. He first started to save his dying town, Reeves. When a shop closed, Bill bought the premises and founded a museum. This is how the Museum of Pestilence, the Museum of Famine, the Museum of War and the Museum of Syphilis. Getting older and lacking time, he decided to concentrate on the Syphilis Museum and how awful the illness is and how abstinence is the best prevention method. Then Mrs Bly arrives, challenges his speech, pushes him until we discover why it’s such a sensitive topic for her.

Akdak Ghost is about Preacher Fletcher who wants to shoot a video to increase the number of his parishioners. He wants people to find Jesus but the more the filming goes on, the more the reader see that Preacher Fletcher is not as sane as a pastor should be.

And then there’s religion as a political tool, in The Confirmation. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in 1976. A man is coming home from work to son’s Confirmation ceremony when the bus he’s on is ambushed by IRA combatants.

At least two stories portray human cruelty to other and these stayed with me. The Adult World Opera features six-years old Jay, a very lonely child who’s abused by his mother’s boyfriend. It’s always hard for me to read about child abuse of any kind and it was particularly difficult. A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia is a different kind of cruelty. Mark and Susan are on a field trip in Shearwater to visit a dwarf town. A literal dwarf town where little persons run an open-air museum. Susan is terribly ill-a-ease while Mark enjoys himself under the false pretense of compassion. Susan discovers a side of her husband that she never suspected:

But now, now she suspected she’d misread him completely. Compassion, or a forensic fascination? A desire to pin every man onto a foam backing board, watch him wriggle, die, and dry out, write a label that said, ‘Can man’, ‘Aborigine’, ‘Dwarf’. To close the box and forget, knowing he’d made some attempt to understand, but really just to observe, to know, to control.

This is not the only one showing how spouses can be estranged. In Guarding the Pageant, Sam left his safe job to chase his dream and be a writer. His wife never expected this and their marriage went south. The story tells us what happened to his dream. How much do you know your spouse? What should you sacrifice, your dreams or your current life? In The Barmerva Drive-in, Trevor chose to go after his dream and restore an old drive-in.

Three stories have themes that reminded me of The Hands. The Shot-put mentions the episode of the cowards’ lists that the Australian government published after WWI. They were lists of deserters and what a shame it was to have your son on the list. The Shack is the story of an old man, dying from lung disease and who wonders what will happen to his mentally handicapped son after he’s gone. The Photographer’s Son is set in a rural area and Adrian is told some of the family’s secrets.

Life in the outback is the main topic of Dr Singh’s Despair, the story of an Indian doctor who traveled from India to take a medical position in the Australian outback. Dr Sevanand Singh is not prepared for what’s ahead of him. Nobody’s at the airport to welcome him, his accommodation is not exactly ready. Mark, a local guy tries to make him understand the local way-of -life.

And with these few words Mark Ash knew that Sevanand was not the one. He could already guess how long he’d last – four, five, maybe six months. ‘Listen, Dr Singh, Sevanand,’ he said, ‘up here you gotta take things as they come. It’s bush time. You know? Outback time. Like the black fellas. Doesn’t bother them if it takes six months to change a tyre. A year, ten years, so what? Get what I mean?’ Sevanand tried to smile. ‘And people enjoy their sex?’ Ash slapped his knee and laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s how you wanna be.’ ‘Flexible?’ ‘That’s one way, eh?’ And he broke up laughing. ‘Beer?’ ‘Plenty of beer.’ ‘And humour?’ Ash stopped. ‘That, my friend, is the most important thing of all.’ ‘So, I wait for my room? In the meantime?’ And smiled. ‘A few nights’ kip? I’ve got the perfect place.’

Dr Singh is used to more respect and this is not what he signed up for. Will he be able to adapt?

Datsunland is the longest and probably the best story of the collection. Charlie Price is 14, a student at Lindisfarne College when William Dutton is hired as a music teacher. Charlie has lost his mom to cancer, William never made it as a rock star. Somewhere, they’ll find common ground thanks to rock and blues and become friends, beyond the age difference. William is an adult Charlie feels comfortable with, probably because he’s not settled. He’s still chasing his adolescent dream of being in a band and making a living with music. He doesn’t have a wife and children. William recognizes Charlie’s talent but also his pain. But in a traditional small town, teacher and student can’t be friends. Like in The Hands, Stephen Orr has a knack for being in a young boy’s head and Charlie sounds real. And it raises a valid question: are we so focused on risks of child molestation that we can’t imagine that a child might find a mentor in a teacher and that sometimes, it’s important to have another adult figure in your life than the ones in your family?

I enjoyed Orr’s collection of short stories very much. Some stories were poignant and several were dark, much darker than I expected. Of course, for me, there’s also the exoticism of Australia. Outdoor pageants for Christmas because it’s summer time. Odd words like kranksies and ute. The wilderness of the outback. Some remnant of British culture with Lindisfarne College.

You can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, Datsunland.

Many thanks to Wakefield Press for sending me an ARC of Datsunland. Sorry it took me so long to write this billet.

PS: Sorry French readers, this is not available in French.

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson

August 3, 2017 6 comments

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson (2014) Not really available in French.

Wait for Signs is peculiar collection of short stories by Craig Johnson. They all feature the characters of Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, about a rural sheriff in Wyoming. These stories are snapshots of Longmire’s life as a sheriff but also as a man. My favorite ones are Old Indian Trick, Messenger and Divorce Horse.

In Old Indian Trick, Longmire is driving his Cheyenne friend Lonnie Little Bird to the hospital for a check-up. On the way, they stop at a restaurant for coffee and arrived just after it’s been robbed. Switching into sheriff mode, Longmire starts investigating the case. At some point, his friend tells him who the culprit is and where he lives. After Travis the thief is under arrest, Longmire asks his friend how he knew and if it was an old Indian trick. Lonnie shrugs and Longmire realizes that Travis is so stupid that he filled in an application form before robbing the restaurant and gave accurate contact information. As Longmire points out if you sat a bag of groceries next to Travis, the groceries would get into Stanford before he would, something that the French translator translated into “si on posait un panier de légumes à côté de Travis, les légumes arriveraient à Stanford avant lui. Please note that in French, a bag of groceries (literally, “un sac de provisions”) becomes un panier de légumes. (A basket of vetegables) It means a lot about French eating habits, I think.

For me, Messenger is the funniest story of the collection. Longmire, his Cheyenne best friend Henry The Bear and his deputy Vic are on their way back from a fishing trip. They intercept a message on the radio. It comes from a local ranger, Chuck, who’s asking for help: he’s in such a dangerous situation that he’ll soon have to use his gun. Longmire drives up to Crazy Woman Canyon, a spot in the Big Horn Mountains, where they find Chuck and Andrea Napier, a tourist from California. Both are stuck on the roof of a Porta Potty, surrounded by a bear and her cubs since Ms Napier had fed the bears with popcorn. Despite the situation, Longmire and his friends can’t help cracking jokes and see the funny side of moment:

It was really unfair to call it a Porta Potty. It was actually much more than that—what they call in the literature a self-contained, freestanding restroom facility. It sat on a concrete pad and was made of heavy wood with a lower foundation of masonry and river rock. With a short overhang and shallow shingled roof, it must’ve been a chore to climb onto.

Longmire convinces Henry to change their fishing loot into treats for the bears. While Henry diverts the bears’ attention with fresh fish, Longmire and Vic help Chuck and Ms Natier out.

Then the tourist explains that something hit her bottom when she was using the facilities and that it freaked her out. Longmire is skeptical but eventually discovers that there’s an owl stuck into the toilet. He’s about to shoot it when Henry comes back and explains that the Cheyenne believe that owls are messengers of the dead and that they bring word from worlds beyond. Therefore, the owl must be saved. This is how Vic ends up head first in the toilet to catch the owl with Longmire and Henry holding her by her feet.

Anyone who’s ever seen the kind of restroom they have in American National Parks can imagine the scene and the stench. Johnson’s description is very cinematographic and always laced with his humorous undertone. I imagined the scene perfectly and as always you can feel that this writer knows his settings. He lives in Wyoming, he knows the place and I’d love to know how much he invented int his story and how much he borrowed to the local newspaper. I suspect that the Californian tourist stuck on the Porta Potty roof after feeding the bears with popcorn is a true story.

Divorce Horse is set during a pow-wow. Tommy Jefferson, a participant to the horse races complains that the horse that the sheriff department has nicknamed Divorce Horse has been stolen. Tommy was married to Lisa and she asked for a divorce because he spent more time taking care of his horses than her. It was a nasty divorce, Tommy kept on calling her and the sheriff department got involved. Now Lisa is back in town and Divorce Horse has been stolen. What happens with the horse, Tommy and Lisa holds the story together but the most interesting part of the story is the description of the pow-wow, of the horse races and of the weather.

The weekend had been blessed with three memorable spring evenings where you could smell the grass in the pastureland, and the sagebrush and cottonwoods that had been holding their breath since October gasped back to life. The cool of the evening was just starting to creep down from the mountains, but it was still T-shirt weather, if long-sleeve T-shirt weather.

Again, we can hear that the writer himself belongs here, that he’s more than familiar with Wyoming.

Among the nine other stories, two feature Longmire and his grief over his wife’s death. The other stories are encounters with strangers, fleeting moments in Longmire’s life.

I have also read An Old Indian Trick and Divorce Horse in French because Gallmeister, Johnson’s French publisher gave them as gifts. Sophie Aslanides is Craig Johnson’s translator for French readers. She’s excellent. She knows him, she spent time at his ranch and you can feel it in the fine tuning of her translations. Craig Johnson sounds the same in French and in English. She managed to translate his Americanisms into French. For example, Yep becomes Ouaip. It’s the same level of language, the same tune, it’s fantastic. Here’s an example:

After a moment, a weedy looking young woman came to the door and looked at me. She did not open the screen and had the look of someone who had taken life on early, made some bad choices, and had gotten her ass kicked.

Au bout d’un moment, une jeune femme malingre apparut et me regarda. Elle n’ouvrit pas la porte. Elle donnait l’impression d’avoir commencé à vivre très tôt, d’avoir fait les mauvais choix et de s’en être mordu les doigts.

I suppose that this collection of stories will mostly interest the readers of the series. It’s like making a phone call to a friend to hear how he’s doing. I imagine that fans of Commissaire Adamsberg or Chief Inspector Gamache will understand the appeal. We share glimpses of Longmire’s quotidian. It introduces us to the everyday life of a rural sheriff. He doesn’t face a lot of pure violence but he ends up meeting all kind of people:

“I’m serious, Sheriff. She says she’s supposed to meet Him. Here. Today.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “Jesus?” “Yes.” “Jesus.” I sighed, glancing around trying not to cast aspersions, but it was hard. “Returning after two thousand years and He chooses the Sinclair station in Powder Junction, Wyoming?” “Apparently.”

The stories give us clues about Longmire’s personality. Johnson’s tales are always full of humanity, spiced up with a good sense of humor and a strong sense of place. A nice and comforting read.

PS: For French readers. This collection is not available in French, per se. However, it is easy to read in English.

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 15 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

What ladies like by Voltaire

October 16, 2016 9 comments

What ladies like by Voltaire (1694 – 1778) Texts from 1715 to 1775. French title: Ce qui plait aux dames.

Il n’est jamais de mal en bonne compagnie. Nothing is evil when in good company

And with Voltaire, we’re always in good company.

voltaire_damesI’m not sure that this collection of tales by Voltaire has its English equivalent. It’s probable that all the texts gathered in Ce qui plait aux dames have been translated into English and published somewhere. This collection is split in three parts. The first one includes early texts from 1715 to 1724. The second one corresponds to the Guillaume Vadé’s fictional stories and dates back to 1764. The third one assembles texts from 1772 to 1775.

All the stories are related to love and relationships between men and women. But Voltaire wouldn’t be Voltaire if he didn’t sprinkle philosophical thoughts here and there or throw literary punches to princes, priests and iconic writers. These pieces are sometimes in prose but often in verses. (decasyllable, octosyllable and alexandrines). They are set in Rome, in the Middle Ages or Ancient Greece. Greek and Roman gods are frequent participants to the stories. Voltaire drew his inspiration from Chaucer, Ovid or Lafontaine.

I enjoyed the earliest texts the most. They are the most irreverent. They attack all forms of power, the ruling class, the church and the elites. He doesn’t shoot at them with heavy artillery. No. He makes dents with accidental bumps, scrapes in passing near a vehicle of power. His tone is laced with irony and he even makes fun of himself. He promotes freedom and is a definite libertarian. To me his tone is like vitamin D. I want to bask in his sun to soak it in. He makes me laugh and I love his witty piques. He points out inconsistencies of church representatives and confronts them. A lot of allusions were obvious to his contemporaries and he mocks people who pretend to impose their views to others.

Several tales show to the reader that people would be happier if they appreciated what they had instead of always wishing for more. And it’s not just about material goods. It’s also about affection. A man says to his demanding lover:

Et si vous voulez posséder

Ma tendresse avec ma personne

Gardez de jamais demander

Au-delà de ce que je donne.

And if you want to own

My tenderness with myself,

Hold off asking for

More than I’m ready to give.

All the stories celebrate love and lust. They aren’t as graphic as the book cover suggests. They glorify the right to love whomever one’s want, the right to fall in love and out of love. Voltaire tells us we should be free to choose our partner and that princes and priests shouldn’t have their say in our decision.

I preferred the earlier texts because they were lighter on the metaphors. I find the endless references to Greek or Romans mythology tedious. I get the allusions but they weigh on Voltaire’s prose. It feels stuffy.

The Guillaume Vadé section includes Ce qui plait aux dames, the story eponymous to the book. It’s based upon The Wife of Bath, her Tale by Chaucer. According to Voltaire, what ladies want is to be the sole mistress of their household. Despite Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire cannot imagine that what women want is equality. Pure and simple but oh so complicated to get.

 

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

June 13, 2016 15 comments

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

Sicily2

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