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What ladies like by Voltaire

October 16, 2016 7 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

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 25 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 11 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)

 

Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.

 

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)

 

A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

 

In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

Sindbad ou la nostalgie, de Gyula Krúdy. L’aventurier de l’amour

January 10, 2016 4 comments

Sindbad ou la nostalgie de Gyula Krúdy (Nouelles: 1911-1935)

For readers who can’t read in French, I will publish another post in English about Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

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Krudy_SindbadSindbad ou la nostalgie est un recueil de nouvelles de l’écrivain hongrois Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). Les textes sont tous centrés autour du personnage de Sindbad, un personnage récurrent de Krúdy, son double littéraire, son aventurier imaginaire. Sindbad est un aventurier de l’amour qui effectue des voyages-pèlerinages sur les lieux d’anciennes amours, soit pour se remémorer des temps meilleurs, soit pour se faire pardonner sa conduite passée.

Les nouvelles ont été publiées entre 1911 et 1935, une période de plus de 20 ans qui a vu la mort de la Hongrie de la jeunesse de Krúdy. Sindbad vieillit lui aussi, au fil des nouvelles et les textes deviennent plus noirs au fil du temps, témoins de l’écrivain qui vieillit et de la situation du pays. Il se dessine en filigrane un Sindbad voyageur et bohème, éternel amoureux, non pas d’une femme mais des femmes et de l’éternel féminin.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

Voyage vers la mort (1911)

C’est un galant d’un tableau de Fragonard. Il prend plaisir avec les femmes et se sent éperdument amoureux à chaque fois. Pas de cynisme don-juanesque chez Sindbad. Non. Il se comporte avec les femmes comme un enfant dans une confiserie. En gourmand. Tout lui fait envie. Il a envie de toutes les goûter, la femme de l’aubergiste, l’actrice, la marchande, la photographe, la pianiste, la jeune fille d’à côté. Aimer est le grand point, qu’importe la maîtresse ? Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Ces vers de Musset conviennent parfaitement à Sindbad qui est toujours légèrement intoxiqué d’amour.

Au fil des nouvelles pourtant s’égrènent les ravages faits par ce cœur d’artichaut, d’autant plus dangereux qu’il est sincère. A l’instant t. Après, c’est autre chose. Il est charmant, charmeur, elles sont charmées, envoutées et changées. Et dévastées. Il n’hésite pas à les enlever, à les compromettre. Il est impulsif. Il laisse derrière lui des femmes désespérées, certaines se suicident ; il a des enfants qu’il ne connait pas. Il s’en trouve dans des situations périlleuses :

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

Il s’en tourmente, mais pas longtemps. Sindbad est insaisissable, volage, il butine de fleur en fleur, papillonne.

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesMalgré ma vision d’un Sindbad sorti d’un tableau de Fragonard, on est loin des salons libertins du 18ème siècle. L’ambiance est plutôt celle des provinces hongroises, des voitures tirées par des chevaux, de la neige, du froid et de l’ambiance un peu romantique, mystérieuse et presque mythique de ces hivers rigoureux. On est parfois un peu dans l’univers onirique d’un tableau de Chagall

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.

Une étrange mort (1925)

Krúdy est un poète en prose. Il m’a fallu du temps pour lire ce cours recueil de nouvelles par que l’écriture de Krúdy ne se boit pas à grandes lampées, elle se déguste à petites gorgées pour mieux saisir et apprécier la beauté des images, la légèreté des descriptions, le caractère irréel des lieux.

Une chauve-souris passait comme un soupir tremblant surgi du passé malheureux d’un inconnu.

Sindbad part en pèlerinage. (1925)

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Sindbad est nostalgique et Krúdy n’a pas son pareil pour écrire des souvenirs, nous faire palper des impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la vitire d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

La nostalgie pousse Sindbad à revenir sur les lieux de ses amours de jeunesse, histoires d’un soir ou de quelques mois. Ses anciennes amantes sont restées dans le village où il les avait cueillies. Certaines sont mortes après avoir refait leur vie ou sans s’être remises de leur histoire flamboyante avec un Sindbad inconstant. On est entre rêve et réalité, entre réminiscence et apparitions de fantômes des temps anciens venus hanter un Sindbad vieillissant.

On est ambivalent à l’égard de Sindbad et c’est la prose de Krúdy qui crée cette ambivalence. Sindbad est égoïste et cruel. La poésie des textes atténue la noirceur de ses actes. Il ne vaut pas mieux que le Rodolphe qui séduit Madame Bovary mais le filtre nostalgique mis par le style de Krúdy entre le lecteur et les faits tamise la gravité des actions de Sindbad et tempère l’horreur des conséquences de ses pulsions amoureuses.

Au bout du bout, les véritables pensées de Sindbad lui sont propres et le resteront.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propose des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Sindbad ou la nostalgie est publié aux éditions La Baconnière. Les nouvelles sont traduites par Juliette Clancier et Ibolya Virág, qui dirige la collection de littérature d’Europe Centrale pour La Baconnière. Je remercie l’éditeur et Ibolya Virág de m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de ce recueil de nouvelles.

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach

November 26, 2015 12 comments

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach (2009) French title : Crimes. Translated from the German by Pierre Malherbet.

German_Lit_MonthThis read belongs to two events, it is my Book Club read for November and it’s my participation to German Literature month. Ferdinand von Schirach is a defense attorney at the Berlin court. His collection of short stories is made of fictionalized real crime cases he encountered during his career. The collection includes eleven stories of about 25 pages each. Here is the list of the stories in English:

  • Fähner
  • Tanata’s Tea Bowl
  • The Cello
  • The Hedgehog
  • Bliss
  • Summertime
  • Self-defense
  • Green
  • The Thorn
  • Love
  • The Ethiopian.

SchirachEach story relates a particular case. We enter briefly into the personal story of the person accused of a crime. We are told the facts of the case and how it was judged. The prose is sober, without pathos. He never hides the horror of the crimes but still shows you how it happened and tries to understand why. He also gives us information about the German justice system which I found very interesting.

I won’t get into each story, it would be too long and would spoil the fun for prospective readers. I’ll just say they are varied, about blood crimes, bank robberies, break-ins or assaults. Their common denominator? Things aren’t as simple as they seem and the criminal’s life is unusual.

The titles of the stories are the same in French than in English, except for the first one (Les pommes, or Apples) and Green, which became Synesthésie in French (Synaesthesia). While I recognize in the choice of Synesthésie the French tendency to use complicated words when it’s not required, the change of the first title is important. Fähner is the name of the murderer of this particular story. I downloaded the Kindle sample of the German edition of Crime and the title of the first story is actually Fähner. So the change comes from the French translator. Les pommes relates to a part of the story originally named Fähner. It is not a whimsical change. Indeed, Crimes opens with a quote by Werner K. Heisenberg, The reality we can put into words is never reality itself and it closes with another quote Ceci n’est pas une pomme. (This is not an apple), left in French in the original edition of the book.

Magritte_PommeIt is actually the title of a painting by René Magritte and it echoes with the opening quote and the French title of the story opening the collection. With his series La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), Magritte represents an apple and writes it is not an apple. It is the representation of an apple, the image of an apple but not an apple in itself. There’s something beyond the image and what he paints is not the real thing. You can’t eat it or touch it. It gives you the illusion of knowing what an apple is. With this last quote, it seems to me that von Schirach reminds us that there’s more beyond the words. His stories are based on true cases but they don’t tell the truth or show you the real person. It remains a story, a representation of the facts and characters interpreted by the writer. What we’ve just read is not reality but a representation of reality.

Highly recommended.

 

Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 14 comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.

 

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