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Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 5 comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong. Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.”

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

April 4, 2018 10 comments

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé (2013) Original French title: La Rose dans le bus jaune. Not available in English.

In March, Télérama published an article about Memphis, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It reminded me that I still had The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé on the shelf. Ebodé is a French-Cameroonian writer. He was born in 1962 in Douala, Cameroon and emigrated in France in 1982. The Rose in the Yellow Bus is a novel where Rosa Parks narrates her life, beginning with the boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955. As we all know, segregation was the rule then, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man in a public bus. She was arrested by the police. She was already an active militant for the civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They decided to use her example to go to court against the Jim Crow Laws and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a movement that was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

As a child, I had a subscription to a magazine called Astrapi, published by the Christian oriented publisher Bayard Presse. (It still exists) Astrapi used to publish the life of famous people in comic strips, from Sister Emmanuelle to Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was in primary school and I remember vividly this comic strips: I was impressed by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the participants to the boycott and I was horrified by the concept of segregation. No wonder Ebodé’s book caught my eye when I saw it in a bookshop.

But back to the novel. I’d say it’s good but flawed. It was a difficult mission from the start because it deals with history. Ebodé made three creative decisions to tell this story.

First, Rosa Parks is the narrator, which means that famous leaders like Martin Luther King are a bit in the shadow. It’s an important choice because we focus on the reasons for the boycott and forget the famous leaders. The movement aimed at helping people’s everyday life, to ensure that they had the rights they deserved as American citizens. Rosa Parks shows that this boycott wouldn’t have been a success without a massive participation of the black population. He needed to write from the perspective of someone who had experienced life among the working class.

Second, Ebodé created the character of Douglas White Junior, the white man Rosa Parks was summoned to leave her seat for. Ebodé made him a man with white skin but black origins. One of his ancestors was raped by her owner and his white genes reappeared in Douglas. He’s a complex character, hiding in a white neighborhood, feeling like a fraud among his white neighbors and an outsider in the black community. He’s in an absurd position that stems out of the absurd Jim Crow laws. The awakening of Douglas White is an interesting part of the novel even if I don’t think he was a likeable character.

And third, Ebodé added an African character into the mix. He’s named Manga Bell, a Cameroonian surname, a way for the writer to link his novel to his own history. Manga Bell is the link between Africa and the African-American community. He’s by their side as a representative of their African cousins but also as a reminder that African leaders sold their population to slave traders.

These two fictional characters gave new dimensions to the story, they allowed Ebodé to include these points of views in the story.

In my opinion the novel is flawed because it’s unbalanced. It took Ebodé a long time to introduce Rosa Parks, her husband and mother, her everyday life and to describe the starting point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is 365 pages long and we are page 235 when the first day of the boycott is over. It was interesting but I would have liked more details about the rest of the fight, the victory and the court battles. The boycott lasted 381 days! The 130 remaining pages cover the boycott from day 2 till the end and Rosa Parks’s life until she’s 81.

The other flaw is that Rosa Parks doesn’t sound American. The book is written in French and she should sound like she was translated from the American. For example, she relates how embarrassed she was to be the center of attention. Je rougissais comme un piment d’Espelette (I blushed and was as red an Espelette chili) I doubt that an American woman would use the Espelette chili comparison since it’s a chili from the South West of France. She’d say something like as red as a beetroot or in French rouge comme une tomate.

Other French expression play strange tricks to the author. At a Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting, someone mutters about Martin Luther King who was only 26 at the time: “Que veut donc nous imposer ce petit blanc-bec venu d’Atlanta?”. In English it becomes something like “What does this little greenhorn from Atlanta want to push us to do?” Except that in French, greenhorn is blanc-bec or literally white-beak, which is kind of ironic when talking about a black man.

Here’s another example: Ces gens-là ne comprennent que les coups de bâton et rien d’autre. A propos de bâton, tenez, à Baton Rouge… (p240) It’s impossible to translate into English because there’s a play-on-word on coup de bâton (blow with a stick) and the city of Baton Rouge, which means Red Stick for a French. It’s not something an American writer would write.

Comparisons, puns and metaphors betray the writer’s origin and cultural references. I’d already noticed that in Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. It’s something a writer should take into account when editing their novel. Perhaps I hear it because I switch from the French to the English language all the time and read American lit in translation. It annoyed me a bit, just as it annoyed me that in 1956, Douglas White eats some coussins de Lyon, sweets that come from Lyon but where invented in…1960. I suppose that it bothered me but other French readers might not mind.

What it worth reading? Yes. Definitely. It was interesting to see the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the people and the organization that was behind it. It’s important to read these books to remember where we come from and where we could go back to if we don’t pay enough attention to all the supremacist and extreme right movements that seem to resuscitate these last years.

It’s important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and this is why this billet is published today. There’s an exhibition about him at the Lyon Public Library. I plan on taking my children there. Sometimes different unconnected events occur at the same time and happen to be related. I was reading Ebodé, spending time with Rosa Parks when Linda Brown, the little girl of the Brown vs Board of Education died on March 25th, 2018. It made the headlines on the radio here. Then The Origin of Others, a collection of conferences by Toni Morrison about racism was published in French. I read it right away. Meanwhile I had ordered The Kites by Romain Gary from Amazon US and decided to spread shipping costs and also bought Go Tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin. All these unrelated and small events push the same theme in the forefront, demanding my attention. I hope I’ll have time to read the Baldwin soon. Some battles I thought were won seem to be coming back; the victories were fragile and we need to protect them.

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 15 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 15 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

December 23, 2015 10 comments

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman (2006) French title: Le chagrin entre les fils. Translated by Pierre Bondil.

Hillerman_chagrin_filsTo be honest, I still have three books to review by the end of 2015 and out of the three, Hillerman’s book is the least appealing. This explains why my billet will be a short one.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) is an American writer of detective novels whose main characters are policemen from the Navajo Tribal Police Department, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His books are set in the Four Corners area, between Arizona and Utah.

In The Shape Shifter, Joe Leaphorn is now retired while Jim Chee has just gotten married and is back from his honeymoon. Leaphorn is a little bored, so when an old friend calls him about a Navajo blanket that had reappeared when everybody thought it had been destroyed in an arson, he jumps on the occasion to investigate further. Only it will be on his free time and without police backup.

It had been a long time since my last Tony Hillerman. His books are usually a pleasure to read because of the investigation but also because of all the information he gives about the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo cultures. This element is present in this opus as well. The blanket relates the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864 when they were deported from Arizona to New Mexico.

Hillerman gives details about The Long Walk and its impact on the Navajo psyche. However, I failed to understand how it was serving the plot. It was interesting to read about but I thought it never quite meshed with the plot. It felt more like a pretext than a real plot enhancer.

I also thought that the plot was a little weak and it sounded to me that the writer was as tired as his character. It didn’t help that I wasn’t in awe with the translation; I don’t like recent books with notes explaining what a pick-up is. And let’s talk about the French title. It’s not the translation of the original title, which I understand because it’s hard to translate. However, the French title, Le chagrin entre les fils, is unfortunate because the word fils, when you read it, can be understood as threads or as sons. Until I heard about the blanket after I started to read the book, I was convinced the title meant the grief between the sons and not the grief between the threads. The title makes sense as the blanket was made to keep a trail of this painful Long Walk and to express grief in an artistic form. But how can you guess that when you’re in the bookshop?

Despite the reservations I have on this volume of the series, I still highly recommend Tony Hillerman as a writer to explore. Just pick his earlier books and if you have any interest at all in Native American culture, this is an enjoyable way to learn things. For example, in The Shape Shifter, he explains that in the Navajo culture, being called rich is not desirable at all, it’s almost an insult. What a clash with the culture of the white America. Hillerman was an honorary citizen of the Navajo reservation, so you can trust his explanations. He also has a fantastic sense of place. He has a way to describe nature in the Four Corners area that makes you want to pay a visit. Reading it after a trip there is even better because you have your own images of the places he describes.

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