Today was the last day of Quais du Polar 2017. This morning, we walked around the ground floor of the great book store. It is set in the great hall of the Chamber of Commerce, I suppose the stock exchange was here, the space suits this activity. As you can see, it was crowded and very busy. I wonder how many books were sold over the weekend.
This is only a fourth of a big bookstore.
This gives you an idea of the height of the building. This patio has a second floor with rooms.
I had the chance to talk to Dominique Sylvain and got her book Passage du désir. It called to me with its quote by Emile Ajar (Romain Gary) and its writer comes from the same region as me. It’s the first instalment of a series, so we’ll see. Marina Sofia introduced me to the Romanian publisher Bogdan Hrib and I came home with the book Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. It’s a political crime fiction novel and I usually enjoy those. It’s going to be an opportunity to read something about Romania.
I attended a great conference by Michel Pastoureau at the Chapelle de la Trinité.
He’s an historian specialized in the history of colors. Since Quais du Polar’s color code is red and black, the interview was about the history and symbolism of the color red. I won’t relate everything he talked about but will concentrate on two ideas, the switch from red to blue as a preferred color and the origin of the French flag.
In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, red was an important color and blue wasn’t used a lot. It changed at the beginning of the Middle Ages and blue became an important color. It came from a need to picture heavenly light as opposed to earthly light. Artists started to use the color blue for heaven while normal light was white or yellow. Then the Virgin Mary started to wear blue dresses on paintings and kings of France (Philippe Auguste, Saint Louis) wore blue clothes. It became fashionable. And red, a color much fancied until then lost its first place as a great color.
About the French flag. As you probably all know, the French flag comes from the Revolution and is blue/white/red. In school, we all learnt that it looks like this because white is the color of the monarchy and it’s squeezed between the colors of the city of Paris. Actually, this is inaccurate. The French flag comes from the American flag. After the 1776 American revolution, in Europe, the people who supported the ideas conveyed by this revolution started to wear blue/white/red ribbons. So, when the French Revolution decided upon a new flag in 1794, it went for the same colors as the American flag. And since the Dutch had already horizontal strips, they used vertical ones. And since the American flag comes from the Union Jack, I guess France has a flag based upon UK colors. Weird story, right?
It was a fascinating conference, Michel Pastoureau is a wonderful speaker. He knows how to tell anecdotes and the public was drinking his speech.
After that, I went to listen to David Vann discuss with a journalist about his books. It was set in the room that was the former Tribunal de Commerce. (Trade Court)
He explained how he wrote his books. Sukkwan Island was written in two phases. The first part was written in 17 days when he was in a sort of writing trance on a boat trip from Los Angeles to Hawaï. The second half was written after. I haven’t read the book but it’s a significant piece of information to understand the book.
He gave us a lot of background information about his childhood in Alaska, his family and his personal history because all of this gives us a better understanding of his novels. Again, I won’t retell everything, you can replay this lecture on the Quais du Polar website. It was a fascinating hour with him. He’s an agreeable fellow, he’s been a teacher, so he’s articulate and used to speaking in public too. Plus, he has a great sense of humor. He said he never thinks too much about what he writes and then he comes to France and discusses his books with journalists who ask pointed questions and he has a new view of his work. 🙂 Here, the journalist knew his work very well and was able to fuel the discussion with intelligent questions.
It was a delightful hour where he explained his work, talked about American literary tradition and described how his books are influenced by Greek tragedies. I’m really looking forward to reading Caribou Island.
And that was the end of the festival for me. I had a lot of fun, bought great books, had the chance to chat a bit with some writers and attended great conferences. The literary concert was truly marvelous.
Although they probably won’t read this, I would like to thank the team who organized this festival and all the volunteers who were everywhere to ensure that things run smoothly. I found the writers happy to be in Lyon, smiling and glad to meet their readers and to be part of this giant celebration of crime fiction. Several of them were serial attendees, like Ron Rash (fourth time), Caryl Férey or David Vann. They all seem to enjoy it as much as the public does.
First day at Quais du Polar was a success! After a lovely lunch where Marina Sofia discovered what a café gourmand is, we headed to the Palais de la Bourse where the big bookshop is settled. Todau, the Palais de la Bourse is actually the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce of Lyon. The name Palais de la Bourse means literally The House of Stock Exchange. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that a place that used to be a stock exchange is now hosting a huge book fair and a celebration of culture.
We wandered around the different bookstores, chatting about the books on the display tables, seeing where the different writers would be for their signing. Nothing’s better than browsing through books with another book lover.
I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte and gush about how much I loved Le garçon. I purchased Les harmoniques, one of his earlier crime fiction books. Blues music plays an important role in the book and tomorrow he gives a lecture/concert about this book. I hope I can get in.
We decided to attend a conference entitled “Women as victims, women as executioners: what do these female protagonists tell us?” The participants to the conversation were Harold Cobert (French), Dominique Sylvain (France), Jenny Rogneby (Sweden), Andrée A Michaud (Québec) and Clare Mackintosh (UK). Cobert is the author of La mésange et l’ogresse, a book that attempts to describe the Affaire Fourniret from his wife’s side. Fourniret was a serial killer of young virgins and she was his supplier, luring the girls into his trap. I don’t want to read a book about this monster, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one, of course. Jenny Rogneby and Clare Mackinstosh have both worked in the police before writing novels. I guess they know how to add plausible details into their novels. I’m not going to relate the whole conversation about women, their place in crime fiction as victims or how they are received by the public when they are the criminals.
Both Rogneby and Mackintosh said that they want to give a voice to female victims, to give them some substance to avoid objectification. They want to show them as the humainbeing they were before becoming a victim. And how to we deal with female characters who are vicious criminals? There was an interesting discussion about whether women are as violent as men. I agree with Cobert’s assertion that imagining that women cannot be as violent or mean as men is another sexist way of seeing women. From this point of view, women would be soft and nice by essence, so not built as men and not their equals. I think that this vision comes from a distorted vision ingrained in people from childhood. Clare Mackintosh surprised the audience by explaining that, in her experience in the police force who intervene during Friday night brawls, women get as physical as men. She witnessed a lot of spontaneous aggressions from women too. They just fight differently scratching with their nails, pulling hair or kicking around. Personally, I’ve never seen two women or two girls fight physically. Have you?
Then the journalist asked about their self-censorship when they write. All agreed that they didn’t like to describe violence too closely, that they’d rather suggest it and that they want to avoid useless gore details and voyeurism. That’s better for the readers, in my opinion.
It was a good table discussion. It was located in the Grand Salon of the Hôtel de Ville (the city hall), a magnificent place where you can imagine the high society of the Second Empire having balls.
After that, Marina Sofia and I went our separate ways. I went to an interview of Megan Abbott. I’ve never read her books but since she’s inspired by Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, Patricia Highsmith and James Ellroy, she can’t be bad. (Unless she can’t write, which I doubt). She’s a lovely lady, she answered the questions gracefully and explained a bit about her source of inspiration, her love for Noir films and novels. She told us a bit about her writing process, where the ideas come from, what she starts with…I’m interested in one of her earlier books, Queenpin and in her last one available in French, You Will Know Me. It’s about a young adolescent who’s a gymnastic prodigy. She said she wanted to explore what having a gifted athlete could do to a family, to a couple. She explained that she could relate a bit since her brother was a baseball player. It’s an intriguing idea, I wonder what she made of it.
After this session, I had the chance to talk to David Vann and Todd Robinson who were sitting next to each other. Both are friendly and I appreciated that they made the effort to say a few words in French. As always, writers seem happy to participate to Quais du Polar. They take time to chat with readers, they are relaxed and I think warmly welcome by their bookstore host. Todd Robinson explained that these kind of book fairs don’t exist in the US and that he enjoys them. (There are a lot of “salon du livre” in France. Lots of cities host one) If writers are happy, visitors will be happy too. There were already a lot of people at the Palais de la Bourse today, it will be really packed tomorrow.
Today I came back home with four books.
Let’s see what tomorrow brings!
Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson (1946) French title: Avant l’orage.
That was all there was to life: a gift that was slowly taken away from you. An Indian gift. You started out with a handful of something and ended up with a handful of nothing. The best things were taken away from you last when you needed them worst. When you were at the bottom of the pot, where there was no longer reason for life, then you died. It was probably a good thing.
Heed the Thunder takes us Verdon, Nebraska at the turning of the 20th century in a valley beautifully described by Jim Thompson as mentioned in my previous billet.
The book opens on Mrs Dillon coming back to Verdon with her seven-year old son Bobbie. Her husband in gone but we don’t know how. Did he die? Did he leave her? Mrs Dillon’s maiden name is Edie Fargo and she’s back in her hometown where the Fargo clan is influential. The head of the family is old Lincoln Fargo. He’s married to Pearl, a churchy person, someone who blindly follows her clergyman. Lincoln is a disillusioned old man with not much trust in life or appetite for it anymore. He can be brutal but he’s not that bad. And to live his whole life with his wife mustn’t have been easy.
The Fargos have four children, Edie, Myrtle, Grant and Sherman. The father was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and his sons have inherited names from generals.
Edie is back in town after her marriage collapsed. She has lost her husband, in a literal sense. She doesn’t know where he is. But life goes on and she has a mischievous and clumsy boy to raise. After staying a bit with her parents, she runs a hotel and tries to make a living for her and her son.
Myrtle is married to Alfred Courtland, an Englishman who ended up in Verdon. She’s proud of her husband’s refined accent and loves sipping five-o’clock tea. Her marriage gives her a feeling of superiority even if Courtland has a mediocre job at the local bank owned and run by Philo Barkley, Lincoln’s brother-in-law.
Grant is dressed like a dandy. He used to work for a newspaper in town but lost his job. He’s now living off his parents. He’s idle, he begs for drink money and he’s in serious lust with his cousin Bella Barkley. They have a torrid and illicit affair behind their parents’ back. Bella is beautiful and demanding, she’s the femme fatale of the novel.
Sherman is a farmer married to Josephine. They have six children. Josephine is far from the clichéd farmer’s wife who helps with chores, handles the kids and takes care of the house and of everyone’s stomach with fantastic cooking. No. Josephine is obese, unkind and almost useless in the kitchen.
An engaging crowd, aren’t they? Well, you’re in a novel by Jim Thompson, which means that you are as far from a book by Willa Cather as Little House on the Prairie is from a film by Quentin Tarentino.
We’ll follow the Fargos’ fate in the span of seven years, up til 1914. Heed the Thunder refers to WWI and probably the Great Depression. Thompson shows how all the signs of the changes that will lead to the Great Depression are already there. Sherman is experiencing the changes in agriculture. A salesman from a big firm goes from farm to farm to sell agricultural machines. This is the turning point towards mechanization of agriculture. Sherman buys machines through a credit purchase. He starts feeling obliged to use the machine he’s bought and secure revenues to pay back his loans. He gets credits on his future crop and this forces him to keep cultivating wheat when he would have liked to promote variety to let the land rest. Sherman is the symbol of farmers who enter into a deadly cycle.
Thompson also shows the slow switch from carriages to cars and trucks. A local orphan who was the target of mockeries became a lawyer and a politician. Through his rise, we see the corruption of local politicians who are sold to railroad companies. He will be the one to promote the construction of new roads. In Paul Claudel’s analysis about the Great Depression, he mentions the huge crisis in the railroad industry. A lot of companies are not profitable because they can’t make a good return on investments and they have a hard time improving the efficiency of the service.
Heed the Thunder shows the life of the Fargo family members during seven years. And life is not kind to them. Thompson distances himself from any postcard vision of life in the countryside. None of the Fargos are likeable. They’re rude, stingy and uneducated. Grant is borderline crazy. Sherman does his best but fails as a father and as a farmer. Edie tries to sort herself out but is a bit overwhelmed with Bobbie’s energy. And Myrtle drapes herself is her husband’s aura of higher civilization, until he proves to be as bestial as the others.
Verdon is a closed community, not a close-knit one. It’s a dark novel that only makes you want to go to Verdon for the landscape, certainly not for its human clan. This book resonates with The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus. I’ve read it earlier and my billet will come soon.
Heed the Thunder also describes the interaction between the immigrant communities. The Germans are well appreciated but the people from Eastern Europe are to be avoided. Religion separates the groups and Catholics are not as welcome. The pot has not quite melted to fabricate Americans yet.
Thompson’s style is sumptuous, proving he’s so much more than a banal crime fiction writer. He uses a lot of slang words from the countryside and purposely makes a lot of grammar “mistakes”. It gives a feel of the place, of the time and of the lack of education in this village. It was a bit difficult for me to follow at times but I managed.
Heed the Thunder is different from other books by Jim Thompson like The Killer Inside Me. But the dark side of humanity is there too, just as the stifling atmosphere of rural life. It seems to produce monsters, not rosy-cheeked plump matrons who shower kids and neighbors with cheerfulness and warmth.
A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.
A Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.
Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.
Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.
I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.
Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…
Nathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.
I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)
Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:
“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.
Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.
Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:
“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.
Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.
When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.
I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:
“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”
Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.
The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:
Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”
The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.
I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.
I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.
Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)
This one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.
My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.
My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.
Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.
I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.
Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.
Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)
I had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:
We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.
I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!
And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.
All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)
I managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.
All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.
A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.
Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.
Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?
Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (2011) French title: Triburbia. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.
Triburbia relates the quotidian of a group of fathers in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, New York. Tribeca was an industrial neighborhood until the 1970s. In the 1980s, artists started to live in lofts in this area as the rents were cheap. It then became a trendy place where a lot of influential people live.
Triburbia is a mosaic of stories about self-analysis, marriages and children, a sort of chick lit told from a male point of view. These fathers are writer, sound engineer, gangster, photographer, … Not blue collar, not white collar either, part of an undefined class I’ll call artistic. These men have jobs with flexible hours and meet for breakfast in a café after dropping the children to school. That’s how they met, actually, through their offspring going to the same school.
They all arrived in Tribeca before it was trendy and witnessed the gentrification of the neighborhood. They have the classic angst seen in chick lit: how’s my marriage doing? Shall cheat with M. X’s wife? How are my children compared to others? Am I getting old? Am I successful? Where did my dream go? They’re as vapid as the characters of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson.
What makes a big difference with chick lit though, is Greenfeld’s style. I read him in French, so I don’t have quotes but he has a knack for colorful and humorous descriptions. If you want to discover his style, have a look at Guy’s review, here.
Although Greenfeld gives a good picture of the gentrification process of Tribeca but I couldn’t muster a lot of interest for these self-absorbed men, their snotty daughters or their wives. They have unconventional professions, crave for success and despise people who have regular jobs, especially bankers, accountants and the like. (We’re in Manhattan, remember, so high paying job often involve working in the finance industry) Finance is too grown-up, not glamorous enough. I found them judgmental, snobbish and shallow. Having children is not a good enough reason to stop smoking pot or behaving like teenagers.
The book is divided in chapters whose titles are the address of the character who stars in it. It is a way to show how snobbish people are, the location of your loft matters. We discover this little microcosm, how people are linked to one another. The characters pop up from one chapter to the other as the reader makes the links between the members of this tribe. They are under pressure to be rich with an artistic job, which isn’t easy to achieve. These men don’t admire Hemingway and his Moveable Feast. They have no admiration for filthy poor but underestimated artists, they only have admiration for artists who are as rich as a hedge fund managers. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it: the liberty to create with the financial wealth of a yuppie job.
In the end, this milieu is as codified and rigid as the bourgeoisie. The codes are different, that’s all. You must be rich but appear not to care about money. You must live as if common rules didn’t apply to you: it’s not a big deal if the children are late to school, or if you do drugs. You must live in a loft. They are supposed to be free of social codes but they just created new ones, the live-as-a-cool-and-successful-artistic-family code. The biggest difference with their bourgeois counterparts is that they don’t have trophy wives. These men have married women with successful careers, women who didn’t give up their jobs when their first child was born to become stay-at-home mothers and PTA wonders.
This Tribeca tribe questions their life choices and for the most, their career happened by chance. They had an opportunity, they seized it or drifted from their original dream to something else. They cheat on their partner but don’t necessary want a divorce. They realize that their couple may not be so great, that their family might be a façade. To me, they looked like a team of immature Peter Pans who think they are superior to others but have the same mid-life crisis as anyone.
Triburbia has good critics but I thought it was as futile as its characters. I always have trouble sympathizing with self-indulgent trendy-lefties who look down on non-artistic people. It’s a form of haughtiness that is not becoming. The gentrification process of the neighborhood was interesting to follow, as traditional shops are pushed to close or move out as rents increase. Greenfeld’s writing is the redeeming quality of the novel. He really nailed Tribeca’s inhabitants with a great sense of humor.
Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. (2001) Not available in French.
“Diane thinks it’s a mid-life crisis,” Eddie said. “At least that’s what her therapist tells her. I can hardly tell anymore who’s doing the talking, whether it’s Diane or her therapist.” “Maybe it is a mid-life crisis,” Tommy said. “I admire you for having one. Guy like me, in the shape I’m in now, I can’t afford to have a mid-life crisis.”
Eddie Senta has a problem: he’s married to a successful corporate executive, Diane, whose biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby and Eddie, who already has a son from his first marriage, doesn’t want another kid. Diane keeps badgering him with motherhood and Eddie keeps resisting. On top of his problems at home, he’s questioning his professional future. Eddie leads a double professional life. By day, he works as a temp in offices to input data in IT systems. It’s a tedious job but he’s a model employee and temp agencies find him jobs regularly. By night, he breaks into office buildings to find cash and steal computers. His day-job is a smoke screen for his nightly activities and money wise the jobs complement each other. The days are dull but the nights provide the thrill he craves for.
But now, Eddie seriously thinks of quitting his work with the mob to please his wife and be a better role model for his son. The thrill of his illegal activities has also worn off. However, he wants to do a last score before explaining that he’s ready to leave this world. His friend Sarah has given him inside information about her office and the gold that her bosses keep there. She was assaulted by her boss and wants out. Eddie hesitates, his gut feeling says that this job might be dangerous. So here he is in a bar with his friend Tommy, who’s supposed to give him a hand with the job:
I’m waiting for a vote of confidence. Something to tell me to go for it.” “Like a sign from God or something?” Eddie shrugged. “Something like that.” “Because I do a mean Charlton Heston as Moses,” Tommy said. “You ever see me do that one?” He sucked in some air, furrowed his eyebrows and spoke in a deep Charlton Heston-like voice. “I am the Lord thy God. Go for it.” “Heston played Moses,” Eddie reminded him. “How about a voice in the night then? Because if that’s all you need, you got it right here. I’m not God or nothing. Let’s face it; I’m a nobody. But it is dark outside, and I do have a voice. I can sure use something right about now, if that counts for anything. I’m a guy in need of miracles. Trust me.”
Tommy is not the brightest bulb in the set and Eddie knows it. They’ve been friends since childhood and Eddie’s nothing but loyal. They both need the money and Eddie wants to help Sarah. They eventually go for it and find themselves involved in murders. Both the NYPD and FBI are investigating. Eddie’s world might collapse like a house of cards.
Eddie’s World mixes noir and mid-life crisis problems. It’s a daring move but it works, mostly because the humorous style ties the two plot strands together. We follow the murder case and wonder how things will turn out for Eddie. The crime fiction strand is well conducted and plausible. It follows the codes of noir: a man who goes for easy money and is confronted with something bigger than what he can manage. He feels that things could go wrong but a woman’s interests make him go for it anyway. The mob is involved, as is the FBI and the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes the FBI finds it convenient to forget moral rules. Sometimes the mob is more decent than expected.
And besides the crime strand, we have the mid-life crisis strand. We learn about Eddie’s qualms. Quitting his night job isn’t an easy decision to make because he doesn’t know if he’ll fit in his day work’s world.
“And maybe I can’t fit into one or the other,” Eddie said. “I can’t give up the street stuff and do what my wife wants, which is to play ball with the office world, get a steady computer job, and take the Long Island Railroad every morning. And I can’t see myself running coffee errands for wiseguys I don’t respect. What’s that, like lost in the middle someplace? Definitely lost.”
His head is full of questions. Am I ready to settle with a normal life? How can I be a better father? Is my marriage salvageable? Do I want to make this marriage work? His hesitations could cost him more than what he bargained for.
Eddie’s World is good entertainment. I read it thanks to Guy who reviewed it and gave it to me. Thanks Guy!