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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.

Theatre : George Dandin by Molière

March 18, 2018 11 comments

George Dandin by Molière (1668)

George Dandin is a play by Molière, created in 1668, the same year as L’Avare (The Miser) and Amphitryon. It’s a comedy about George Dandin, a rich peasant who married Angélique, the daughter of an impoverished gentleman, Monsieur de Sotenville. They wanted the match for the money, he wanted it to become a gentleman. It’s a miserable marriage for him because his parents-in-law despise him and Angélique was forced to marry him. They humiliate him any time they want and Angélique is being courted by a neighboring gentleman, Clitandre. He slips her love notes (billets doux!) through their respective servants, Claudine and Lubin. George Dandin learns about the affair and tries to make his parents-in-law aware of their daughter’s behavior but each time he tries, the tables are turned against him and it only results in more humiliation for him.

Molière wrote a comedy with a dark side that leaves no character unscathed.

Molière is not kind for Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. They are small nobility from the country, like the Bennets or the Lucas. They are ruined and their situation was dire enough to accept this marriage. They are insufferable snobs, they are sure that their linage and the good education of their daughter are intangible assets that have more value than Dandin’s very tangible properties. Seeing how petty and narrowminded they are, how flirtatious her daughter is, I’m not sure their asset would successfully pass any impairment test. They certainly don’t throw any goodwill in the transaction. They are conceited and vapid, relying on their daughter’s purity to secure their financial future. When you come down to it, they’re not so different from their son-in-law, selling their daughter to an older stranger as if she were rare breed of cattle.

In appearance, George Dandin is the victim of proud and insensitive noblemen that consider him as a non-entity. It’s true and I’d feel a lot sorrier for him if he weren’t an oaf. He reminded me of Charles Bovary. His wife and her parents show him no respect but his attitude doesn’t concur to a change of heart on their side. He’s loud, brutal sometimes and totally lacks finesse. He’s dealing with people for whom appearances, customs and traditions are crucial, their only asset, the only thing they have left. Instead of playing the game and respect the rules, he doesn’t want to change. But then, what was the real aim of his marriage? You’d think he’d want to absorb anything he can from his wife’s family to try to fit in his new social class, a pass he paid a steep price. Not at all. He lacks social intelligence and instead of learning the codes of his new milieu, he wants Angélique to fit in. Instead of taking the social elevator up, he wants his wife to hop in the carriage with him and take the lift down.

This play was first shown in Versailles, in front Louis XIV and the court. I suppose Molière had to create a ridiculous parvenu. It would have been too harsh on the nobility if the man they constantly humiliate was good and intelligent.

Molière drew up Angélique as a cunning and frivolous young woman. She gets around her husband’s back and is ready to anything to keep on seeing Clitandre. She’s unfaithful and doesn’t hesitate to lie to his face, to her parents and let them humiliate Dandin. But Molière is fair to her as he lets her speak her heart and tell that she didn’t want this marriage. Nobody asked for her opinion, her parents married her off to the highest bidder and her wishes and happiness were never taken into consideration. Does she have to live the rest of her life buried in a house with an older husband she never chose? I thought that it was very modern of Molière to point out how society treated women.

The lover, Clitandre, is also a living proof that good manners don’t always go with a good personality. He uses his good manners to ridicule Dandin and his title as a viscount to silence Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. And he’s hitting on a married woman which is immoral in itself. But in his eyes, is she really married ? Dandin is such a non-entity for him that he probably doesn’t think it’s dishonorable to court her.

Dandin is considered and treated as a citizen of second zone. Actually, in this era, the idea of “citizen” didn’t exist. The concept became popular during the French Revolution. Going out of the theatre, the violence toward Dandin was such that I couldn’t help thinking “Not surprising that 120 years after, the Sotenville of this world had their heads cut off”. We have racism, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia but I don’t think we have a word to qualify the action of writing someone off because they come from a lower social class. The Dandins of the world are dismissed. The idea that they could be intelligent, kind and worthy of acquaintance never crosses the Sotenvilles’ minds. Try to imagine a girl from high bourgeoisie bringing home someone from a lower income neighborhood. See if they behave well to this newcomer.

George Dandin is a thought-provoking play and as often with Molière, these deeper thoughts are wrapped up in comedy. It’s fun, in the text and in the comedy of manners. It’s a lively play even if it’s terribly sad.

The names of the characters enforce the comic side of the play. Angélique is far from angelic. Her parents are named de Sotenville, which could be translated as Sir / Lady Sillytown. In the 15th century, a dandin is a simpleton who has no composure, something the audience knew and something that fits George Dandin like a glove. He also gets knighted as George de la Dandinerie after his marriage, which means something like Sir George the Strutter. Since être le dindon de la farce (literally, to be the turkey of the farce or in good English, to be the fall guy) evokes what happens to George Dandin and seeing how turkeys walk…

I saw a very good version of this play. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Vincent. Dandin was dressed as a would-be nobleman, with an outfit that seemed to match Molière’s costume for this role. (He was the first Dandin and the description of his clothes was found) Vincent Garanger was an excellent George Dandin, with a great acting palette. His impersonation of the character felt right, not excessive, with the appropriate touch of pathetic, obnoxious and stupid. The other members of the cast were well in their roles as well. The two domestics brought out the comic in their scenes, bringing lightness to alleviate this George Dandin bashing.

Fête du livre de Bron – Bron Book Fair : A certain M. Désérable

March 11, 2018 22 comments

The 31th Fête du Livre de Bron was from March 7th to March 11th. It’s dedicated to contemporary literature and this year I was interested in hearing François-Henri Désérable talk about his book A Certain M. Piekielny. (See my billet about it here)

His book – I don’t know if I can call it a novel or if it the term autofiction fits, I’m never good with literary boxes—relates his investigation about M. Piekielny, a character mentioned by Romain Gary in the 7th chapter of his fictionalized autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn. At the time he was a little boy still named Roman Kacew.

It was a very interesting interview, F-H Désérable is an entertaining guest, always quoting one author or the other and gracing us with a scintillating conversation with Christine Ferniot, the journalist in charge of this interview.

The discussion turned around fiction and reality, how literature could give life and immortality to people. He said he can only write books based upon real events, real characters. According to him, the frontier between fiction and reality is porous. Some characters from novels sound truer than life, it is said that on his death bed, Balzac called the doctor he had created in his books. Writers can embark us on a journey they never made themselves and it still feels real. Real persons can cross the line and wander on the side of fiction.

As I mentioned in my billet, while researching M. Piekielny, F-H Désérable brings back the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno in the 1920s, when Gary lived there. This world has disappeared and as he puts it, the Nazis destroyed the people, the Soviets destroyed their architectural heritage. Nothing visible remains of them in Vilnius.

But literature has this power. It only needs a pen and a sheet of paper, as far as Gary was concerned and a computer, as far as Désérable is concerned to give birth or leave a testimony of a whole world. Both writers saved from oblivion the Piekielnies of Wilno. Fleeting memories become solid when written down and printed. They are there, they stay with us, they won’t let us forget them. As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.

The journalist asked how he worked on his style, how he liberated himself from Gary’s presence to find his own voice. He explained that it was a difficult book to write, at the beginning. He wanted to digress. He thought about Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, a writer he admires a lot. For our great pleasure, he stopped the self-censorship and gave himself permission to digress. He also felt that his natural tone was too casual, too flippant for such a grave topic as the destruction of Wilno’s Jewish ghetto. He’s right to say that this tone was possible because it’s something Gary mastered at. Humor was an armor and a weapon to overcome the atrocities of life and to prove that humanity was above them because even in terrible circumstances, it kept its sense of humor.

Gary committed suicide in 1980. F-H Désérable thinks that he did it because he had lost faith in the power of literature and that since life and literature were so entwined in his life, one couldn’t go one without faith in the other. That’s a way to see it.

Un certain M. Piekielny was also a personal journey for its author. It was an opportunity for him to wonder why he was so drawn to Promise at Dawn when he was seventeen. His conclusion is that his mother is kacewian, that she belongs to the same category of mothers as Mina Kacew, Gary’s mother. I guess mine could fit in this category as well.

It was a fascinating hour with a very young writer (He was born in 1987) who said he became a writer to have a professional justification to all the time he spends reading. His broad culture is humbling, I wonder how he managed to know all this when he’s so young.

There was a signing after the conference and I was determined to talk to him, to tell him how much I loved his book. I raced down to the alcove where he was settling and was happy to be the one and only there when I arrived. I started gushing about his book and dared to tell him that if he wanted to read what I thought about it, he could read it on my blog. I slipped him my Book Around the Corner card and he glanced at it and exclaimed: “It’s you!” I was stunned to discover that he had read my billet and had transferred it to the person in charge of negotiating the rights for the English translation of his novel. His publisher, the prestigious Gallimard, has sold the rights for a translation in ten languages and they can’t find a publisher willing to translate it into English. *Sigh* You Anglophone people should really work on spreading the love of literature in translation.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to chat a little bit with him and I was happy to discover someone very approachable and friendly. I really, really hope that they find an English translator for his book.

Of course, there’s no book fest without adding to the TBR. I wandered in the festival library and benefited from a friend’s knowledge of Arabic literature to get new books and I got two Australian books as well.

If you’ve read any of these books, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and a link to your review.

The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain

March 10, 2018 14 comments

The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain (2004) Original French title: Passage du désir.

Dominique Sylvain was signing books at Quais du Polar and when I picked Passage du désir and chatted briefly with her, I discovered that she was born in the same area as me and that her book opened on a quote by Romain Gary from Life Before Us. It seemed that Passage du désir and me were meant for each other.

It is actually the first investigation of her series featuring Lola Jost and Ingrid Diesel. This duo is made of a former commissaire (Lola Jost) and an American masseuse (Ingrid Diesel). They are neighbors and when a murder is committed nearby, they start investigating together and giving information to Lola’s ex-colleagues.

Dominique Sylvain wrote a compelling page-turner where two unusual characters join their forces to ensure that the real culprit is discovered and that their friend Maxime Duchamp is not wrongly accused of the murder. The characters are well-drawn, they are damaged enough to be interesting but not too much to be implausible. The author embarks the reader on a ride in Paris, in the life of a Parisian neighborhood, in the night life of the capital and its shady corners. Ingrid has a crush on Maxime and wants to help him; Lola still has to deal with her early retirement from the police force. And her former team misses her. The side stories were good companions to the murder investigation. I couldn’t put it down. It was fun, entertaining as hell and I really enjoyed the time I spent with Lola and Ingrid.

I will read other books by her. They are perfect for travels, not too complicated to read but very gripping and written in a sassy and quirky language. Good style, good plot, promising characters : everything is aligned for an excellent reading time. The French cover of the book is a good representation of the atmosphere while the English covers is a faithful representation of the two main characters. Guess who’s Ingrid and who’s Lola.

Since I’ve read the book, I know where the English title comes from. It’s unfortunate that the French title wasn’t translated literally. It should be Desire Road, not The Dark Angel. The French title relates to the succession of events that will lead to crime but it also refers to desire as a force that moves the characters forward, criminals, victims and investigators. The English title focuses on the murderer. It’s a different approach but I mostly think that The Dark Angel is a darker title that leaves behind all the sass of the characters. It’s more straightforward.

This one is highly recomended to crime fiction lovers. Dominique Sylvain is on my mental list of writers to turn to when I look for something good and entertaining.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 21 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 22 comments

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) Original French title: L’Etranger.

Preamble: I know that L’Etranger by Albert Camus has been translated into The Outsider or The Stranger. I’ll stick to the French title to keep everyone happy even if I think that The Outsider is a better title.

Like a lot of French teenagers, I studied L’Etranger in school. I was fourteen when I read it and I remember that I enjoyed it despite studying it in class. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to read it and I decided to read it along with her.

For those who haven’t read this stunning novella by Albert Camus, it opens with some of the most famous sentences of French literature.

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

Translation by Matthew Ward.

Meursault is a young bachelor living in Algiers during the French colonization. His mother was in an old home when she died, and the first chapters describe his going to the home and attending the funeral. The heat is blinding and staggering.

Back in Algiers, Meursault resumes his everyday life. He works in an office in a shipping company. He’s reliable enough and his boss is thinking about sending him to the new office in Paris. He has a liaison with Marie, goes to the beach with her and gets to know his neighbor Raymond. Meursault’s life changes for the worst when he kills an Arab on the beach on a hot Sunday. The first part of the book is about Meursault’s life before his crime and the second part is about his imprisonment and his trial.

Meursault is a strange character. He glides through life, letting people around him leading the way. He’s not involved in his life. He enjoys his quotidian but wouldn’t fight for it. He’s not in love with Marie, he likes her well enough but he wouldn’t be affected by her leaving him. He spends time with his neighbor who openly asks him to be his buddy, he acquiesces without conviction. He’s adrift, nothing makes sense and is worth fighting for. He’s an outsider because he refuses to obey to society’s rules. He also refuses to lie and express feelings or opinions that he doesn’t feel or think.

I’m not going to analyze L’Etranger. I’m not qualified for that and honestly, what could I bring to what academics have already written about it? I’d rather discuss my response to it.

When I first read L’Etranger, it stayed with me for the story, its absurd ending and the unfairness of it. I remember I wanted to shake Meursault up, to yell at him and push him to react, to force him to take action and do something to save himself. Teenagers are always hit hard by unfairness. I was also irritated by his passivity.

My second reading is more educated, I suppose. I still want to shake him because I tend to act and not stay put when something happens. However, I’m more tolerant to his reaction now, not as irritated as I was as a teenager.

I’m also more aware of the context, of the description of life in Algiers under the French colonization. Algeria was a French department, a special status that meant that this territory was ruled the same way as departments on mainland France. I was shocked to see the investigation judge pulling out a crucifix from his drawer and starting to ask Meursault whether he believed in God. This has been so forbidden in France since 1905. The trial seems to be happening a political or religious court: the verdict is known before the hearing starts and beliefs are more important than facts. There’s no appeal for trials at the court of assizes at the time and the guillotine was still working.

But after years of reading literature, I was bowled over by Camus’s flawless style. I didn’t realize how good he was the first time I read it. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the seaside and life in Algiers. I could imagine the beaches, the hot sand and the stifling heat. I have two quotes to share, I couldn’t find any translation, so I played translator. *cringe* Please forgive their clumsiness.

Aujourd’hui, le soleil débordant qui faisait tressaillir le paysage le rendait inhumain et déprimant. Today, the overflowing sun that made the landscape quiver rendered it inhuman and depressing.

And…

C’était le même éclatement rouge. Sur le sable, la mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues. Je marchais lentement vers les rochers et je sentais mon front se gonfler sous le soleil. Toute cette chaleur s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance. Et chaque fois que je sentais son grand souffle chaud sur mon visage, je serrais les dents, je fermais les poings dans les poches de mon pantalon, je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil et de cette ivresse opaque qu’il me déversait. A chaque épée de lumière jaillie du sable, d’un coquillage blanchi ou d’un débris de verre, mes mâchoires se crispaient. J’ai marché longtemps. It was the same red eruption. On the sand, the sea was panting from the quick and shallow breathing of her little waves. I was walking slowly towards the rocks and I felt my forehead swell under the sun. All this heat was weighing me down and pushing against my progression. And each time that I felt its deep hot breath on my face I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trousers’ pockets, I coiled my all self to win against the sun and the opaque intoxication he poured on me. For each sword of light spurting out of the sand from a whitened shell or a piece of glass, my jaw tensed up. I walked for a long time.

Aren’t we with Meursault on this hot beach under the biting sun? I love the images, the way the elements seem to assault Meursault’s senses. His narrative is also concise and precise. It’s straight to the point and extremely efficient. Mind-blowing.

I’ll end this billet by mentioning the BD version of L’Etranger by Jacques Fernandez. It’s faithful to the novel. The characters jump out of the pages; the landscapes and the city of Algiers seem real. It’s available in English and it’s a good companion to the novel.

Now I’m going to read The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 10 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

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