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The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 16 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 8 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.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 24 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 15 comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven! by Chahdortt Djavann

July 21, 2017 6 comments

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann (2016) Original French title: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann was our Book Club choice for July. Chahdortt Djavann is a French female writer born in Iran in 1967. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she was arrested in 1980 for participating to a march against the religious power in Iran. She was incarcerated and beaten up. She came to France in 1993, learnt French by herself –now you’re in awe of her—by reading text books, Gide, Maupassant, Camus and Romain Gary –now you know I can only have a soft spot for her. She studied in a very famous school of sociology and did her memoir about religious indoctrination in the school system in Iran. Her PhD thesis was about writing in another language, a study based upon the works of Ionesco, Cioran and Beckett.

This quick bio gives you the picture of a highly educated woman, someone who suffered early of being a woman in a world dominated by men, someone who’s deeply against religious extremists and profoundly fond of literature.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven uses fiction to write about prostitution in Iran. The book opens with the murders of women in the streets of Teheran. Women are found assassinated and the police and passersby quickly assume that they are hookers. Djavann shows how this deduction is based on nothing factual, only on the fact that these women were alone on the street and so they must be loose women.

Un rien fait de vous une pute, dans cette contrée. Femme, dès qu’on vous remarque, pour quelque raison que ce soit, vous êtes forcément une pute. Une femme vertueuse est une femme invisible. Un tchador noir que rien ne distingue des autres tchadors. Un tchador seul, sur une route déserte, si austèrement fermé qu’il soit, se fait remarquer, il s’y cache donc une pute. A little nothing tags you as a hooker in this country. Woman, as soon as someone notices you, whatever the reason, you must be a hooker. A virtuous woman is an invisible woman. A black chador that nothing differentiates from other black chadors. A lonely chador on a desert road, no matter how austerely closed it is, is noticeable. Therefore there’s a hooker inside.

This is the first glimpse of the Iranian society and its treatment of women.

Djavann describes several murders, several women whose corpse nobody claims and the murders go on while good people approve of the murderer’s actions. After all, he’s cleaning the streets of vermin. And the reader discovers that if one kills someone who’s considered as mahdourodam (worthless), then it’s not a murder. But only a mollah highly qualified in religious matters can decide whether the life of the victim was a human worth living or not. This law is of course appalling for a Westerner.

Djavann quickly sums up the position of women in Iran. They are things to be owned, to be married off, to be disposed of:

Les femmes sont les biens des hommes de leur famille et elles restent jusqu’à leur mort sous tutelle masculine. Women are the property of the men of the family and remain under male guardianship until they die.

Hmm, isn’t that a definition of slavery?

Spinning off this true story of murdered women in Teheran, Djavann starts exploring the condition of women and the importance of prostitution in Iran. Instead of writing an essay, she decides to write snapshots, fake interviews in order to give a life, a voice and a face to these women. We’ll read vignettes but we’ll also follow the fate of two girls who are twelve years old when the book opens. They are named Zahra and Soudabeh. Both are beautiful. They are best friends but get separated at twelve when Zahra is married off by her father to a much older man. We’ll follow their parallel fates and see how they’ll end up as prostitutes.

This is a strange novel, style wise. It mixes a bit of journalism, very crude language, legal explanations and fiction. After each snapshot where a prostitute describes her awful life, there’s a little paragraph about the city where she lives. Each time, it’s a very old city, with a lot of culture and Djavann seems to silently call out to us and say “How? How can such an old spot of culture become such a barbaric place?”

When Djavann describes the women’s experiences, she uses very crude language. It’s violent and uncomfortable but she probably found it necessary to convey the pure violence done to these women.

This goes further than the usual criticism you can read about Iran. In Satrapi’s comic books or in Nahapétian’s crime fiction, you see that women are not independent, that they need to cover themselves, that there are a lot of things they cannot do and that the mores police tracks down the rebels and the breaches to Islamic laws.

Djavann depicts a society who objectifies women in the most literal sense. Prostitution is widely spread. Men seem obsessed by sex, abusing their employees and housekeepers. Women are defenseless, they have nobody to turn to. Temporary marriages are a vast hypocrisy, allowing men to legal adultery. Women cannot do the same, of course. Here’s what she writes about adultery:

L’adultère est un crime dont le châtiment en Iran est la peine de mort, y compris pour les hommes, même s’ils ont droit à quatre femmes officielles. Parce que, selon la charia, lorsqu’un homme commet l’adultère, il déshonore non pas sa femme mais un autre musulman en lui volant, violant son bien : mère, sœur, femme, fille ou nièce. In Iran, adultery is a prime punished by death penalty, even for men and even if they are entitled to four official wives. Because, according to the sharia, when a man commits adultery, he doesn’t dishonor his wife but another Muslim by stealing and raping his property: mother, sister, daughter or niece.

Djavann doesn’t generalize but shows how the Islamic laws in place are so idiotic and humiliating for women that it stuns you silly. She explains the legal arguments behind some rules and everything is warped. Zealots and extremists bend religious texts to their will and only use them in their own interest. Djavann denounces a system based upon hypocrisy and enslavement of the female population. And one can only wonder: what are these men afraid of? What do they fear will happen if they consider their women as partners, as equals? The laws she mentions are all in favor of men and of their impunity. They can do whatever they want, it doesn’t count, there will be no repercussions.

This appalling vision of Iran is hard to reconcile with a country that cherishes poetry and has such a rich artistic tradition. The men she describes here come from all social classes and prostitution is institutionalized like it was in Paris in the 19th century. On the one hand, women are covered from head to toe and on the other hand men seem more obsessed by sex than in the West.

From a literary point of view, I think that the style is not polished enough to make of this novel a true literary object. I thought that the hookers’ voices sounded sometimes too educated to be plausible. I struggled with the crude language and I don’t consider myself as prude. But some passages could be porn if they were not a description of legalized rape and violence. I found it tiring sometimes. However, the message is important, I learnt things and shying away from the vulgarity of the descriptions meant looking the other way and refusing to acknowledge the abuse of these not-so-fictional women. Plus, I’m certain this vulgarity is not gratuitous but serves the purpose how showing how these women are debased.

In the end, I did not always enjoy the ride but I’m glad I read it.

Harmonics by Marcus Malte

July 15, 2017 12 comments

Harmonics by Marcus Malte (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.

Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.

Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.

Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.

Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.

The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:

Mister dressa un index.

– Les harmoniques…dit-il

Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.

– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?

– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.

Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.

– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.

(…)

– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?

Mister lifted a finger.

“Harmonics”, he said

Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.

“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”

“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”  

His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.

“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”

 (…)

“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”

And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.

I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.

I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.

Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.

I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.

My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.

I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.

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