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Proust therapy

January 25, 2015 20 comments

GallienneRecently I had one of those days off where you pack do many things to do that you wish you had been in the office instead. At the end of the day, I felt stressed out and frazzled by the pace of the day. I needed something to calm me down, especially since I was going to the theatre that night and wanted to enjoy myself.

That’s where the book/CD of Ca peut pas faire de mal came to my rescue. Ca peut pas faire de mal (It can’t hurt) is a radio show on France Inter where Guillaume Gallienne reads excerpts of books and discusses a writer. It is a marvelous show and marketing people made a CD/book out of it. Lucky me, I got one for Christmas and it’s about Proust, Hugo and Madame de Lafayette.

I put the CD in the car and I forgot the stress of my day. Proust read by Gallienne makes you truly understand where all the fuss about Proust comes from. The passages recorded belong to different volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and I remembered these scenes. This is Proust’s magic: hundreds of pages of literature and the characters stay with you, scenes are tattooed in your memory and emotions are lasting. Cocteau said about Proust:

Il y a des oeuvres courtes qui paraissent longues; la longueur de Proust me paraît courte. There are short works that seem long; Proust’s length seems short to me.

I share that feeling but I’ll say that some volumes are easier than others.

In his introduction to the show, Gallienne recalls:

Marcel Proust, I discovered him through my grand-mother. She told me “Proust, he’s one of the most irresistible things in the world” I said “Is he?” She said “Proust is hilarious” Ah! I expected anything but this definition and later on, Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust biographer told me “Oh! Discovering Proust thanks to your grand-mother, it’s a very good start.” So let’s laugh with Marcel!

He then starts reading several excerpts showing how Proust practices the whole rainbow of funny from sunny comedy to black humour and through irony, piques and erudite puns. One excerpt relates how the Baron the Charlus walks his bourgeois lover Morel through the intricacies of the aristocratic hierarchy. Hilarious. Another one brings to life Madame Verdurin and her clique. Proust describes her facial expressions, her verbal tics and her behaviour among her beloved followers. Gallienne reads the descriptions, plays the dialogues and turns a written portrait into a flesh and blood person.

There’s also the masterful scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the duke and duchess de Guermantes reveal their true self. They’re self-centred to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Within a few pages, with a simple situation and banal dialogues, the reader understands that not even family and friends dying would prevent the Guermantes to attend a party. They’re appalling, as I mentioned in this billet. Other passages are about Françoise (the servant), Marcel’s beloved grand-mother and homosexuality. The last one is a letter from the front written by the Narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Gallienne says it prefigures Céline. He may be right.

In short passages, the CD gives you a taste of A la recherche du temps perdu. Gallienne reads with gourmandise. That’s a French word I have a hard time translating into English. Like plaisir. If I look up gourmandise in the dictionary, I come up with greed and gluttony which are negative words. They’re flaws or sins. True, in French gourmandise means gluttony as well. But not only. In a more figurative sense, it also means appetite in the most positive way. It goes with innocent pleasure, like in my son’s sentence En avant le plaisir! I never know how to express this in English.

So Gallienne reads Proust with gourmandise in a tone that suggests he’s having a treat, relishing in the turn of sentences, the delicious and old-fashioned subjonctif passé. He reads like a kid eats sweets, with abandonment and gusto. Words roll around his tongue, like he’s savouring a fancy meal or tasting a great wine. If you want to discover Proust, if you’re curious about how Proust sounds in French, then you need to hear Gallienne read these passages. You’ll want to read or reread Proust.

After this, Proust fest, I was calm. All the irritating moments of my day had faded away. I was available and ready to see The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner. That was my Proust therapy. The world would be a quieter place with more literature therapies. Perhaps it’s too ambitious but at least it benefited Penelope Skinner: I was ready to leave my day behind and enter the world she had created for us.

Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba and many others we never hear of

October 26, 2012 15 comments

Trois femmes puissantes de Marie Ndiaye 2009. English title : Three Strong Women

Their names are Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba. They live in France or in Senegal or have lived in both countries. Their stories are not exactly linked but more adjacent like pieces of fabric composing a patchwork quilt. The novel is structured into three parts, each one relating the story of one woman.

The first part is for Norah and it’s her voice we’re hearing. At 38, she’s the daughter of a French hairdresser and a Senegalese. His father left his wife and children behind to go back to Senegal when Norah was a little girl and her mother struggled to raise her and her sister on her own. Now Norah’s father has begged her to come and visit him in Senegal. The novel starts when she arrives at her father’s house. As Norah gets reacquainted with her father’s way-of-life and adjusts to the changes, she recalls her childhood, analyses her present fears and her mixed feeling toward this man. Then she discovers why he called her.

The second part is for Fanta and the only image of her that we will have is through her husband’s eyes, Rudy Descas. He used to live in Senegal and met Fanta there when they both worked as teachers in a French high school. Fanta comes from a poor family and with a lot of work and willpower, she started a career as a teacher of French literature, quite an achievement for an African woman from her origin. We quickly understand that Rudy pushed her to move back to France but they never found work as teachers there. They are now living rather poorly, Rudy sells kitchens, Fanta doesn’t have a job and their marriage is falling apart. Rudy loves her madly but doesn’t seem to know how to show it anymore; he’s too embittered by his life and he feels like a failure.

The third part is the sour voyage from life to hell of Khady Demba, guilty of being a young widow with no children. When her in-laws throw her out of their house, she starts a voyage to the unknown with little experience, little education and no financial means.

Trois femmes puissantes is a tribute to all women who fight for their dignity through adversity. Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba have things in common: they fought to climb the social ladder, to achieve something and be independent. And men smash all their hard work. Norah’s father undermined her confidence from the start with his lack of interest in his daughters who were unfortunate not to be sons and girls who didn’t meet his definition of what a woman should be. Her partner messes up with the orderly life she has patiently built with her daughter in such a way that she feels that she admitted an enemy in her home. Her brother is the catalyst of two radical changes in her life, once as a child, once as an adult.

For Fanta, she fell in love with Rudy and following him to France was the beginning of her end. She couldn’t be a teacher there and she lost her identity. It’s difficult to have a clear portrait of Fanta because Rudy is the one who describes her. And dear, doesn’t he have heavy issues to cope with! His mother believes in angels and promotes angels through fliers. In France, I can tell you that a mother who leaves fliers around te enlighten her fellow citizens about the presence of angels among us is not seen as religious but as totally crazy.

For Khady Demba, the untimely death of her husband turns her life upside down in the most horrible way. After their in-laws have kicked her out, she’s the victim of other men too.

The three women remain strong in their mind and face the worse although sometimes their sanity wobbles. They stick to who they are and cling to their identity as a life-saver. They keep their dignity and Kadhy Demba’s attempts at dignity are the most poignant I’ve read in a long time.

The three stories are also an indirect thought about the relationship between France and Africa. Marie Ndiyae is black, her father is Senegalese. Her mother raised her as a single mom after her father left when she was a little girl. She has only met him a couple of times. She doesn’t feel African but she has mixed-blood and it can’t be discarded because it’s visible.

Although Trois femmes puissantes reveals terrible events, there is no useless pathos. Marie Ndiaye describes the inner minds of her protagonists –Norah, Rudy and Khady Demba –in a most realistic way. She’s analytical and with a dose of surreal elements sometimes. There’s a recurring pattern of birds in the three stories, a recurring pattern of bad luck. Fanta’s story appears less terrible than the two others, perhaps because she’s seen through Rudy’s eyes, she’s less real. Each part ends with a short paragraph, a sort of conclusion. It gives a feeling of an oral tale.

The novel is wonderfully composed and echoes to other forms of art. It’s a literary triptych of stoic and strong women, like iconic paintings put in churches. It’s a symphony with three movements, telling about women’s condition in general, in Senegal and in France in particular.

When Trois femmes puissantes was first published, I remember reading a glowing review of it and that the article included a quote from the book and I thought I wouldn’t like it. I picked it again by chance at the library, when I was looking for an audio book. I started listening to the audio version read by Dominique Blanc but it proved difficult to enjoy the beautiful prose of Marie Ndiaye while driving, therefore I eventually borrowed the paper edition. Dominique Blanc reads marvelously though, giving the rhythm of her steady voice to the rhythm of the author’s sentences. It could have been enchanting to hear it in good conditions.

You can also read reviews by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Iris at Iris On Books. Like Iris, I preferred the first and the last stories but Rudi’s struggle with his life and the terrible guilt he feels for not being able to make her precious wife happy got to me too.  I’m glad to say I was wrong to shy away from this book. Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for this novel and it’s well-deserved. Although it wasn’t an easy read, I felt compelled to read further. This book has everything to become a classic: excellent and unique prose, universal theme and stories without obvious references to current events which anchor a book in its time.

I need a fix, cause I’m going down

September 24, 2012 25 comments

I Remember my Grandpa by Truman Capote (1943) French Title: L’été indien

The overcoat by Nikolaï Gogol (1842)  French title: Le manteau.

I know, the title of this post will probably get me weird hits on the blog. I didn’t coin the sentence, the Beatles did. It has, in a way, nothing to do with I Remember my Grandpa and in another way everything to do with it. As expected, September is busy. Children are back to school and there are millions of tiny things to organize. Each year you swear you’ll be better prepared the next time and each year you end up running urgent errands at the last minute to buy the precise pencil required by the math teacher. You need to register to football, music classes and other side activities. To top it off, August is a dead month at work in France and when September hits, life resumes and everybody rushes into unsolved issues; your email box explodes and your agenda overflows with meeting requests. Add busy weekends to this weekly flow and your reading life shrinks to an unbearable size.

And that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t concentrate on Proust at night, couldn’t read the Tabucchi book I wanted to start and couldn’t read Anna Edes along with Max as I intended to. It became unbearable. I needed a fix of literature, like some must consume their own drug. But I’m still confused at how much I need to read, at how I feel smothered if I don’t have that quality time with the words of others. I went to the library and borrowed audio books to take advantage of the one-and-a-half hour I spend in the car every day.

That led me to Truman Capote’s short story I Remember my Grandpa. Johnny is seven and he’s living in a remote farm in Virginia with his parents and his grand-parents. His father runs the farm and barely makes ends meet. The farm is so isolated that Johnny can’t go to school. The fragile economical balance of the farm and the fact that its location deprives Johnny from any solid education pushes his father to move out. Johnny discovers they will move the next week to another city, that his father has found a job on another farm, that someone else will rent and run his childhood farm and that they will leave his grandparents behind. This new development saddens the grandpa and he tells Johnny a “secret” before the boy leaves.

Jean-Claude Rey tells the story, he doesn’t read it. His voice is warm, changes of pace and takes the innocent tone of a young boy who sees the events at his own level, understanding more than the adults think he does and less at the same time. We never quite know what children grasp from their surroundings or from the relationships and feelings around them. I’m convinced they build a theory of their own to cope with situations and don’t necessarily ask questions when they feel they have a satisfactory explanation, be it of their own making. Besides this, the short story also shows the difficulty to live upon isolated farms before WWII – I’d say it’s set in the 1930s, since Johnny’s dad has an automobile. Johnny’s father seems to be the villain here since he separates his son from his childhood home and cuts his wife and son from her family. And yet, he’s the one who has enough courage to make that decision, enough love to want a better life for his son and enough intelligence to realize that a good education helps climbing the social ladder. It’s a short and catchy read. I wonder why the French title is L’été indien. True, they leave the farm in the autumn but it’s under a snow storm, not exactly the mild and pleasant weather the idea of Indian summer conjures up.

The busy weekends continue and this weekend we were at the realm of wild capitalism aimed at children, ie Waitingland Disneyland Paris. Believe me, my parental duty now done, I never want to set a foot there in my life again. The organization is lacking, the prices are outrageous and the food is so bad that McDonald’s suddenly seems like a gourmet restaurant. But I get carried away. Thank God for the kindle, I started to read The Overcoat by Gogol when I was in waiting lines. The grotesque tone of the short story suited the situation. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. He works in an office as a devoted copyist. The man lives poorly, hardly takes care of himself, is always mocked by colleagues but he loves his job and copying. Seen from outside, his life is miserable and copying is the only thing he does but Akaky Akakievich is content. His wages are low and he can’t afford many fantasies, every coin is needed. So when his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, saying the fabric is thin beyond repair, he’s desperate. Where is he going to find the money to buy a new overcoat? The cold is biting and he endeavours to spare all the money he can to find the way to pay for his overcoat. This adds a new goal in his life and it changes his attitude and… I won’t tell you what happens. It’s great Gogol, in the same trend as The Nose.  He makes fun of the army of civil servants working in St Petersburg and always has a funny word to describe situations. He shows how a goal can change a man, help him stand for himself. He also insists on how the wealthy and powerful tend to trample on poor people, treating them as cows sweep off flies with their tails. The ending is as funny as a fable by La Fontaine. That helped.

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down

I read. It’s like a disease

April 21, 2012 18 comments

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

April 18, 2011 36 comments

Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan. Translated into English by Underground Time.

Paris, May 20th, 2009. Mathilde, 40, wakes up at 4am and knows she won’t sleep again. Her three children are peacefully sleeping and she will turn in her head once again the events that brought her there. Today is a special day: a fortune teller has predicted that she will meet a man on that day. Mathilde ironically states that she’s now low enough to trust a fortune teller.

Same day, same hour. Thibault, 43, wakes up in a hotel room, looks at his sleeping lover Lila. They spent the week-end together, they’ve made love and she said “thank you”. After that simple and dreadful “thank you”, Thibault abruptly decides to face the truth and accept that she doesn’t love him and will never love him. He knows the only way left is to break up with her today. Sitting in the bleak bathroom of their hotel room, he wonders if he’ll be strong enough to do it.

Mathilde is a senior executive in the marketing department of a flagship. Her professional life is a nightmare; she’s been the victim of bullying for months. Thibault is an itinerant GP in Paris. In the morning, he drops Lila home, breaks up with her and takes his first call. Mathilde and Thibault know they’ll have a tough day. Mathilde fights against her will to take a sick leave and stay home. Thibault will have to live through that first day after the break-up.

A decisive day starts for both of them. Mathilde unfolds her life and analyses how it all happened. One day during one meeting, she contradicts her boss Jacques in front of other people. From small silences to bad looks and petty measures, she is progressively set aside of her working team. She isn’t invited at meetings any more, her boss stops talking to her, her colleagues start to ignore her. She’s devastated as she’s been working with Jacques for eight years and everything has always run smoothly between them. She’s given a lot of time to the firm, her job helped her resurfacing after the death of her husband. Mathilde feels betrayed because she invested a lot of herself in this company, because Jacques hired her and had always trusted her.

Delphine de Vigan perfectly describes life in an office: the furniture, the discussions near the coffee machine, the gossips, the lunches with colleagues, the good moments too. The relationships are friendly but shallow. Everything Mathilde says is true to life: the hypocrite speech of the HR lady, the cowardice of her colleagues who are too afraid to lose their jobs to help her. She also perfectly shows how violent it is, and how difficult it is to survive when you become the black sheep. We see the slow deconstruction of Mathilde. She’s the victim and yet she’s ashamed of her situation, as if she were responsible of what happens to her. The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble, promotes selfishness through a good dose of fear. The psychological mechanisms made me think of women beaten by their husbands.  It also reminded me of Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb.

Thibault has a different form of fatigue. His job eats him alive too. He spends an awful lot of time on the streets, stuck in traffic jam and wasting time to park his car. At 43 and after a solid decade as an itinerant GP, he has seen his lot of misery. We accompany him during his visits to the old lady who lives in a filthy apartment, to an obnoxious businessman who’d decided of his prescription by himself, to a lovely young woman who has all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Somehow, on that 20 of May, his protective armour has holes. He’s affected by his patients, he’s upset to a point he needs pauses between appointments. His ruined love life left him bare and sensitive to his patients’ miseries.

Through eyes of Mathilde and Thibault, Delphine de Vigan gives an acute vision of working life in Paris. I worked there during three years. It was exhausting and we didn’t have any children at the time. Mathilde uses public transports to go to work and what Delphine de Vigan minutely describes is true, totally true. Everything is there, the unwritten circulation rules in the underground, the speed, the urgent need to get into the métro not to be late, the heat, the crowd. If Mathilde experiences underground transports, Thibault lives the nightmare of driving in a big city. Both are sort of crushed by the city, the anonymity, the indifference to other people, the incivility. When I moved in Paris, I looked at all these people rushing, running, looking like they could kill someone to get in their métro. I swore to myself I’d never become like this. And I kept my promise, any time I was tempted to run to catch a métro, I resisted.

The chapters alternate between Mathilde and Thibault and their voice felt real. Everything takes place in the same day, with flashbacks. Their pain, their fears, their despair were tangible and vivid. Delphine de Vigan chose to put the same sentences in their minds sometimes, it enforced the feeling of parallel lives. People think and feel alike but don’t meet in the big city. Her prose is sober and I felt close to the characters.

Although what she writes is really Parisian, there are no obscure references and it is easily accessible to foreigners. I have listened to the audio version and it was gripping. Our lives hold together on nothing. In the comments on my post about La Cousine Bette, we discussed the fear of ruin in 19th C novels and noticed that we tend to forget this threat is real nowadays too. This novel is a reminder. Modern life and security aren’t words that go together well. Have a boss a little too ready to take offence and your life turns to hell.

I’m not usually attracted by books that remind me too much about my working day but this one is good and it is important that novelists write about our life and our society.  I’m not saying that Delphine de Vigan is the new Zola but her novel is an honest scrutiny of the incredible violence experienced by people at work. It is also a lucid look at what big cities and their oppressive atmosphere do to their inhabitants. And if Zola were alive now, wouldn’t be interested in how companies can be weapons of destruction for their employees?

Every human is an unknown island

November 20, 2010 16 comments

The Tale of the Unknown Island by José Saramago. Read by Albert Millaire

The first time I heard of José Saramago is when he died. Then I read a review of Blindness and one of The Double. Neither of them convinced me Saramago would be an author I could like (or could be an author I would like?) So I did what I often do when I want to discover a new writer without investing too much time: I picked up a short story, and in this case, in an audio version – a way to spice my cooking time.

The Tale of the Unknown Island starts as many fairy tales: a man knocks at the king’s castle door to ask for an appointment with the monarch. He wants him to give him a boat, to find the unknown island. The king is puzzled and asserts all islands are known and drawn on official maps. The man insists and the king gives in: he can go to the harbour and get a royal boat for his quest. However, the king says he will not provide him with the crew, the man shall find himself the appropriate sailors. A servant, who overhears the discussion between the man and the king, decides to leave the castle and follow the man and be a crew member. The chief of the harbour gives him a caravel. The man says he does not know how to sail but he will learn with the boat, on the sea. The servant explains why she is there and becomes his partner in the adventure. We soon understand they shall probably never leave the pier.

The man says every human is an unknown island. He is looking for himself and is convinced he needs to leave physically to find his unknown island. At the end of their first day on the boat, after sharing their thoughts, their projects and their meal, the man and the servant go to bed separately . The man has a dream and she is not in the dream, which is painful.“Dreams are skilled magicians, they can change the consistency of things and people”. His dream makes him realise his unknown island is this woman, sleeping on the other side of the boat. The end of the tale echoes what Romain Gary wrote in Clair de Femme:  

J’avais patrie féminine et il ne pouvait plus y avoir de quête. Mon pays avait une voix que la vie semblait avoir créée pour son propre plaisir, car j’imagine que la vie aussi a besoin de gaieté, à l’en juger par les fleurs des champs, qui sourient tellement mieux que les autres. I had found my feminine country and no quest would ever be necessary again. My country had a voice that life seemed to have created for her own pleasure, because I imagine life also needs joy, if one thinks of wild flowers, whose smile is so much wider than the others’.”

This tale is more than just this story, of course. The man has no name, he could be anyone, you, me. His journey is his life, as we often feel, a small boat floating on a sea of events, learning how to sail, day by day. The man could not find any other sailor than this woman, the men said they did not want to risk their comfort to find the unknown island, such a risky project. Yes, abandoning your certitudes for the unknown requires courage. So does deciding to turn your back on other people’s expectations to be yourself.

I was enchanted by the tale, the style. It sounded simple, sometimes ironic, sometimes poetic. The flow of words was natural to hear. I couldn’t remember why I was so sceptical about my liking Saramago after reading the reviews I mentioned before. Then I looked at the excerpt printed on the back of the CD and everything became clear. The style, so fluid, so easy when read aloud seemed impossible for silent reading: no point, only commas, capital letters after commas, only one sentence and the excerpt ends with suspension points revealing that the sentence is not finished. Now I wonder if the entire tale is made of one gigantic sentence. And I recall why I doubted I could read Saramago; I’m not build to read books with such creative punctuation and syntax. I may miss a remarkable writer, but I’m not tempted to try one of his novels.

“From the day I first saw him, I never stopped waiting. And enduring, for him, with him, against him”

October 17, 2010 5 comments

Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy, read by Fanny Ardant.

At the library, the idea of spending 90 minutes listening to Fanny Ardant’s mesmerizing voice was a pull strong enough to retrieve the CD of Alabama Song from the rack and borrow it. Back home, I realized it was not the entire book but excerpts and I was disappointed. But it was Fanny Ardant and she was worth an abridged text.

Alabama Song is a first person narrative, in which Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife relates her life.

Some people hide to steal, to kill, to betray, to love, to come. I had to hide to write. I was only 20 when I fell under the influence – the spell – of a man who was barely older than me, who wanted to determine my life and went about it in the wrong way.”  

Fanny Ardant’s voice filled the room. 1940. Zelda is in a mental hospital. She’s talking to a “doctor”. She explains who she is, what her life has been. Sentence after sentence, she gives her version of her life. She starts in 1918, when she meets Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery, Alabama. He is beautiful, graceful, delicate, Yankee. Definitely different from her local suitors.

 “The Yankee lieutenant, like I said, has no sweat. He only smells clean, a good smell of new and fine clothes. This man is a plant, one would think, rain on his skin is like a sentimental dew”

The narrative shifts back and forth from memories to present time. She’s telling her life to doctors who always change, she calls one of them “a child”.  It’s not a biography, it’s a novel. Part of the story is real. Part of it is made up. I didn’t search in Scott Fitzgerald’s biography to know which were the invented parts. I didn’t search because it doesn’t matter that Fitzgerald is her last name. This is the story of a free woman born in 1900, a wrong time for a woman to be liberated. That’s why I shall call them Scott and Zelda. They could be anyone.

Is she insane ? One of the doctors points out inconsistencies in her speech. We can’t know, there is no other point of view on the events. She sounds perfectly sane. She describes her poisonous relationship with Scott, how they are symbiotic beings, with a perfect clarity. They need each other to feel alive. She depicts love, fame, alcohol, jealousy, violence. First Scott smothered her with kisses and attention and then, as love vanished, just smothered her. Her family disapproved of her wedding, she married him anayway, without their attending the ceremony. She turned her back to Alabama, to herself.

Zelda is an independent mind who has been restrained by male domination, first by an uptight father, then by a vampirizing husband. He sucked the life out of her. Imprisoned minds escape. That’s what common people and embarrassed husbands call insanity or nervous breakdowns. I thought of Camille Claudel, oppressed by Rodin and her brother Paul. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath and her novel The Bell Jar. They wanted to create. They had to live in the shadow of their lover.

They needed to get married to leave their parent’s house. Zelda says “ If I were a man – if I weren’t bound as a woman to go through it to have a place in society – if I were a guy, I wouldn’t get married”  But getting married meant to free from a father to be attached to a husband. Society expected her to be a wife, a mother and nothing else.  

Zelda’s voice is magnetic through Fanny Ardant’s vocal cords. Her throaty voice is so well matched to Zelda’s broken voice. For she must have had a broken voice: a physical voice damaged by cigarettes and alcohol and a mental voice smashed by her unhealthy relationship with Scott.

This novel got Gilles Leroy the Prix Goncourt in 2007. This could reconcile me with reading literary prize winning books. He writes well, short, imaged, sensual and powerful sentences. His prose is wonderfully served by Fanny Ardant’s reading. 

It is a strange thing to be in your kitchen, pealing and slicing vegetables, preparing apple crêpes in a peaceful domestic bliss and at the same time to hear a woman tell her violent life and its terrifying intimate details. I felt double, one me, guided by an automatic pilot, was making dinner; the other me was there, with her, in this hospital. I was totally absorbed by this story and I think it’s worth reading. 

 PS : I borrowed the book afterwards. The text on the CD is not as abridged as I feared.

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