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Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

August 23, 2017 13 comments

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Columm McCann (2015) French title: Treize façons de voir. Translated by Jean-Luc Piningre.

I am slightly late with this billet as Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann was my Book Club read for…June. I definitely don’t manage the BTW (Billets To Write) pile according to the FIFO method. Thirteen Ways of Looking is made of four stories, the eponymous novella and three short-stories. (What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?, Sh’khol and Treaty)

Let’s start with the novella. The main character is an eighty-two-year-old retired judge from Brooklyn. He’s a widower and he needs a caregiver, Sally because his body now betrays him. His days are made of little rituals and it soon becomes clear that he’s going to die from a violent death. We are in his head, following his musings about his late wife, his quotidian, his career as a judge and all the little humiliations that his failing body imposes on him. I enjoyed that part very much, it reminded me of the depiction of old age in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.

Our body ages quicker than our mind and we often need reminders of our actual age because, inside, we never feel as old as what our ID says. For our protagonist, the mirror seems to lie and reflect a stranger instead of him

He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eye pools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He feels humiliated to need diapers, handlebars and various reminder that his body doesn’t obey to him anymore. And he muses

And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won’t follow? What a wonderful thing it would be to live as a brain for a little while. To be perched in a jar and see it all from there.

A wonderful concept for times when our body takes precedence over everything because it aches or we are sick. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor but it’s hard for him to be old. I would have been happy with following his train of thoughts and revisit his life with him. I was not really interested in the events around his death. He was interesting enough on his own, without the added drama. His quirky mind was enough for me.

All war, any war, the vast human stupidity, Israel, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, all the I’s come to think of it, although at least in Iceland they got it right. Odd that. You never hear a peek of war from Iceland at all, but then again who’d want to be firing bullets over a piece of frozen tundra?

Indeed, who’d want that? Come to think of it, if said tundra has oil below, all bets are off.

The three short stories are very different from one another.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is the story of a novelist who committed to write a short story for Christmas and inspiration deserts him. The story shows the writer turning ideas in his head until he settles on the character of a female soldier who phones her family for Christmas. We follow his creative process and here we have another story about writing. Someday, some writer will be original and decide to write about the technicity and angst of something else. Let’s say bookkeeping. That would be a change.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland. A mother lives with her mute adolescent son in a cottage by the ocean. It’s Christmas, and she got him a wet suit for he loves to swim. She wakes up to find that both he and the wet suit are gone. The story describes the sheer terror of a mother who might lose her only son. This one was difficult to read because as a parent, you can relate and feel in your bones the horrible moments this woman is living.

The one I preferred is Treaty. Beverly is an aging nun. She lives in America now and she struggles to fit in with the other nuns. Beverly –she is never called Sister Beverly, which is a telling detail—smokes and is considered as a rebel. One day, she watches television and sees a man from her past on the screen. We learn that Beverly used to work in South America and had been kidnapped by rebels. She was badly abused, beaten up and raped for months when she was held captive in the jungle. Now the man who used to torture her is on TV because he’s the main negotiator of a peace treaty on behalf of his country. The horrors of her past come back to her but also the difficulty she had to keep on living after she was freed. McCann describes her inner struggles masterfully.

She struggled for so many years with absolution, the depth of her vows, poverty, chastity, obedience. Working with doctors, experts, theologians to unravel what had happened. Every day she went to the chapel to beseech and pray. Hundreds of hours trying to get to the core of it, understand it, pick it apart. Forgiveness for herself first, they told her. In order, then, to forgive him. Without hubris, without false charity. Therapy sessions, physical exams, spiritual direction, prayer. The bembrace of Christ’s agony. The abandonment at the hour. Opening herself to compassion. Trying to put it behind her with the mercy of time. The days slipping by. Small rooms. Long hours. The curtains opening and closing. The disappearance of light. The blackened mirrors. The days spent weeping. The guilt. She sheared her hair. Swept the rosary beads off the bedside table. Took baths fully clothed. No burning bush, no pillar of light. More a pail of acid into which she wanted to dissolve.

We assume that she was better equipped than most to move on but even as a nun and a very pious person, forgiveness is not easy to find. Before being a nun, she’s human and her weakness makes her an engaging character.

Sometimes, writing a billet long after reading a book is a good way to know how much stayed with you. So, verdict for Thirteen Ways of Looking? I remember the novella quite well. Beverly stayed with me but I had absolutely no memories of the two other stories, even the terrifying one with the Irish mother and her missing son.

Although I was impressed by McCann’s impeccable style, I didn’t get on with the stories that much. It probably doesn’t help that I had no knowledge of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, a poem whose verses adorn the chapters of Thirteen Ways of Looking. Like I said, I would have been happy with the old man’s life story and a peaceful death in his bed. And Beverly made a lasting impression. If you have read and reviewed it, don’t hesitate to leave a link to your review in the comments.

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.

Book Club 2017-2018 : our selection

July 10, 2017 24 comments

We have decided upon our list of 12 books for our next year’s Book Club. Since I’m a little lazy these days, I’ll copy paste the blurbs from Goodreads. *drum roll* Et voilà!

  • August 2017: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. UK, 1862.

“This Victorian bestseller, along with Braddon’s other famous novel, Aurora Floyd, established her as the main rival of the master of the sensational novel, Wilkie Collins. A protest against the passive, insipid 19th-century heroine, Lady Audley was described by one critic of the time as “high-strung, full of passion, purpose, and movement.” Her crime (the secret of the title) is shown to threaten the apparently respectable middle-class world of Victorian England.”

I’m curious about sensational fiction and I’m glad we have this one on the list.

  • September 2017: Petit Piment by Alain Mabanckou Congo/France, 2015. (English title: Black Moses)

“It’s not easy being Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. There’s that long name of his for a start, which means, “Let us thank God, the black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors.” Most people just call him Moses. Then there’s the orphanage where he lives, run by a malicious political stooge, Dieudonne Ngoulmoumako, and where he’s terrorized by two fellow orphans–the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala.

But after Moses exacts revenge on the twins by lacing their food with hot pepper, the twins take Moses under their wing, escape the orphanage, and move to the bustling port town of Pointe-Noire, where they form a gang that survives on petty theft. What follows is a funny, moving, larger-than-life tale that chronicles Moses’s ultimately tragic journey through the Pointe-Noire underworld and the politically repressive world of Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s and 80s.

Mabanckou’s vivid portrayal of Moses’s mental collapse echoes the work of Hugo, Dickens, and Brian DePalma’s Scarface, confirming Mabanckou’s status as one of our great storytellers. Black Moses is a vital new extension of his cycle of Pointe-Noire novels that stand out as one of the grandest, funniest, fictional projects of our time.”

I’m happy to read another novel by Mabanckou. I enjoyed Black Bazar a lot, it was such a vivid picture of Paris in popular neighbourhoods and of the African community in France. He’s a virtuoso of the French language, making it sing his own song.

  • October 2017 : Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret France, 1973.

Céleste Albaret was Marcel Proust’s housekeeper in his last years, when he retreated from the world to devote himself to In Search of Lost Time. She could imitate his voice to perfection, and Proust himself said to her, “You know everything about me.” Her reminiscences of her employer present an intimate picture of the daily life of a great writer who was also a deeply peculiar man, while Madame Albaret herself proves to be a shrewd and engaging companion. 

I’m curious to read about Proust seen by his own Françoise. I heard from another reader that the whole book has the charm of an outmoded way-of-life. It should be fascinating although I suspect she doesn’t speak about Proust’s less questionble habits but we’ll see.

  • November 2017: Tu, mio  by Erri de Luca Italy, 1998.

“The unnamed narrator of this slim, alluring novel recalls a summer spent at age sixteen on an idyllic Italian island off the coast of Naples in the 1950s, where he spends his days with Nicola, a local fisherman. The narrator falls in love with Caia, who shares with him that she’s Jewish, saved by Italian soldiers from the Nazis, who killed the rest of her Yugoslav family. The boy demands answers about the war from the adults around him, but is rebuffed by everyone but Nicola, who tells him of Italy’s complicity with the Nazis. His passion for Caia and his ardent patriotism lead him to a flamboyant, cataclysmic act of destruction that brings his tale to an end.”

It is always a pleasure to read Erri de Luca. I’ve already written a billet about his Three Horses. There’s something soothing in his prose, something coming from his own calm. I loved the humanity in his words and behind his words.

  • December 2017: They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy Hungary, 1934. Transylvania Trilogy #1 (French title: Vos jours sont comptés.)

Painting an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, this story is told through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abády and Count László Gyeroffy. Shooting parties in great country houses, turbulent scenes in parliament, and the luxury of life in Budapest provide the backdrop for this gripping, prescient novel, forming a chilling indictment of upper-class frivolity and political folly, in which good manners cloak indifference and brutality. Abády becomes aware of the plight of a group of Romanian mountain peasants and champions their cause, while Gyeroffy dissipates his resources at the gaming tables, mirroring the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself.

This is the first volume of the famous Transylvania Trilogy. I expect to be swept away by it and brought back to this fascinating time in recent history.

  • January 2018 : The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, USA, 2009. (French title: Un autre monde)

“In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. “The Lacuna” is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.”

I’ve enjoyed all the Kingsolvers I’ve read, most of them pre-blog. I’m looking forward to discovering this one too. I will also be reading her collection of short stories Homeland  and Other Stories soon.

 

  • February 2018 : Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu, Romania, 2009.

“A Borgen from the Balkans. A criminal is found dead in the streets of Bucarest. When another criminal and a another are murdered with the same weapon and in the same way, it becomes clear that a serial killer is on the loose in Romania’s capital city. The victims are all of the same type, they belong to the Roma community and have a criminal record.” 

I got this Romanian crime fiction novel at Quais du Polar, Lyon’s crime fiction festival. Crime fiction is often a non-touristy way of discovering a country, so I expect to see Romania differently. It’s not available in English.

  • March 2018 : The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, UK, 1902

The Grand Babylon Hotel is an exclusive London establishment, and American millionaire Theodore Racksole, visiting the hotel with his spirited 23-year-old daughter Nella, decides to buy the place. What he hasn’t counted on is having to deal with a criminal conspiracy whose purposes are not at all clear, and events take an unexpected turn as Theodore and Nella play detective. Replete with evil villains, physical dangers, and secret passages, The Grand Babylon Hotel is a mesmerizing thriller that will be enjoyed by mystery lovers everywhere.

I sounds intriguing, don’t you think?

  • April 2018: Ce qui reste en forêt by Colin Niel. France, 2013. Not available in English.

I’ve already read Les hamacs de carton by Colin Niel and I enjoyed the investigation led by Capitane Anato. This crime fiction series is set in French Guyana, one of the French overseas territories. It is captivating to read about this place, so different from what we call France Métropolitaine, meaning the main part of France, here in Europe.

Niel gives us a good picture of French Guyana and helps us understand how the communities interact with each other. I hope Colin Niel gets translated.

 

  • May 2018: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. USA, 1976

“In The Easter Parade, first published in 1976, we meet sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes when they are still the children of divorced parents. We observe the sisters over four decades, watching them grow into two very different women. Sarah is stable and stalwart, settling into an unhappy marriage. Emily is precocious and independent, struggling with one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Richard Yates’s classic novel is about how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished family’s past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.”

I’ve heard so many good things about Yates on other blogs that I’m really happy that we included The Easter Parade in our selection. (PS: I find this cover terrible)

  • June 2018: Petit Pays by Gaël Faye, France, 2016

In 1992, ten-years old Gabriel lived in Burindi with his French father, his Rwandan mother and his little sister Ana. Their house is in the rich neighborhood for expats. Gabriel spends his time with his friends, getting in a lot of trouble. It’s a quiet daily life, a smooth childhood that will be shattered at the same time as this “small African country” suddenly shaken up by history.

This book won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Goncourt prize given by high-school students. Usually, they make a good choice. We wanted to read more about Africa, this will contribute to it. It’s not available in English yet, but there’s a good chance it gets translated.

  • July 2018: The Dinner by Herman Koch, Netherlands, 2009

“An internationally bestselling phenomenon: the darkly suspenseful, highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the hardest decision of their lives — all over the course of one meal. 

It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse — the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened”

I have heard good things about The Dinner and honestly, the setting is a great idea. According to the blurb and the reviews I’ve read, I think it’d make a great theatre play. We’ll see that next summer.

Well, what do you think about our selection? Have you read any of them? If yes, don’t hesitate to leave a message and a link to your review. As always, anyone can join us for a readalong. Happy reading!

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Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 18 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

March 11, 2017 19 comments

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858) Original French title: Le roman de la momie.

Note: I read The Romance of a Mummy in French. For the translation of the quote, I used the English translation by F. C. de Sumichrast that is available at Gutenberg Project.   I am totally unable to translate Gautier myself.

The Romance of a Mummy was our Book Club choice for February, so I’m a little late with my billet but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the blurb on my book:

Pharaoh loves Tahoser who loves Poëri. Pharaoh is back from Ethiopia when he casts a lustful glance at Tahoser, the daughter of a high priest. He is covered with glory, he has nothing to expect from the world and he suddenly feels that he’s a slave to this young Egyptian. But gorgeous and graceful Tahoser longs for a man with dark eyes, a man she had a glimpse of from the terrace of a luxuriant house. She doesn’t hesitate to shed away her rich clothes and jewels to conquer the heart of Poëri, this exiled Hebrew man.

A sumptuous love story that a young English Lord will discover on the papyrus he found in an inviolate grave in the Valley of the Kings. There rests for eternity but with all the appearance of life, a young woman who’s been dead for thirty centuries.

That’s the summary. What the summary won’t tell you is that, in a book of 159 pages, 40 are eaten by a prolog that describes with great minutiae the discovery of the papyrus. This prolog has been removed from the version on Project Gutenberg, btw. Then 30 pages are devoted to the description of Thebes, of Tahoser’s palace and of Pharaoh’s triumphal return. All this is aimed at French readers who want to bask into Ancient Egypt. Consequently, it doesn’t feel at all like a story from a papyrus written thirty centuries ago but like a lecture on pharaonic architecture and Ancient Egypt’s ways.

True, Gautier can write, as you can see in this description of heat in Thebes:

Oph (c’est le nom égyptien de la ville que l’antiquité appelait Thèbes aux cent portes ou Diospolis Magna) semblait endormie sous l’action dévorante d’un soleil de plomb. Il était midi ; une lumière blanche tombait du ciel pâle sur la terre pâmée de chaleur ; le sol brillanté de réverbérations luisait comme du métal fourbi, et l’ombre ne traçait plus au pied des édifices qu’un mince filet bleuâtre, pareil à la ligne d’encre dont un architecte dessine son plan sur le papyrus ; les maisons, aux murs légèrement inclinés en talus, flamboyaient comme des briques au four ; les portes étaient closes, et aux fenêtres, fermées de stores en roseaux clissés, nulle tête n’apparaissait. Oph (that is the name of the city which antiquity called Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Diospolis Magna), seemed asleep under the burning beams of the blazing sun. It was noon. A white light fell from the pale sky upon the baked earth; the sand, shimmering and scintillating, shone like burnished metal; shadows there were none, save a narrow, bluish line at the foot of buildings, like the inky line with which an architect draws upon papyrus; the houses, whose walls sloped well inwards, glowed like bricks in an oven; every door was closed, and no one showed at the windows, which were closed with blinds of reeds.

Believe me, it sounds a lot less bombastic in English. The translator erased a lot of the pomposity and sensuality of the original text. Alas, I had to endure it in French. And Gautier does use and abuse of bombast. All the time. For everything. He loves longs sentences made of lists of things to describe anything. The palace, the city, Tahoser’s jewels. He can’t say something is full of flowers. He has to write the list of all the flowers. This is really not my type of prose. I feel smothered in words, irritated by his useless show-off of the breadth of his knowledge of the French language. The man must have been a walking dictionary.

Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book and here, it’s only 159 pages. This means that the pages he wasted on endless descriptions are missing for characterization. The book is sick with architectural grandeur but the characters are papyrus thin. They see someone beautiful, they fall madly in love, it’s the man/woman of their dream. It’s full of unrealistic feelings and behaviors. The last part of the novel couples this improbable love triangle to the train of the biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Unbelievable.

I get that The Romance of a Mummy was part of the Egyptomania current in the 19th century. I understand that in 1858, the lengthy descriptions might have been helpful to help the reader see the setting in their mind, since there was no films. Unfortunately, it didn’t age well. In 2017, it sounds like a half-baked Hollywood peplum.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 39 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

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