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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.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

Portuguese Lit: Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz

September 3, 2017 10 comments

Jesus-Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz (2012) French title : Jésus-Christ buvait de la bière. Translated from the Portuguese by Marie-Hélène Piwnik.

Preamble: I translated all the quotes myself and it wasn’t easy because Afonso Cruz is a poet-novelist and my English is not good enough to translate the poetical side of his prose. As usual, I did my best and don’t hesitate to suggest other translations in the comments.

Une corde peut se tendre sur toute sa longueur, mais elle peut passer sa vie repliée sur elle-même, enroulée en dedans. Une longue corde peut n’être qu’un petit rouleau. Notre vie est comme ça aussi, comme une corde. Parfois elle se tend au-dessus de l’abîme, parfois elle est enroulée dans un placard. Elle peut unir deux lieux distants ou rester rangée, repliée sur elle-même. A rope may be stretched on its entire length but it may spend its life coiled up, withdrawn into itself. A long rope may only be a small roll. Our life is also like this, like a rope. Sometimes it’s stretched over the abyss, sometimes it’s coiled in a cupboard. It can unite two distant places together or stay put, withdrawn into itself.

This is the first glimpse of the atmosphere and style of Afonso Cruz’s Jesus-Christ Drank Beer. I was lucky to find a whole section of books in French in the Livraria Bertrand in Lisbon because I doubt I would have stumbled upon this Portuguese book in a French bookstore. It’s published by a Québec publishing house, Les Allusifs  whose objective is to publish novellas from around the world, which makes them the francophone equivalent of Pushkin Press. Many thanks to these couture publishing houses that go out of the beaten paths. But, back to Jesus-Christ Drank Beer.

We’re in the Alentejo, the region of Portugal at the East of Lisbon to the border with Spain. It’s a rural area with cork oaks, olive trees and wheat fields. It’s hot in the summer and quite dry. This is where the young Rosa lives with her ageing grand-mother. Her mother left when she was little and her father died in an accident. She’s left alone on the farm with her nan. Rosa is not even 18 but she’s already out of school and her best friend is Ari, a shepherd. Rosa and her grand-mother Antónia are dirt poor and barely manage to survive in their remote village of the Alentejo. Rosa spends her days tending to her grand-mother and keeping Ari company, who’s quietly in love with her. As their financial situation deteriorates, Rosa decides to go and work as a maid in the city.

In a nearby village lives Miss Whittemore, an English millionaire who bought out a whole ghost village. She’s quite the eccentric –she sleeps in the skeleton of a whale— and decided to renovate the whole village and import a Hindi wise man, a Yoruba medicine man, a priest and Professor Borja to bring in atheist balance. This little world revolves around lunches at Miss Whittemore’s and philosophical conversations. Professor Borja sees himself as a contemporary version of the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Oenoanda.

These two worlds will collide when Professor Borja hits a wild boar with his car near Rosa’s village. Despite his being an old philosopher, he falls in love with young Rosa who seems to exude sensuality. Then Antónia has an attack and gets worse. Rosa comes back to the village and her grand-mother expresses the wish to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Land before she dies. Rosa can’t afford the trip to Jerusalem and in any case, the old woman is too ill to go there. Professor Borja convinces Miss Whittemore to transform her village into a Palestine-like place and make Antónia believe that she is near Jerusalem.

I won’t tell more about plot. The sheer beauty of Jesus-Christ Drank Beer comes from the perfect mix of craziness, eccentricity, poetry, fondness for the Alentejo and thoughts about life and human condition. Here’s a reflection on the work of firefighters who are called in case of a fire but more often when someone feels suddenly ill or has an accident. Afonso Cruz muses:

Les pompiers devraient lutter contre le feu, l’élément d’Héraclite. Au lieu de ça, ils luttent contre le temps. Une lutte chimérique. Pour lutter contre le feu, ils utilisent son grand ennemi, l’eau, mais pour combattre le temps ils n’ont qu’un brancard, un tensiomètre et une bouteille d’oxygène. Et, bien sûr, les vieux continuent à mourir. Les pompiers devraient avoir des lances d’arrosage d’où fuserait la jeunesse, ils devraient s’occuper d’éteindre la vieillesse. Firefighters should fight against fire, the element of Heraclitus. Instead of that, they fight against time. A fanciful fight. To fight against fire, they use its greatest enemy, water. But to fight against time, they only have a stretcher, a tensiometer and an oxygen bottle. And of course, old people keep on dying. Firemen should have fire hose that sprayed youth; they should be busy putting out old age.

What a sight it would be.

The novel is set in a rural area and the characters’ vision of the world is deeply rooted in their surroundings, like in this quote with moth.

Les rêves volent comme les mites et pondent des œufs dans les meubles, le linge, les seuils de porte, partout. Et de ces œufs naissent d’autres rêves, pareils aux mites qui pondent des œufs partout. Dreams fly like moth and lay eggs in furniture, clothes, thresholds, everywhere. And from these eggs are born new dreams, like moths who lay eggs everywhere.

Moths are part of Rosa and Ari’s environment. Using moths to compare them to dreams is a bit daring but somehow, under Cruz’s pen, it works. For the anecdote: in French, a moth is a mite. When I typed this quote, Word autocorrect “thought” I had made a mistake and suggested mythe (myth) instead of mite, especially since the pronunciation of the two words is very similar in French. To Word’s computer-programed mind, dreams can fly like myths but not like moth.

Jesus-Christ Drank Beer is set in the 1980s, in the decade after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. (1974) It was a time of change for the country but also for the Alentejo since there were agrarian reforms after democracy was established. I know this thanks to the foreword by the translator but otherwise, there’s a timelessness about this novella. The only moment I remembered that it was written in 2012 is this tiny reminder of the violence of the 2008 economic crisis in Portugal and the pressure the country got from the EU and the IFM. Antónia is supposed to be in Jerusalem and she comments that it looks a lot like the Alentejo. Professor Borja explains:

C’est méditerranéen, ça se ressemble partout, des chênes lièges, une économie déplorable et des oliviers et des fromages de brebis et de chèvre. Dieu savait ce qui était bon et a voulu s’incarner dans un lieu où le travail, l’esclavage, les finances, tout ça, étaient méprisés. Dieu fait tout au mieux et jamais il n’aurait voulu être allemand. It’s Mediterranean. It looks the same everywhere, cork oaks, a poor economy, olive trees, goat cheese and sheep’s cheese. God knew what was good and wanted to be incarnate in a place where work, slavery, finance and all this were despised. God knows best and would have never wanted to be German.

Unless I missed something, this is the only allusion to today’s world.

Afonso Cruz shows the life in Alentejo, makes its landscape come alive, evokes its popular belief and way-of-life. Jesus-Christ Drank Beer is a literary beverage flavored with Maupassant’s A Life, Cather’s My Ántonia, Giono’s Regain, Papadiamantis’s Murderess or Ramuz’s Aline.

Highly recommended. I’ll leave you with a last quote, one I particularly love because it tells why I’ll never do Botox or plastic surgery for the sake of looking young.

Les souvenirs sont les cendres des mots, ils sont plus lourds que les pensées et finissent par se laisser choir au fond du corps, cendrier tête la première. Il ne faut pas les chercher dans les têtes blanchies, mais dans les corps. La mémoire s’enracine dans les os, les rides, la peau. Si un vieux écarte les rides que le temps creuse dans les peaux les plus âgées, dedans il y a des tas d’histoires, il suffit de regarder le corps muet et de lire les lignes qu’il a dessinées au fil des jours et des heures. Ce sont des histoires sans paroles, c’est pourquoi l’on a tendance à les négliger. Memories are words’ ashes. They are heavier than thoughts and end up falling down to the bottom of our body, ashtray head-first. Don’t look for them in white-haired heads but in bodies. Memory takes roots in bones, in wrinkles and in our skin. If an old person opens the wrinkles that Time has carved in the oldest skins, you’ll see lots of story there. Just look at their mute bodies and read the lines Time has drawn day after day, hour after hour. These are wordless stories and this is why we tend to neglect them.

I’ll add this as a contribution to Marina Sofia’s Reading the EU project for Portugal. I want to make this book knows.

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.

Caribou Island by David Vann

June 5, 2017 21 comments

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?

Yes

Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

May 25, 2017 28 comments

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou (2009) Original French title: Black Bazar 

Il soutient que l’Africain a été le premier homme sur la Terre, les autres races ne sont venues qu’après. Tous les hommes sont donc des immigrés, sauf les Africains qui sont chez eux ici-bas. He says that the African man was the first man on Earth and that the other races only came after. Therefore, all men are immigrants except African people who are right at home.

Mabanckou is a writer I’d wanted to read for a long time and if I had to tag Black Bazar with something I’d say energetic and refreshing.

The main character is Buttologist, a Congolese dandy who lives in Paris. He’s brokenhearted after his French girlfriend of Congolese origin left him to go live in Congo with a musician he nicknamed The Mongrel. In French, Buttologist is named Fessologue and he got his nickname because of his fondness for female butts. The Mongrel is L’Hybride.

Buttologist pours his thoughs into his journal, Black Bazaar and that’s how the reader has access to his inner mind. We hear about his relationship with Original Color and the trail of sorrow she left behind. We meet with his friends at Jip’s, a bar in the Halles neighborhood in Paris. (That’s where the Beaubourg museum is.) His friends are also immigrants from Africa and they chat about everything. He introduces us to Congolese fashion and teaches us about his community. He lives in a tiny studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, near the Château d’Eau metro station. We walk around with him, see his interaction with the shopkeeper L’Arabe du Coin. He shares his thoughts about his life, about being black in Paris, about the French language. His life changes when he meets Jean-Philippe, a famous author from Haiti, probably Laferrière literary doppelgänger. Buttologist starts to write as well.

Black Bazaar is not a book made for summaries and Cliff Notes. It’s too full of life. The best of the experience lays in Mabanckou’s incredible virtuosity with the French language. He knows it inside and out and plays it effortlessly. His style is full of quirks, twists and innuendos. It sounds simple but it’s not.

Un Blanc qui apprend du tam-tam, c’est normal, ça fait chic, ça fait type qui est ouvert aux autres cultures du monde et pas du tout raciste pour un sou. Un Noir qui bat du tam-tam, ça craint, ça fait trop retour aux sources, à la case départ, à l’état naturel, à la musique dans la peau. C’est pas pour rien que les Européens s’intéressent comme ça au tam-tam. C’est pour comprendre comment les choses se passaient chez nous quand il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens de communication que celui-là.

A white guy who learns how to play tom-tom, it’s normal, it’s chic, it says “I’m a man open to the other cultures of the world and I’m not racist at all”. A Black man who plays the tam-tam, it sucks, it’s too much back to his roots, back to square one, back to his natural state, back to having the beat. It ain’t surprising that Europeans are interested in tom-tom that way. It is to understand how things went in our country when we had no other means of communication.

There is a lot packed up in this simple paragraph. First it resonates with Dany Laferrière’s comments about his meetings with white girls in Montreal in How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. Mabanckou seems to say that when a white man plays the tom-tom, he seems open minded and when a black man does, he seems to be looking for his past. Neither the white man or the black man is seen as simply someone who enjoys playing the tom-tom. There has to be a meaning behind it or more precisely, our cultural background puts a filter on what we see.

Then, there’s the brilliant style. I tried to translate this paragraph as best as I could but a lot of things are lost in translation. It is difficult for me to give back the tone and the register of Black Bazaar. In French, I’d qualify it as highbrow colloquial. The use of ça instead of cela reveals spoken language. Then he makes play on words with casual expressions. Retour à la case départ is the French way to say Back to square one on board games. But in French, a case is also the word used for African huts. So, for a French, it sounds like back to African huts as well. And then, there’s la musique dans la peau which I translated as having the beat. That’s a cliché about black people but in French it has an additional meaning. The literal translation of la musique dans la peau would be to have music in your skin or in English, you’d probably say in your blood. But blood is red for everyone when someone’s skin can be of different color, so the French has another layer. And on top of it, La musique dans la peau was a hit song by Zouk Machine in the 1980s. It was a group of black ladies from Guadalupe singing zouk songs.

This is Alain Mabanckou for you: intelligent colloquial language laced with cultural references and punchy thoughts about the relationships between blacks and whites and the world around him. I could quote other paragraphs with embedded Brassens lyrics or references to Césaire or Dany Lafferière. Writers like Mabanckou keep the French language alive. If books had buddies, Black Bazaar would be friends with A Moveable FeastHow To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Going to Meet the ManAsk the DustPost Office or with The Lonely LondonersBlack Bazaar would be in good company, not with Montaigne and La Boëtie but it would be “friends first”, like in Brassens’s famous song Les Copains d’abord.

NB: Black Bazaar is full of characters with colorful nicknames. I have read Mabanckou in French but had a look at the English version of names coined by the English translator Sarah Ardizzone.

This picture was taken in Bordeaux and it reminded me of Black Bazaar, the book I was reading at the time.

 

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