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The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 10 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

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

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

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

from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Country by Kim Scott A trip to Aboriginal Australia

January 28, 2018 35 comments

True Country by Kim Scott (1993) French title: Le Vrai Pays. (Translated by Thierry Chevrier with the help of Marie Derrien)

Kim Scott is an Australian writer born in Perth in 1957. His mother is white and his father is Aboriginal, from the Nyungar tribe. He’s an English teacher and he spent some time teaching at an Aboriginal community in the north of Western Australia. Kim Scott explores the issue of the white colonization in Australia and its consequences but also gives a written memory to Aboriginal culture and simply uses his mixed origins to give a voice to his Aboriginal people.

A few years back, I tried to read his novel, That Deadman Dance but I had to abandon it. Not that I didn’t like it or that it was lacking but my English and my knowledge of Australia weren’t good enough. I needed a French translation. And the only books by Kim Scott available in French are True Country and Benang. I shouldn’t complain though, True Country has only been translated into French and Benang into French and Dutch. We are lucky readers here, thanks to Les Editions du Rocher and Actes Sud.

Lucky me, Lisa from ANZ LitLovers had not read True Country yet and she accepted to read it along with me. Her review is available on her blog and it’s going to be a real treat for me to discuss this book with an educated Australian reader.

The starting point of True Country is the arrival of a new set of teachers in Karnama, an Aboriginal community in the North of Western Australia.

There is a Catholic mission in Karnama and a school for Aboriginal children. Alex is the new principal of the school and he came with his wife Annette and his eight-year old son, Alan. The English teacher is Billy, accompanied by his wife Liz. Billy is mixed white and Aboriginal and as you can guess, he’s based on Kim Scott’s personal experience as an English teacher in rural Australia.

Karnama is isolated, the teachers are ill-prepared for their task. The climate is terrible with intense heat during the dry season and torrential rains during the rainy season. Nature is not exactly welcoming with crocodiles and all kinds of dangerous animals and plants. The isolation is vertiginous for a European. Hours until the next city and in case of medical urgency, they rely on the Flying Doctors.

In short chapters, Kim Scott relates life in Karnama for Billy and Liz. He shows the clash of culture between the white and Aboriginal inhabitants. It’s a strange ambience in Karnama where the Whites still feel superior to the Aborigens. It is definitely a colonial atmosphere, like in Africa during the English or French colonization.

The Whites have all the positions with responsibilities and run the place. They have better houses with air conditioning. We witness their diners where they complain about the Aborigines and how they are not to be trusted. The teachers have trouble getting the children in school on time and with proper pupil attire. They just don’t have the same way of life and unfortunately the teachers think that theirs is the right way to live. The approach of life and the vision of the world is different from the start. A striking example is the notion of house and home.

Locals come to the teachers’ houses unannounced, invite themselves in and touch their things. Their own houses are open and not so private or personal. Their behaviour irritates Liz or Annette. This is a detail that tells all about the clash of culture. It shows the different approach of life, with a focus on property and privacy on one side that has no equivalent on the other.

Both parts mean well but this is something that is ingrained from childhood and accepting what is seen as an invasion of privacy on one side or refraining from coming in on the other side requires a lot of going against gut reactions and it’s not easy. Education about homes and houses comes from far away in our lives. Even in Western countries, we have differences. In France, it’s very impolite to help yourself in someone’s fridge unless you’re at a good friend’s house or staying with your family. It’s more relaxed in the USA and when French students go to stay with an American family, they receive written instructions about how to behave and this thing about the fridge is mentioned as “Do it, they won’t understand why you just don’t help yourself”. I’ve done stays like this and even a simple thing as helping yourself in a fridge is difficult to do when you’ve been told from a young age that it is not polite. Your mind must take over and remind you that it’s allowed there and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable doing it. And despite everything you might tell yourself, you still feel uncomfortable taking a bottle of water in the fridge.

So, imagine what happens with such different conceptions of homes as between Nyungar and Whites.

I liked that Kim Scott doesn’t sugar-coat the situation and doesn’t deliver a black and white (no pun intended) vision of life in Karnama. He shows Aborigines misbehaving and the ravages of alcohol. According to a note left by the translator, Aborigines have a poor tolerance to alcohol due to genetics dispositions; they get drunk very fast and they are mean drunks.

I wondered what the perspectives are for people living in Karnama. They are trapped between two cultures and none of them expressed itself totally. There are no jobs in the sense of “Western capitalism” jobs and the traditional structures of the Nyungar seem to have disappeared. They are in a weird no-man’s-land, not integrated in Western civilization and already too out of their ancestral way-of-life to live it.

Pindan Country _ Kimberley, Western Australia. From Wikipedia

All these misunderstandings, the hopelessness of the locals’ future and the latent conflict between the two communities make the atmosphere a bit heavy, on the verge of a catastrophe. During the fishing trips, the swimming parties and various activities where Whites and Aborigines mix and do something together, you have the feeling they live on the razor’s edge. On both side, they are always a hair away from making a tiny mistake that could turn an innocent outing into a drama.

With his mixed origins Billy is a go-between. He’s open minded and curious about Nyungar culture and traditions. He’s in search of his own past and it’s easy to see why he took this teaching position. He starts recording old Fatima’s stories to keep track of their oral culture and to find a bridge between him and his pupils. He wants to use these stories in class, to have teaching material the children can relate to.

The other Whites’ motivations are unclear. Why did Alex and Annette choose to come to Karnama? Does it help one’s career to have done time in the bush? I missed out on the psychology of the characters. I would have wanted to know more about their past, their inner thoughts and their struggles. I didn’t bond with any of them except Billy and Liz. I think Liz is the most remarkable character of the book. She’s nonjudgmental and reaches out to the locals. She probably followed Billy to Karnama and takes everything in one stride. I would have loved to hear about their relationship, how they came here and what kind of discussion they had at night. This lack of information about the characters made me see the book as a written reportage, a succession of chapters where I followed Billy and his relearning of his ancestral roots and customs.

This leads me to an important stylistic part of True Country. The narration alternates between Billy’s point of view and an omniscient narrator that represent the voice of the Nyungar people. This narrator is like a God’s voice observing the humans living below and commenting on their actions. It’s is full of wisdom with a mischievous sense of humour. It opens the book with a welcome chapter,

First Thing, Welcome.

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly there, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling up in this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s there you belong. A place like this.

The Aboriginal narrator is the one that stands back and comments. It’s not part of the action but gives subtitles. It’s another middleman between the reader and the scenes that unfold on the pages. Sometimes it comes right in the middle of a page and it forces the reader to stop and think about what he’s reading. It’s someone taking your arm and saying “hold on” Look at the scenery. Look at the interactions between the characters. Take your time, observe and listen. It’s often a very poetic voice.

This change of point of view lost me in That Deadman Dance. Reading in French helped.

This is why I want to praise the work of the French translators, Thierry Chevrier helped by Marie Derrien. I loved the footnotes they left in the book. They were enlightening about Australia and the Aborigines. That’s a perk of reading a good and annotated translation. The translator goes further than transcribing the English text into French. With his French background, he knows when a French can get lost in the text or might miss something important. The footnotes touched all kinds of topics. There were explanations about the fauna and flora because it’s so different from ours. I enjoyed immensely the comments about Scott’s style pointing out things coming from his Aboriginal side and how it seeped into his English. I laughed at a comment about Australians and their beer bellies, I appreciated help about car models, agriculture and other local things that are foreign to me. He gave indications about the huge distances between cities because they’re hard to imagine here. In France, a long drive is 800 km, which is about the distance between Melbourne and Sydney which seem very close from one another on the map above. In True Country, the translator was holding the reader’s hand, helping him through the foreignness of the place and of the culture. I might have missed out on the English but I got so much more from the translation that I’m happy I read True Country in French.

I read True Country with the Aboriginal voiceover holding my hand and the translator holding my other hand. It’s been a fascinating trip to Karnama, one I would haven enjoyed more if I’d gotten to know Billy and Liz better.

In any case, I’m now better equipped to read A Deadman Dance in English. I’ll give it another try, probably after my trip to Australia.

Me, You by Erri de Luca

December 10, 2017 12 comments

Me, You by Erri de Luca (1998) French title: Tu, mio. Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.

C’était l’été, et même si nous vivions des années difficiles, des années d’après-guerre, ces mois sur l’île étaient une zone franche. Des libertés impensables étaient permises et les caractères de chacun pouvaient se révéler, s’affirmer. Nous sommes devenus des adultes après ce temps-là, nous sommes le fruit d’une île plutôt que d’une terre ferme. It was the summer and even if we were going through difficult years, post-war years, these months on the island were a free zone. Unbelievable liberties were allowed, our personalities could blossom and strengthen. We became adults after this time. We are more the product of an island than of dry land.

My clumsy translation.

When Me, You by Erri de Luca opens, we’re on a fisherman’s boat with our narrator. He’s sixteen and he’s spending the summer on an island near Naples, where he lives the rest of the year. We’re in the 1950s, it’s post-war Italy. The narrator spends his time fishing with his uncle and a local fisherman, Nicola. His free time is spent with his cousin Daniele. Daniele is older than him and the narrator tags along when Daniele meets his group of friends. This is how our narrator meets Caia, a mysterious young woman. He has a big crush on her and observes her from afar. On her side, she’s drawn to this silent adolescent. Unrequited young love and teenage fascination for the other sex could be the aim of this story. But it’s not. It explores these new emotions teenagers experience at sixteen but the post-war context brings a new depth to the story.

Caia is Jewish and the narrator soon understands that she escaped the worst but that her family was murdered by the Nazis during the war. The horrors of the Shoah bring a shadow over this sunny summer.

WWII also invites itself in the narrator’s summer through Nicola, the fisherman. He went to war in Yugoslavia and the narrator makes him talk about his war time. Nicola reluctantly unveils bits of his years in service. Ugliness seeps into the narrator’s sheltered life.

That summer, our narrator tries to confront two witnesses of the war, an unintentional participant and a victim. He wants to understand. The island is also a touristy place and when he sees German tourists, he wonders about their actions during the war. Who are these tourists under their summer clothes? Former active supporters of the Nazi regime or people who just tried to survive?

Our narrator questions the immediate past and wonders: what have the people of the different camps become? You, Me explores the coming of age of a teenager and the scars left by war in a country. We always think about war time, how awful it must have been and so on. This explores what happens when people from opposite camps have to live together, how victims try to survive, how demobilized soldiers slip into peace time routine.

As always, Erri de Luca masters deep questioning about the human condition with gentleness. He’s never bitter but never naïve either. And his style is sumptuous and poetic.

Le soleil est une main de surface, un papier de verre, qui, l’été, dégrossit la terre, la nivelle, la lisse, sèche et maigre à fleur de poussière. Il fait la même chose avec les corps. The sun is a smoother of surfaces, a kind of sandpaper that during the summer smooths down the earth, evens it out, polishes it, leaving it thin and dry, a film of dust. With the body it does the same thing.

Translation by Beth Archer Brombert.

I think part of the poetry is lost in translation here. In French, the sun is compared to a hand that smoothes the landscape with sandpaper and the hand has disappeared in the English translation. The “à fleur de poussière” is also more poetic and evocative than the “film of dust” used in English. The French gives the impression that the sun is a giant manual worker who shapes the landscape with the expertise and love of a skilled artisan.

Camouflaged in a coming-of-age story is the frightening question of how to live together after the ugliness and crimes of WWII. It shows mankind’s ability to move on after this awful war and how nobody really wanted to face the events. The criminals want to live under the radar. The victims want to move on but may be confronted to their torturers. The soldiers have to go back to civilian life. It’s as if everyone had gone out of the usual envelope of their self and now they have to put this outgrowth back into the initial self. And of course, it won’t fit. Our narrator is perceptive and guesses these struggles. He wants these outgrowths to express themselves before being tamed into their newly found normalcy.

This is a 140 pages novella and yet Erri de Luca managed to resurrect life on this Mediterranean island in the 1950s, to describe teenage angst and the discovery of love and to explore the aftermath of WWII in people’s everyday life.

Highly recommended, just as one of his other books, Three Horses.

PS: I wonder why the Italian title Tu, mio became Me, You in English instead of the literal You, Me.

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 4 comments

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek (1924) Traduit du tchèque par Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays.

Un grand merci aux éditions LaBaconnière pour m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek. C’est exactement le genre de livre que j’apprécie. Le livre en lui-même est un bel objet, illustré par les dessins de l’auteur. La couverture nous montre l’auteur et la qualité du papier en fait un livre qu’on envie d’avoir en main, envie d’avoir en bibliothèque. Les notes en fin de livre sont utiles pour éclairer la lecture sans être intrusives.

Dans ce court opus d’à peine 175 pages, Karel Čapek nous emmène avec lui en voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse, au Pays de Galles et à nouveau en Angleterre. Nous sommes en 1924. Čapek aurait aimé aller en Irlande mais on lui fait gentiment comprendre qu’il n’y a pas de guide touristique de l’Irlande parce que les Anglais ne vont pas là-bas.

A Londres, il est le touriste émerveillé qui voit de ses propres yeux ce qu’il a lu dans les livres. Il est infatigable et tâche d’expérimenter tout ce qu’il peut de la vie à l’anglaise. Il arpente les rues, visite les musées, a la chance d’être introduit dans un club pour gentlemen. Partout, il observe les gens. Dans les bus, dans la rue, dans les musées, dans les pubs. Il visite l’exposition coloniale de 1924 et remarque l’absence totale des cultures des pays de l’Empire Britannique. Ils sont représentés pour leur production mais pas pour leur âme ou leur population. Son émerveillement ne le rend pas aveugle. Il remarque la pollution, la pauvreté, la difficulté de circuler dans Londres. Il s’interroge sur le progrès incontrôlé et ses dégâts collatéraux.

Illustration de l’exposition coloniale

Sa visite à Londres achevée, il prend le train pour l’Ecosse où il est conquis par la beauté des paysages, les gens. Il semble avoir une affection toute particulière pour les vaches et les moutons. Partout où il va, il décrit les moutons, ce qui apporte un fil conducteur insolite au livre. On pourrait presque faire l’étude comparative des races de moutons en Grande-Bretagne!

Il passe au Pays de Galles, où il moque gentiment de la langue galloise et de son impossible prononciation. Il visite tous les lieux touristiques connus à Londres, il va à Oxford et Cambridge, s’arrête au Lake District. Il se promène dans les parcs, va visiter des villages mais aussi des villes industrielles et des ports. Il s’interroge : où est la vraie Angleterre ? Est-ce celle des traditions et des gazons soigneusement entretenus ou celle grouillante de vie des ports et des quartiers ouvriers ?

Le charme absolu de ce livre réside dans l’humour indulgent de Čapek. Il décrit et décrie l’incroyable ennuis des dimanches en Grande-Bretagne:

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi.

Il nous parle du cliché de l’attitude cool, calm and collected qui fait partie de l’image des Anglais mais remarque avec malice : La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Ce ton alerte cède le pas à un style beaucoup plus poétique quand il décrit les paysages somptueux d’Ecosse. Cela donne envie de sauter dans le premier avion pour voir ce dont il nous parle.

Mais il faut que je dise en sèche prose combien c’est beau ici : un lac bleu et violet entre des collines nues –ce lac s’appelle Loch Tay, et toutes les vallées se nomment Glen, toutes les montagnes Ben, et tous les hommes Mac ; un lac bleu et calme, un vent pétillant, des bœufs velus, noirs ou roux, dans les prés, des torrents d’un noir de goudron et des collines désertes, couvertes d’herbe et de bruyère –, comment décrire tout cela ? Le mieux serait tout de même de l’écrire en vers ; mais il ne me vient pas de bonne rime à « vent ».

Čapek nous fait découvrir la Grande-Bretagne avec ses yeux d’écrivain pragois. C’est un homme qui a déjà voyagé dans d’autres pays d’Europe et qui semble s’être senti moins dépaysé en France et en Italie qu’il ne l’est en Angleterre. Il a trouvé plus de chromosomes communs entre son ADN tchèque et l’ADN des continentaux qu’il n’en trouve avec les Londoniens et les Ecossais.

Lettres d’Angleterre est un petit bijou d’humour, de clairvoyance et d’intelligence. Je n’ai qu’une hâte : lire un roman de Karel Čapek pour voir comment ces qualités se retrouvent dans son œuvre de fiction.

A découvrir absolument et merci à LaBaconnière de nous rééditer ces trésors de la littérature.

PS : J’ai également écrit un billet en anglais à propos de ce livre. Il est légèrement différent de la version française.

Letters from England by Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 2 comments

Letters from England by Karel Čapek (1924) French translation: Lettres d’Angleterre. Translated by Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays. In England, I’d like to be a cow or a child. But since I’m an educated grownup, I observed the people of this country.

I received Letters from England as an advanced review copy from the publisher LaBaconnière and they obviously know the readers they send books to, because this one was exactly for me.

Letters from England are the illustrated travels of the Czech writer Karel Čapek in England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland was on his radar too but he couldn’t make it in these troubled times.

The first chapters are for London where Čapek is a giddy tourist, disappointed not to feel the spirit of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street and overwhelmed with being there, in a place he’s read so much about. He walks around, strolls in parks, visits museums. (His moments at Madame Tussauds are hilarious). He also went to the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. He’s introduced to club culture and pub culture. He’s confronted to poverty in the East End. He’s candid and he’s in awe but not enough to anesthetize his critical mind.

He tends to compare what he sees with home and with what he’s seen in other countries. Čapek very observant and has a marvellous sense of humour. You can sample it here:

La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Here at night, cats make love as savagely as on the roofs of Palermo, despite what everyone says about English puritanism.

After London and surroundings, he takes the train to Scotland. Frankly, all tourist agencies in Scotland should quote Čapek. He’s in love with the landscapes, the people, the atmosphere in the cities. You read him, you want to hop on a plane to Scotland. It seems so beautiful. Again, despite his obvious admiration, his sense of humour never fails him.

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi. On Sundays in Scotland, trains stop working, railway stations are closed and people do absolutely nothing: it’s amazing that clocks don’t stop ticking as well.

He went from Scotland to Wales, discovered that he couldn’t fin any tourist guide about Ireland in Great Britain, and went back to England. In all the places he visits, he stops to describe and draw cows and sheep. He has a fondness for these animals and cannot help comparing the different sheep races he encounters. It’s such an entertaining Ariadne thread along the book.

Čapek is more than a lovestruck tourist. He’s a keen observer of his time, curious about other cultures, critical about colonisation, wary about wild industrialisation and its consequences on the working class’s living conditions. His acute intelligence transpires through his funny and spot on commentaries. He compares what he sees of the English way of life to his Czech life and to his experience in other countries. Life in Paris seems more familiar to him than life in London. He sounds less puzzled by his other travels than by this one, as if countries on the continent had more common chromosomes in their DNA.

His descriptions of landscapes border on poetry and we follow an enchanted traveller. His illustrations of his travels supplement the text in a dashing manner. They capture a person, a scene, a part of a monument. They’re so personal and subjective that this reader felt closer to the writer’s experience.

Highly recommended. There will be a billet in French too, slightly different from this one.

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.

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