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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 15 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook – What happens in The Yabba must stay in The Yabba

December 12, 2018 8 comments

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961) French title: Cinq matins de trop.

Welcome to our next stop on my crime fiction reading journey. We’re with John Grant, a schoolteacher who has been appointed in the remote tiny town of Tiboonda in the Australian outback. He hates it there and he still has another year to serve but now it’s the end of the school year and he’s on his way back to civilisation, which means Sydney to him.

The schoolteacher knew that somewhere not far out in the shimmering haze was the state border, marked by a broken fence, and that further out in the heat was the silent centre of Australia, the Dead Heart. He looked through the windows almost with pleasure, because tonight he would be on his way to Bundanyabba; tomorrow morning he would board an aircraft; and tomorrow night he would be in Sydney, and on Sunday he would swim in the sea. For the schoolteacher was a coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west.

He has to stay in the mining town of Bundanyabba for a night to catch his flight. It’s hot as hell in this place in the summer. After checking in in his hotel room, he decides to have a beer in a pub before going to bed. He starts chatting with a policeman who takes him to the local two-up gambling game. Grant is fascinated by the show, the bets, the atmosphere. He leaves unscathed but is caught by the gambling bug later in the night. He goes back and of course, he loses all his money. He’s now stranded in Bundanyabba, or as the locals call it, The Yabba.

What the loss meant to him was so grievous in import that he could not think about it. His mind had a small tight knot at the back, and around it whirled the destructive realisation of what he had done, but until that knot unravelled, he need not think too deeply about what was to happen now. He went back to the hotel, stripped off his clothes, fell naked on to the bed, and stared, hot-eyed, at the ceiling until suddenly he fell asleep with the light still burning.

The morning after, he wanders in town, enters another pub and befriends with Hynes, the director of the local mine. Hynes takes him home to diner with his wife, adult daughter and friends Dick and Joe. They drink themselves into a stupor and Grant wakes up in a shack which is the home of the local Doc. Grant barely recovers sobriety before drinking again and being dragged into a nightly kangaroo hunt.

How will he get out his predicament?

No wonder Wake in Fright has become a classic. Cook draws the tale of a man who’s in a two-years hiatus from his life as he has to serve his two years in the Australian outback and he loathes it. He’s bored, ill-prepared for the climate and so ready to have a break from it all during the Christmas six weeks holidays.

He’s puzzled by the bush and its people. All the people he meets in The Yabba love it there, something he can’t understand. The heat turns his brain into mush, thirst leads to drinking too much beer and his willpower is quickly eroded and crumbles. The poor, candid and virgin John Grant is taken in a storm of drinking and sex topped up by a hallucinating hunting trip in the wild.

Cook draws a convincing picture of life in the outback. He brings the reader there, especially in the descriptions of the landscape and wild life. Like here when Grant is in a truck on his way to the hunting trip:

Out over the desert plains, behind the roar and grind of the ancient engines, the dreary words and trite tunes of modern America caused the dingoes to cock their ears in wonder, and deepened measurably the sadness that permeates the outback of Australia.

I imagine them all in the truck’s cabin, listening to the only radio available and disturbing the peace of the wildlife with their loud Western attitude. Meanwhile, nature goes on with its natural course and gives us humans a magnificent show.

Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.

Wake in Fright has a strong sense of place, The Yabba is almost a character, playing a decisive role in the days Grant will spend in this dreary place. The book is tagged as psychological thriller, probably because Grant falls into the sick hands of the Hynes clique. Moral compasses are not aligned between Sydney and The Yabba. Propriety is not the same and Grant is a stranger with no clue of the code of conduct he should abide by.

Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy. What the hell?

I’m not so sure about the psychological thriller tag. Sure, Grant falls victim to a group of sickos. But he had opportunities to opt out of this destructive journey. He knew he should not go back to the gambling game. Yet he did. He could have looked for Crawford and ask for help at the police station. Yet he didn’t. Cook doesn’t let us see Grant as a victim, except of his own weakness as he writes:

He almost smiled at the enormous absurdity of it all. But what was so fantastic was that there had been no element of necessity about it all. It was as though he had deliberately set about destroying himself; and yet one thing had seemed to lead to the next.

Wake in Fright is a hell of a ride with a man unconsciously led to self-destruction in the hard environment of a small outback town in Australia. In a way, Grant is a bit like Meursault, the main character of L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Both have their mind altered by heat and live moments of their lives as in a daze, not willing to engage with life, probably unable to find a proper meaning to it all.

Kenneth cooks us a stunning and memorable story of a man left in a harsh environment whose codes he fails to understand. A man not sure enough of who he is and where he stands in the world to resist the destructive forces of The Yabba.

Highly recommended.

Small Country by Gaël Faye – Highly recommended

November 4, 2018 15 comments

Small Country by Gaël Faye (2016) Original French title: Petit Pays.

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment où l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorénavant, il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis comme Francis. J’ai beau retourner mes souvenirs dans tous les sens, je ne parviens pas à me rappeler clairement l’instant où nous avons décidé de ne plus nous contenter de partager le peu que nous avions et de cesser d’avoir confiance, de voir l’autre comme un danger, de créer cette frontière invisible avec le monde extérieur en faisant de notre quartier et de notre impasse un enclos.

Je me demande encore quand les copains et moi, nous avons commencé à avoir peur.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t remember when we started to think differently. To consider that from now on, we would be on one side and on the other side would be enemies like Francis. I keep hunting high and low in my memories, I can’t remember clearly the moment when we decided to be no longer content to share the few things we had, when we stopped trusting each other and started seeing the other as a threat or when we created this invisible border with the outside world transforming our cul-de-sac and our neighborhood into a paddock

I still wonder when my friends and I started to be afraid.

I have read Small Country by Gaël Faye in *embarrassed cough* June. This billet is beyond late and the temptation to just let it go and not write about this novel was strong. But Small Country deserves better than my laziness and most of all, it deserves to be talked about and widely read.

The narrator of the earlier quote is Gabriel. Now an adult, he recollects his childhood in Burundi and how his life was turned upside down in 1993 by the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, resulting in mass killings of Tutsis.

For Gabriel, two major events happened at the same time, shattering his innocence and putting an end to his carefree childhood. First, his parents separated. His father is French and his mother Rwandan. They were probably an ill-matched couple and their love story ended with a separation. Then History in-the-making came around the corner and trampled everything with its dirty boots.

Now living in France, Gabriel tells us about his childhood, his last months in Burundi and the coming of the civil war. He resurrects for us his games with his friends, his relationship with his sister Ana, a visit to relatives in Rwanda and he tries to picture the atmosphere of these terrible times where everyone had to pick a side. His mother is from Rwanda and she’s a refugee in Burundi. Her family is still in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda happened at the same time as the civil war in Burundi. Gabriel’s family is doubly concerned albeit safer than the average Burundian thanks to his father being French.

Adult Gabriel realized that he has gaps in his memories, that he blocked out the terrible three months of the ethnic cleansing:

Au Rwanda, cette chose qui n’était pas la guerre dura trois longs mois. Je ne me souviens plus de ce que nous avons fait pendant cette période. Je ne me souviens ni de l’école, ni des copains, ni de notre quotidien. A la maison, nous étions de nouveau tous les quatre, mais un immense trou noir nous a engloutis, nous et notre mémoire. D’avril à juillet 1994, nous avons vécu le génocide qui se perpétrait au Rwanda à distance, entre quatre murs, à côté d’un téléphone et d’un poste de radio.

In Rwanda, this thing that was not a war lasted three months. I don’t remember what we did during that time. I don’t remember about school, my friends or our quotidian. At home, we were four again [his mother has come back, due to the events] but a huge black hole has swallowed us. Us and our memory. From April to July 1994, we have lived through the ongoing genocide in Rwanda from afar, between four walls, beside a telephone and a radio set.

He has the memories of a child and what helped him through these terrible times was their neighbor’s library. She started to lend him books and he used them as an escaping device, a way to forget his daily life.

Grâce à mes lectures, j’avais aboli les limites de l’impasse, je respirais à nouveau, le monde s’étendait plus loin, au-delà des clôtures qui nous recroquevillaient sur nous-mêmes et sur nos peurs. Thanks to my readings, I had knocked down the limits of our cul-de-sac. I could breathe again. The world went beyond the fences that had us curled up with our fears.  

Literature as a safe haven…

Despite the horrifying context, Small Country is not bleak because Gaël Faye describes the life in the cul-de-sac, the neighbours, the parties and the games with his friends. He takes us with him to his childhood’s world and evokes the smells, the food, the fruits and the rhythm of everyday life.

Rien n’est plus doux que ce moment où le soleil décline derrière la crête des montagnes. Le crépuscule apporte la fraîcheur du soir et des lumières chaudes qui évoluent à chaque minute. A cette heure-ci, le rythme change. Les gens rentrent tranquillement du travail, les gardiens de nuit prennent leur service, les voisins s’installent devant leur portail. C’est le silence avant l’arrivée des crapauds et des criquets. Souvent le moment idéal pour une partie de football, pour s’asseoir avec un ami sur le muret au-dessus du caniveau, écouter la radio l’oreille collée au poste ou rendre visite à un voisin. Nothing is sweeter than this moment when the sun sets behind the mountains. Twilight brings coolness and warm lights change from one minute to the next. At this hour, the rhythm of life changes. People quietly come back from work, night watchmen start their shifts, neighbors settle in front of their houses. It’s the silent moment before the toads and crickets arrive. Often, it’s the ideal moment for a football game, to sit with a friend on the low wall above the gutter, to listen to music with your ear glued to the radio set or to visit a neighbor.

He shows us the beauty of Burundi and the happy memories. It’s told from the view point of a child who doesn’t quite grasp the madness of the adults and the complexity of racial feuds.

Gaël Faye is a poet, a hip-hop and rap singer and a writer. Small Country is his debut novel and it won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Goncourt given by high school students and it’s well-deserved.

Gaël Faye fled from Rwanda with his family when he was 13 and Small Country comes from his own experience, which increases the emotional bond the reader forms with Gabriel.

Highly recommended.

PS: The clumsy translations are all mine.

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

October 7, 2018 23 comments

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. (1976) French title: Easter Parade. 

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If you had any hope to have Richard Yates cheer you up with his Easter Parade, he crushes it with the first sentence of his novel. The said Grimes sisters are Sarah and Emily. After they parents got divorced, they went to live with their mother Esther and only met their father on weekends. The Easter Parade feels like a long-term documentary about the destiny of two sisters raised by parents who failed them.

Their father is a ghost figure working in a small position at a newspaper, a job he puffs up in order to look better in the eyes of his daughters. Their mother doesn’t do motherly and thinks she belongs to a better social class that the one she belongs to.

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.”

Her nickname gives her away. She yearns for style and class but doesn’t have it. This means that the girls are raised by a delusional woman who has a deceptive idea of their place in the world. Pookie lives in a world where fish need bicycles; in other words, her daughters need to get married. She pushes them in this direction, as would have done any other mother of that time.

It’s exactly what Sarah does, marrying a dashing young neighbor and settling into an unhappy marriage. We’ll follow her grim life over the decades, mostly through Emily’s eyes. Yates pays more attention to Emily. She’s brilliant enough to get into Barnard College on a scholarship. She doesn’t settle down with a man, working in an office in Manhattan and going from one failed liaison to the other.

As mentioned before, neither of them finds happiness.

This is where writing a billet months after reading a book becomes handy. A couple of months after The Easter Parade, I read I, For Isobel by Amy Witting.

And it struck me that Emily and Isobel’s stories have lots in common. Both have been raised by a mother who first wore the trousers in their marriage and then had to raise their children on their own. Both Isobel and Emily have a sister they love but have no affinity with. They work in an office and on their own in the city. They love to read and have intellectual abilities that single them out in their families.

One distressing thing Emily learned in college was to feel more intelligent than her sister. She had felt more intelligent than her mother for years, but that was different; when it happened with Sarah she felt she had betrayed a trust.

I think Isobel felt more intelligent than her mother and sister as well and that her mother knew it. It fueled her resentment towards her daughter. Pookie just knew she didn’t understand Emily. Isobel and Emily are bright and they have an intelligence that doesn’t agree well with the average fate of women in their social class. They cannot be satisfied with what’s ahead of them.

Isobel and Emily aren’t interested in a career as a housewife. They’re not ready to get married, raise kids and be their husband’s sidekick. They have this intellectual side, this interest in books that opened the doors to another world, a world of knowledge. It’s what happens to Isobel when she meets a group of students at a café and this is how Emily feels at Barnard:

School was the center of her life. She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment.

They have higher expectations than their sisters because their intelligence tells them that there’s more to life than being a wife and a mother. And in their time and in their social class, it was usually impossible to have a career, be married and have children. And as a consequence, they have to choose and their choice is their freedom and they’re like fish out of water in their social class.

The most striking difference between the two stories is the ending. There’s hope for Isobel but not for Sarah. I, For Isobel was written by a woman who started to write later in life and there’s probably a lot of her personal experience in Isobel. She’s gentle with her character.

I disliked how Yates ended The Easter Parade for Emily, for me it was a letdown. And I couldn’t help wondering if being a man made him write such an ending. It felt like a cliché to warn women who dare to go out of the traditional way. ‘See what happens when you try to live like a man’.

If you’ve read The Easter Parade, how did you feel about it and the ending in particular?

There are a lot of things to explore in this short novel. It questions happiness, how to recognize it, how fleeting it is, like a parade. It also tells us how parents influence their children with their behavior, their vision of life. Sarah and Emily had flawed parents who were unhappy with their life, for different reasons. Even if it’s true because our parents shape us, we are not doomed to replay the same mistakes than our parents or be unhappy because of bad wiring in our childhood. I am more optimistic than that or maybe I want to be because I don’t want to think of the unintentional baggage I’m loading my children with.

My billet is long enough, I won’t spend too much time on raving about Yates’s style. It’s terrific, exactly the kind of writing I love. With a few strokes of his brush, you can see a character, like here: His wife Edna was pleasant and plump and drank a good deal of sherry. It’s also very visual and I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Hopper’s paintings when I read this description:

So they went to the main house without her. It was built of white clapboard too, and it was long and ugly—three stories high in some places and two in others, with black-roofed gables jutting into the trees. The first thing that hit you when you went inside was the smell of mildew. It seeped from the brown oil paintings in the vestibule, from the creaking floor and carpets and walls and gaunt furniture of the long, dark living room.

The bittersweet tone of the book, the clever picture of an era through the lives of two sisters all wrapped in a precise literary style make of The Easter Parade a highly recommended book.

For another vision of The Easter Parade, see Jacqui’s review here and Max’s review here.

PS: Once again, I’ll call a book cover a disaster. It’s more Angela’s Ashes than The Easter Parade.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 33 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

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