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Book Club 2019-2020 : The List

September 7, 2019 9 comments

I’m a little late for my yearly Book Club list but here are the books we have chosen for our 2019 – 2020 reading adventures. I’ll join excerpts from the Goodreads blurb from, it’s up to you to read it or skip it.

August (Yeah, that’s how late I am): The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. (USA, 2013)

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

I’ve read it already, upcoming billet. Wonderful spoken style (It must have been a hell to translate but since it’s published by Gallmeister, French readers don’t need to worry about it)

September: L’homme de Londres by Georges Simenon (Belgium, 1933)

I don’t think this one is available in English, let me know if I’m wrong. Here’s the story:

A night, in Dieppe, Normandy, Teddy Baster is knocked out by Pitt Brown and drowns in the harbor, holding a suitcase. A local, Louis Maloin, sees everything and goes after the suitcase. It’s full of a fortune stolen to Pitt Brown’s boss, Harold Mitchel. Now I bet that Louis Maloin’s life is going to take a dangerous path.

L’homme de Londres, has been made into a film in 1943 by Henri Decoin, in 1946 as Temptation Harbour by Lance Comfort and in 2017 as A londoni férfi by the Hungarian director Béla Tarr. Maybe you’ve seen the film.

October: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (USA, 1987)

Crossing to Safety has, since its publication in 1987, established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Published in France by Gallmeister, it can’t be bad.

 

November: Esclaves by Kangni Alem (Togo, 2009)

I don’t think that this one is available in English either. It’s historical fiction about the slave trade Africa done by the Portuguese who sent slaves to Brazil. It’s the story of a young man who helps the King of Dahomey to fight against the slave trade and is deported to Brazil.

I have never read a book about how the slave trade was done in Africa. The book also includes a part on a Brazilian plantation. It should be interesting.

 

December : Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (India, 1991)

It is Bombay in 1971, the year India went to war over what was to become Bangladesh. A hard-working bank clerk, Gustad Noble is a devoted family man who gradually sees his modest life unravelling. His young daughter falls ill; his promising son defies his father’s ambitions for him. He is the one reasonable voice amidst the ongoing dramas of his neighbours. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend, asking him to help in what at first seems like a heroic mission. But he soon finds himself unwittingly drawn into a dangerous network of deception. Compassionate, and rich in details of character and place, this unforgettable novel charts the journey of a moral heart in a turbulent world of change.

This one is set at a turning point of India’s history too. I’ve read a little bit about the split between India and Pakistan in Half Life by Roopa Farooki. I’m looking forward to reading Such a Long Journey.

January: Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou (Greece, 2010)

Ikonomou’s stories convey the plight of those worst affected by the Greek economic crisis– laid-off workers, hungry children. In the urban sprawl between Athens and Piraeus, the narratives roam restlessly through the impoverished working-class quarters located off the tourist routes. Everyone is dreaming of escape: to the mountains, to an island or a palatial estate, into a Hans Christian Andersen story world. What are they fleeing? The old woes– gossip, watchful neighbors, the oppression and indifference of the rich– now made infinitely worse. In Ikonomou’s concrete streets, the rain is always looming, the politicians’ slogans are ignored, and the police remain a violent, threatening presence offstage. Yet even at the edge of destitution, his men and women act for themselves, trying to preserve what little solidarity remains in a deeply atomized society, and in one way or another finding their own voice. There is faith here, deep faith– though little or none in those who habitually ask for it.

I’ve read two books by Petros Markaris, crime fiction novels set in Greece after the economic crisis. They also describe people’s everyday life and the impact of the economic collapse on their quotidian. I wonder how these short stories compare to Markaris political analysis of the state of his country.

February: Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (Jordania, 2017)

The Sabas family lives in a small Jordanian town that for centuries has been descended upon by all manner of invaders, and now Evangelical tourists. The community relies on the bric-a-brac smuggled in during the throes of war, the quality of which depends entirely on who’s fighting. This time the action is in Syria, and the threat of ISIS lies just across the border. The water delivery is less frequent, but life in the town persists and Hussein Sabas is the Levant’s only pig butcher, selling all manner of chops, sausages, and hams, much to the chagrin of his observant neighbors.

This is only an extract of a blurb that is so long that you wonder why you need to read the book. Why do they do that? Anyway. We wanted to read a book from Jordania and this one sounds great.

March: Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (USA, 1997)

Looking for a book from Armenia, we found Black Dog of Fate.

The first-born son of his generation, Peter Balakian grew up in a close, extended family, sheltered by 1950s and ’60s New Jersey suburbia and immersed in an all-American boyhood defined by rock ‘n’ roll, adolescent pranks, and a passion for the New York Yankees that he shared with his beloved grandmother. But beneath this sunny world lay the dark specter of the trauma his family and ancestors had experienced–the Turkish government’s extermination of more than a million Armenians in 1915, including many of Balakian’s relatives, in the century’s first genocide.

The New Jersey side reminds me of Philip Roth growing up in Newark and the Armenia side should be educational.

April: Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water by António Lobo Antunes (Portugal, 2017)

In this direct and vigorous tale, award-winning author António Lobo Antunes returns to the subject of the Portuguese colonial war in Angola with a dramatic account of atrocity and vengeance. Drawing on his own bitter experience as a soldier stationed for twenty-seven months in Angola, Lobo Antunes tells the story of a young African boy who is brought to Portugal by one of the soldiers who destroyed the child’s village, and of the boy’s subsequent brutal murder of this adoptive father figure at a ritual pig killing.

The Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974) was another bloody decolonization war and lasted even longer than the Algerian War of Independence. Young men were sent out there and were never the same.

May: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria, 2017)

Ilesa, Nigeria. Ever since they first met and fell in love at university, Yejide and Akin have agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage—after consulting fertility doctors and healers, and trying strange teas and unlikely cures—Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time—until her in-laws arrive on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife.

Traditions leading to the oppression of women is a bottomless well of inspiration for writers. Sadly. I’ve never read any book by a Nigerian writer. As always, I expect to discover a country along my journey with the book’s characters.

June: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (USA, 2010)

Mickey Wade is a recently-unemployed journalist who lucked into a rent-free apartment The only problem: it’s in a lousy neighborhood. The one where Mickey grew up, in fact. The one he was so desperate to escape. But now he’s back. Dead broke. And just when he thinks he’s reached rock-bottom, Mickey wakes up in the past. Literally. At first, he thinks it’s a dream. All of the stores he remembered from his childhood, the cars, the rumble of the elevated train. But as he digs deeper into the past, Mickey meets the twelve-year-old kid who lives in the apartment below. The kid who will grow up to someday murder Mickey’s father.

We loved The Blonde, I loved the Charlie Hardie trilogy and I’m thrilled to read Expiration Date. I’m sure it’ll be a good, recreational read. If you’re looking for good, fun and high-paced books, go for Swierczynski, you won’t be disappointed.

July: Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 2002)

As the snow begins to fall, a journalist arrives in the remote city of Kars on the Turkish border. Kars is a troubled place – there’s a suicide epidemic among its young women, Islamists are poised to win the local elections, and the head of the intelligence service is viciously effective. When the growing blizzard cuts off the outside world, the stage is set for a terrible and desperate act …

This is an award-winning book, it was very successful and I’m late to the party. I’m not sure I’ll like it but I’m sure curious.

 

And…That’s The List!

So, we’ll go to America, Nigeria, Portugal, Armenia, Jordania, Turkey, India, Togo, Greece and France. We’ll visit the 19th and 20th century history. We’ll see how wars affects common people and leave indelible traces in families. We’ll see how people survive in dire times and try to make it work. We’ll see slavery from two continents. We’ll have fun with Swierczynski.

I wish us a wonderful reading year, I’m quite happy with our choices. If you’ve read any of these books, please leave a message, I’m always curious about other readers’ thoughts.

Of course, as always, this is a hop-on hop-off reading bus and you’re free to readalong with us anytime. There’s nothing to do except tell me about your review or leave it in the comments in my billet about the book.

Literary escapade: Holiday bookish snippets

August 18, 2019 26 comments

I’m back home from a three weeks holiday break and as usual, I’ve collected random bookish pictures and facts.

Park and Read, this parking meter seems to say…

Books left for grabs, by the beach

Beautiful library in Casa Museu Freitas. (Sorry for the poor quality of the pictures, I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t get to visit places when the light is at its best for photos.)

A corner to read by the fire, a corner to play games and shelves of books…I’d prefer a décor in lighter tones since I’m not fond of the red-dark-wood-man-cave vibe but I’d love to have such a spacious read-and-chill room.  

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores. Here’s one that looks more like a book cave than anything else:

Books are piled everywhere. They are filed in a computer system but only the owner seems to be able to locate a specific book. The reader walks slowly in the aisles, tries not to bump into anything in fear of starting an uncontrollable domino effect. This place is fascinating.

While wandering in another bookshop, I stumbled upon a school edition of No et moi by Delphine de Vigan. This novella is on the school syllabus for middle school and look at the format of the book: it screams ‘I’m homework!’ and not ‘Please read me, it’ll be fun’.

It’s a disaster. The cover mentions a dossier and exercises. The actual story only begins after 22 pages of explanations that are, in my opinion, part of the teacher’s job as a middleman between the text and the students. And then, on each page, you have numbers to locate specific sentences in class and dissect them. Where’s the pleasure of reading in that?

Let’s face it, there’s little chance that a middle school student will have fun reading Le Cid by Corneille. The odds of instilling undying love for books with Le Cid are close to zero. These odds improve with books like No et moi, stories that teenagers who don’t read might enjoy. And this edition, it’s like going to a blind date with Literature and she has not removed her green face mask, her curlers and she’s wearing her tattered bathrobe. It kills the mood. It’s like watching a movie with the description of all the special effects in the subtitles. It’s distracting, you’re so blinded by the mechanics that you forget to enjoy yourself.

I think that we have our priorities in the wrong order. In times where books are in competition with videogames, TV shows and social networks, the first aim in school should be to give the kids the reading bug. The rest will come with it. The reading bug is a lifelong thing, a great companion for life.

Another bookstore in Lisbon.

Don’t ask me why it’s written in French on the walls. Inside, the space is gorgeous with its old wooden shelves.

Another bookstore, and I found funny tote bags for my friends. Here are two of them:

I walked a street covered with portraits and pictures made with recycled cans. Here’s Fernando Pessoa

Google translate says that the caption means “it’s all worth it when the soul is not small”. And I have to end this post with a Mafalda picture, from the same street.

The caption seems to say “This is the rubber to erase ideologies”. Very Mafalda, if I may say. If a Portuguese native speaker sees this, please feel free to elaborate about the captions and correct the automatic translation.

An article of the FT Weekend caught my attention in a hotel. It said Kerouac, but cleaner? A journalist decided to check out what road trips could be with an electric car and did one between San Francisco and Reno, Nevada. Let’s say it’s not as romantic as On the Road. It reminded me of On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, his debut novel in which he shows that road trips à la Kerouac on British highways are what American coffee is to espressos.

I had a lot of books with me on the first leg of my holidays…

some I brought with me to read, some because I needed to catch up on billets, some aren’t my TBR, and some I bought during my stay. On the second leg, I intended to read American Pastoral but I didn’t have enough quality reading time for that. Partie remise! 🙂

That’s all, Folks! I hope you’re having a great summer.

Literary escapade : Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann – dedicated to Marcel Proust

July 6, 2019 21 comments

This week I had the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann in Paris. It’s a literary hotel dedicated to Marcel Proust and in the neighborhood where Proust lived his whole life. The building itself brings you back in time:

Proust in on the façade and inside, the decoration is Proust-inspired, in the lobby, the staircase, the rooms and in the breakfast room. There’s a timeline to disclose Proust’s biography, the room card have a Proust jacket and quotes from In Search of Lost Time are printed on the walls.

The rooms are Proust inspired, each of them is named after a character of In Seach of Lost Time and marketing did its best to play on the Proust pattern. See here the bathroom door, the nightstand and the coffee corner.

They did not put cork-padded walls like in Marcel’s bedroom and I’m not sure you can send the staff on nightly errands Proust used to do with his faithful servant Céleste Albaret.

All this marketed décor could be a bit tacky if the hotel had stopped there, after staging a Proust atmosphere. The charming part is in the display tables full of Proust memorabilia. There are display cabinets and tables in the lobby, with letters written by Proust to his friends. The visitor can admire a dress made by Doucet, the famous dressmaker of Proust’s time.

Here’s a display dedicated to Céleste Albaret, who gave us a lot of details about Proust’s quotidian in her memoir. It’s her Rememberance of Things Past and it’s a lovely read. My billet about it is here.

I think it’s moving to see her letters, her pictures here, in a place that celebrates her master. She shared precious information with Proust’s readers and we should all be grateful that she decided to talk instead of taking her memories to her grave.

There’s also a marvelous map of Paris and the places Proust used to shop to or visit.

Each place comes with a caption, its location and whether it still exists or not. I could have stayed in front of it forever to imagine a literary walk to follow Proust and Céleste’s footsteps.

The lobby includes a library full of books by Proust or about Proust.

This hotel truly celebrates literature and goes beyond exploiting the “Proust trademark”, if such a thing exists in our world. After all, I was the only guest walking around, spending time by the displays and taking pictures of everything I could. I can’t be cynical about this place because I felt a genuine love for books and literature. I thought it was charming and I take any opportunity to promote literature and reading as a good thing. There are never too many reasons to praise books and authors.

If you’re in Paris one of these days and feel like checking out the lobby, the address is 11-15 rue de Constatinople, 75008 Paris. Meanwhile, you can see better photos on their website.

I wasn’t going to participate to July in Paris hosted by Tamara because, being French, I feel like I’m cheating. But this billet goes well with the event, so I’ll join in.

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 15 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

May 26, 2019 16 comments

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. 

I have attended a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. It takes the visitors through a part of the history of black French people from the French Revolution to the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on black models in painting and takes detours through literature and other arts. I rented the audio guide because I knew that some of the paintings were commented by Lilian Thuram and Ab El Malik. Thuram is a former football (soccer) player who won the World Cup in 1998. He’s bright, articulated and fights against racism. Abd al Malik is a rap singer, one with excellent lyrics.

The exhibition has three main sections: one from the Revolution until the abolition of slavery, one about blacks and art in the 19th century, one about the beginning of the 20th century.

The slavery times.

In 1794, the young French Republic abolished slavery in the colonies. Actually, it was only applicable in Saint Domingue, French Guyana and Guadalupe. It remained enforced in La Martinique (then occupied by the British) and at the Mascareignes (now La Réunion & Mauritius). It was never legal in the Nouvelle France. (Québec, Acadia and Louisiana). First black députés were at the parliament.

Napoléon 1st re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802 and abolished the slave trade in 1815. Nothing changed during the Restauration (Monarchy) and in 1848, the Second Republic abolished slavery in France for good this time. 250 000 slaves were emancipated. That’s for history.

Some artists like Géricault or Verdier used their art to fight against slavery. See Le châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies.

This is such a normal scene for the colonies that a white woman is there with her child. The banality of it makes it even harder to contemplate. Verdier wasn’t allowed to show his painting at an official exhibition.

Some like Biard put their painting at the service of government propaganda. See here, Biard’s Abolition de l’esclavage.

The black characters on the painting acts like they are thankful. This painting shows the official vision of the abolition of slavery. It’s a gift when it’s not. It’s abolishing something that is inhuman and should not exist.

When preparing the exhibition, researches were made to find out the identity of the black models featured on the paintings. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings were changed because their original title is offensive now. The captions keep the history of the titles until the one chosen for the exhibition. If possible, it now relates to the models’ names. See this this painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. It was first intitled Portrait d’une négresse, then Portrait d’une femme noire and now it is Portrait de Madeleine.

The changes in the title feels right as long as we keep their historical thread. We see how society changed and where we come from. Just changing the name would erase the truth. When it was painted, her identity to the white world was not Madeleine. Her name didn’t matter. She was “just a nigger.” As Romain Gary pointed it out, racism is when people don’t matter. It is symbolic and important to give this woman her rightful name, her identity and her position as an equal human being in our eyes.

The 19th century after 1848.

Literature has its place in the exhibition as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover was black and Manet painted her.

She was his muse and a recurring presence in The Flowers of Evil. She’s the black sun in his poetry.

I noted down several literary works featuring black characters: La négresse et le Pacha by Théophile Gautier, Le capitaine Pamphile by Alexandre Dumas, Toussaint Louverture, poème dramatique by Lamartine, Bug Jargel by Victor Hugo, Ourika by Claire de Duras. In 1921, René Maran was the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt with his book Batouala. Véritable roman nègre. I’m tempted to read the Dumas because I like him as a writer and he was proud of his black heritage, despite the jibes and he wrote is Capitaine Pamphile as a statement.

And there was a display table about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was successful in France when it was published.

The 19th century is also the century of French colonization of parts of Africa. Cordier made gorgeous bronzes to celebrate the beauty of African people

Including one entitles Aimez-vous les uns les autres. (Love one another)

And at the same time, there was a horrible film taken at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1897. It was a human zoo representing an African village with actual Africans displayed in this fake village.

The early 20th century.

WWI brought more black people in France. The Senegalese tirailleurs, soldiers from African colonies were enrolled in the French army. The Harlem Hellighters, an African-American infantry regiment of the US Army were detached to the French army and wore French helmets during WWI.

It bothered me that the Senegalese tirailleurs and the Harlem Hellfighters were put together on the same wall. It’s not the same. The Senegalese tirailleurs are colonial troops who were sent to fight for a country that wasn’t theirs. They didn’t ask to be colonized and live under French rule. They got into this war because of the colonization.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought in France because the USA entered WWI. They were serving their country. To put them on the same wall as the Senegalese tirailleurs is like saying that, like them, they were fighting for a cause that wasn’t theirs. It denies the fact that these African-American troops had rightful American citizenship.

The arrival of 200 000 African-American soldiers in 1917-1918 for WWI brought jazz to France and it was the beginning of an African-American community in Paris. The exhibition branched out to show black artists in circus, in theatre or on shows like Josephine Baker. It reminded me of another exhibition The Color Line, about segregation and African-American artists.

It also focused on the concept of négritude by Aimé Césaire, it met the Surrealists’ political causes and was concomitant to the Harlem Renaissance movement. I loved to hear about Matisse and how his visit to Harlem influenced his painting.

The exhibition ends with a new reading of Olympia by Edouard Manet, first by Matisse:

and then by Larry Rivers in I Like Olympia In Black Face.

If you’re traveling to Paris soon, the exhibition lasts until July 21st and it’s worth the visit.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live the Musée d’Orsay with two new books bought at the bookstore of the exhibition. Slavery Told to my Daughter by Christian Taubira and Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, Jimmy being James Baldwin.

 

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Theatre: I Took My Father On My Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot – a contemporary play

April 20, 2019 2 comments

I’ve been swamped by work lately and I didn’t have time to share my thoughts about three theatre plays worth seeing.

The first one is J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules by Fabrice Melquiot, directed by Arnaud Meunier. (I Took My Father On My Shoulders) It’s a contemporary play, written for this director. The author and the director wanted to produce a play about the French working class and today’s France.

We are in a council flat in a suburb. Roch lives with his grownup son Enée. They are unaware that they are both involved with their gorgeous neighbor, Anissa. She loves both men and can’t make her mind between the two.

After an introduction by Anissa, the play opens on a scene where Roch comes home and said he bought some meat as it was on sale and now, they have to cook it. A banal scene in appearance but Roch’s clothes, the décor of the apartment and the fact that meat is rarely affordable tell us that we are in a poor household. The two men barely make ends meet. They get along fine, have a good father and son relationship and Roch is like Enée’s rock.

So, when Roch calmy announces that he has cancer, Enée is shaken up. The play depicts Roch’s illness, his relationship with Enée, Anissa, his friend Grinch and their neighbors Bakou, Céleste and Mourad. We are in a banlieue, with its council flats, its kebab restaurant and its inhabitants of mixed origins.

Photo by Sonia Barcet

They represent today’s French society. A black woman, Céleste. A Muslim of North African origin, Mourad. An older man with his loneliness, Grinch. They have low paid jobs. They feel left behind, not represented by politicians and institutions anymore. They make do and hope for a better future, as far as Anissa and Céleste are concerned. Even if it’s not easy. Grinch is crippled by loneliness and there’s a very moving scene where he explains how he’ll find himself a nice woman to live with.

Roch’s health deteriorates and this patched up family knits a love and friendship safety net around him and Enée.

It’s a powerful play, often spot on to describe today’s France. It was written before the Yellow Vest movement but the people featured in this play belong to the social class that feeds the movement. They come from the same world as the characters in the last Prix Goncourt, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Matthieu. (upcoming billet about this one) It’s as if the French literary world rediscovered the need to give them a voice.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders is loosely based upon The Aeneid by Virgil. The title comes from the second book of The Aeneid, when Aeneas (Enée in French), leaves Troy with his father Anchises on his shoulders. Enée is not a common name in French and if a character is named like that, it’s an obvious reference to Virgil. Like The Aeneid, the play is split in two parts. The first one tells Roch’s fight against cancer and the second is about a trip that Enée will take with his father. I thought that the second part was weaker than the first and that it was superfluous. But that’s a minor flaw.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders could have been bleak but it’s not because the friendship and love between the characters make up for the gloom brought by Roch’s cancer. The text is empowered by a company of excellent actors. Philippe Torreton plays Roch and he’s a natural, the trademark of a great actor. He never shouts but is always heard. He speaks on stage like he’s chatting with friends but has a perfect diction. I go to the theatre frequently. I’ve come to the conclusion that outstanding actors are the ones who are on stage and don’t seem to be acting. You watch them and it’s like they’re living their real life.

Torreton isn’t the only gifted actor here. Rachida Brakni, who plays Anissa is excellent as usual. Vincent Garanger is a true to life Grinch. Maurin Ollès holds his own as Enée, a character often on stage with the master Torreton. The other young actors Federico Semedo, Bénédicte Mbemba and Riad Gahmi were on a par with the more seasoned actors. (And it must be intimidating to play with Torreton and Brakni)

Even if it was a little too long, I Took My Father On My Shoulders is a good play written by a living playwright and for a director who wanted to bring our attention to a certain part of the population. It’s served by an excellent set of actors. For French readers, if this play is on tour in your city, it’s worth buying tickets.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 3: Criminology and translations

March 31, 2019 7 comments

For my last day at Quais du Polar, I decided to attend to two events, one entitled “CSI in the 19thC: when literature looks into the birth of crimilogy” and one which was actually a translation battle.

I started with the one about criminology, a conversation between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle. We were in the Jacquard room of the Palais de la Bourse. Coline Gatel wrote Les suppliciées du Rhône, a crime fiction book set in Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Fabrice Cotelle is a commissaire, and the staff chief of the SCPTS (Service Central de la Police Technique et Scientifique), the French CSI. The real police forces are involved in Quais du Polar, as a way to make their work better known and I found it marvelous that they are willing to take part in the festival.

Lyon has a long tradition around solving crime. In the 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) was a famous criminologist and specialist of forensic medicine. Edmond Locard (1877-1966) is another forensic scientist who formulated the basic principle of forensic science. Meanwhile, in Paris, Alphonse Bertillon made huge progress in indentification. He’s the inventor of the mug shot. Nowadays, the headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon and the national school for police captains is near Lyon. It is open to the public during Quais du Polar. I visited it once, and it was fascinating. There’s a fake apartment where students learn how to retrieve clues from a crime scene and an interesting museum about criminology. Moreover, the police stations of the 1st and 4th arrondissements were open to the public during the weekend. The public could meet and chat with authors who are also detectives or police officers.

The meeting between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle was absolutely fascinating. She has written a book with Lacassagne as a character and she brings back to life the beginnings of forensic science. The turning of the 20thC was a critical period for crime investigation as several sciences made progress at the same time: medicine, photography, psychology and psychiatry.

Mr Cotelle had read Mrs Gatel’s book and could easily interact with her, explaining what he discovered in her book and going back to the history of criminology. He told us what methods invented back in those days are still used today. He shared about the changes, mostly DNA exploitation and digital traces. Of course, we know that we live traces with our phones and credit cards. But did you know that the computer in your car records when and how many times a door was opened? So, if you say that you were alone in your car and that your connected car recorded that the passenger door was opened, you’ll have some explaining to do. (I’d be a suspect: I always open the passenger door to put my bag on the passenger side because I don’t want to twist my back by doing it from the driver’s side!)

The challenge is also to turn some state-of-the-art technique only used in special cases into readymade and efficient processes that can be used on the field, on a daily basis to help policemen and gendarmes solve everyday criminality.

I loved this exchange so much that I decided to buy Les suppliciées du Rhône, just to discover who Alexandre Lacassagne was. Lyon was a hotspot for science in those years and I’m looking forward to knowing more about my adoptive hometown. I also liked that Fabrice Cotelle didn’t look down on crime fiction writers, pointing out inconsistencies. I also appreciated that he took the time to read Les suppliciées du Rhône to have an enlightened discussion with its writer. He was respectful and engaging, just as his neighbour was.

I’m glad that the festival managed to involve the police in the conferences and the events of the festival. It’s a rare opportunity to hear them talk about their job.

In the afternoon, I decided to attend the translation battle around an English text. We were again in the Jacquard room.

 

It was a short story by Jamey Bradbury, an American writer born in the Midwest and now living in Alaska. (She’s published by Gallmeister, there’s a good chance that her book is good) Two translators worked on a French translation of her story. They presented their translation to the attendance and another translator acted as an anchorman and asked questions about their choices and the differences between the two texts. Jamey Bradbury was there too and she could give her opinion about the option taken in the translation of this or that word. The art of translation fascinates me. The translators explained their choices and basically had the same issues with this translation. Words like to hum, to poke, to squint, to waggle one’s eyebrows, to scavenge; to pee…have no direct equivalent in French and are a hurdle. Just like something and whatever.

I loved attending this exchange and I envy their job. I think that bringing foreign books to local readers who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise is a fantastic job. It brings us a world of literature we’d never know.

That’s all for this year, folks! It’s been a great three days and I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Book haul for the day:

 

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