Cloudy by the end of the day by Jacques Côté. (2000) Original French (Québec) title: Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée.
Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is set in Quebec City in 1976 just before the Montreal Olympics and it’s the first installment of the Lt Daniel Duval series. Duval is a thirty-six-year-old widower living with his teenage daughter Michelle. He used to work in the Montreal police force, the SQ (Sécurité du Québec). He relocated to Québec after his wife’s death.
His partner is Louis Harel, a fat man whose personal life clashes with Duval’s. Duval runs marathons, takes care of his daughter and generally lives a quiet and healthy life. Harel gorges himself with cakes, he’s married but unfaithful and he’s now infatuated with a dancer/junkie. Duval is more respectful and intellectual than Harel. We’re in 1976, feminism is in full force and it’s another difference between the two men: Duval is a modern man, he acknowledges women’s rights and respects their fight for equality. Harel is a womanizer who objectifies women but still fell in love with his mistress Sandra. He’s the kind of man who can’t take care of himself after a divorce because he can’t iron, cook or clean after himself. The Duval/Harel duo resembles the John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz duo in the first seasons of NYPD Blue. Harel is irritating and gets on Duval’s nerves but there’s a real bond between the two.
Now that we know the detectives a bit better, the plot. When the book opens, we are introduced to a troubled young man with a big chip on his shoulder. H. has a long past as a delinquent and comes from a broken home. He lost his parents when he was a child; they died in a car accident and he went to live with his aunt. His cousin Paul was like a brother to him and H. never recovered from Paul’s death that happened during a car chase with the police. H. is fascinated by cars, speed and car wreckages.
H. got a diploma in mechanics in prison and he’s on probation working in a garage. But the other employees pick at him, he’s only doing menial tasks and he’s not using his skills as a mechanics. He gets humiliated one time too many, he fights back and gets fired. This pushes him over the edge.
He wants revenge for all the wrongs in his life and starts shooting at cars from a bridge over the boulevard Duplessis, the ring of Quebec City. Cars drive fast on this motorway and the shootings lead to car crashes. And H. loves watching car crashes, the sirens of the firetrucks and ambulances arriving on site. H. signs his crimes with 1000 Bornes game cards. He feels powerful and in control of other people’s lives.
Duval and Harel have to track down the killer who shoots at random and plays cat and mouse with them. The plot is classic crime fiction with policemen chasing after a dangerous killer. I wasn’t impressed by the plot but I loved the setting and the language.
Jacques Côté attended Quais du Polar and I had the opportunity to ask him questions about this series. I asked why he set his books in 1976. He said that he loves US crime fiction from the 1970s, the clothes and the music of that time. He wanted to give life to Quebec City in this decade.
He also said once that Quebec people are Francophones with a North American lifestyle. It stayed with me and came to my mind when I visited Québec last summer and it struck me as true when I read his book. There’s this familiarity mixed with differences. The architecture, the cars and the lifestyle make you feel like you’re in America and yet everything is in French. In appearance, it’s Anglo-Saxon and yet, you feel you’re in France when Duval can’t go to the Saint-Sacrement hospital because they’re on strike. (!!)
The French in Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is different from the French from France, obviously. I expected a lot of different words and expressions because Quebec speakers still use old French words that we don’t use anymore but still understand. French people know Quebec Francophones as purists who refuse to use English words in their French, to protect the language. I didn’t expect all the English words or expressions I found in this novel. I asked Jacques Côté about it and he said he did it on purpose to reflect the 1970s language. The fight to keep the French devoid of English words started after the 1970s. He also mentioned that it is a way to differentiate social classes. The working class uses a lot more of English words in their French than the upper classes.
I know it’s a paradox but I thought you needed to speak English very well to fully understand Jacques Côté. There are all these English words but more importantly all these expressions that are literally translated from the English. I knew the English under this French, so I understood but I’m not sure a French would understand them otherwise. Here are a few examples:
- La salle de lavage se trouvait à dix mètres des casiers. In English, The laundry room was ten meters away from the lockers. In French from France, La buanderie se trouvait à dix mètres des caves. The expression salle de lavage is the literal translation of laundry room and the exact French word for it is buanderie.
- He uses the French word pot for pot (weed) while in France we’d say herbe. Weed means mauvaise herbe in French and un pot is more a jar or a tin.
- Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu le damné store qu’il voulait remplacer par un voile. In English, He had slept soundly and hadn’t heard the damned blind that he wanted to replace with a curtain. In French from France: Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu ce sacré store qu’il voulait remplacer par un rideau. You see here that the English swear word damned is replaced by the French damné, a word that exists but is only used in the religious sense in France. Ironically, the French equivalent of damned as a curse word is sacré, which means sacred. One religious word for the other!
- Il voulut aller au Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce magasin à rayons. In English, He wanted to go to Towers but he remembered that the judge had forbidden him to go to this department store. In French from France, Il voulut aller à Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce grand magasin. Magasin à rayons is the literal translation of department store. I don’t know why Quebec speakers don’t use the word grand magasin for department store. This word exists since the 19th century, think of Au Bonheur des dames by Zola.
I find all these details fascinating and I loved tracking them down. I’m happy to have a Quebec edition of Côté’s book. Some French publishers ask to Québec writers to amend their books to better suit the French public. I don’t agree with this. I wouldn’t want a Quebec character to speak like a Parisian. It would sound artificial and it’s disrespectful for the author. We need to respect the diversity of the Francophony, it keeps the French language alive.
Life is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi (2014) Original French title: La vie est un sale boulot.
Janis Otsiemi is a crime fiction writer from Gabon who writes in French. He was invited at Quais du Polar last year and he will attend this year too.
Life is a Dirty Business opens with Chicano being released from prison in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. It happened when he and three accomplices tried to rob a store and one of them ended up shooting down the owner of the shop. Chicano was arrested, went on trial and was condemned to several years of prison. He kept his mouth shut and never denounced the real culprit. What good would it have done? It was like becoming a living target for people who would have avenged for the man he would have put in prison. Better to be alive in prison than dead. Chicano is quite surprised to be released, actually, because he hadn’t done his time in prison. He got to understand that they set him free because of an administrative mess-up; somehow his name came up in the list of prisoners pardoned by the president of Gabon.
Chicano is not turning down this chance and he’s decided to live an honest life now. He’s heading to town to find out what his former girlfriend Mirna has become and start a new life with her. Unfortunately, she has moved on and is pregnant with another man’s child. When Chicano went to her neighborhood, he met his former friends and accomplices. They are working on a new robbery and are missing a person to do it. Their aim is to steal the pay of soldiers in a military camp when it arrives by truck on payday. They explain to Chicano that they have inside information, that it’s an easy job and easy money. And Chicano could use money to start his new life, so he accepts to participate.
rOf course, things don’t go as well as expected and for Chicano, life in prison was an easiet life that the one he just set himself up for.
The plot is classic noir fiction, with a guy with a shady past who tries to turn a new leaf but succumbs to one last fatal crime. It is the same kind of plot as in Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. Efficient and time-tried.
I wanted to know how things would end up, even if I wasn’t optimistic for poor Chicano from the start, but the most enjoyable part of La vie est un sale boulot was discovering Libreville. Unlike Dernier refrain à Ispahan, this book is written by a local writer and it’s not written for a Western public. I loved the language and it was a fantastic opportunity to explore the variety of the French language offered by the Francophone world. You all know that French from Québec is different. French from Africa is different as well and I loved seing my language alive and vivid under Otsiemi’s pen. The French publisher, Jigal Polar added useful footnotes to explain words and expressions that a French reader wouldn’t understand. I don’t know much about African literature and it made me want to explore this part of Francophone literature.
Crime fiction is also often a good way to write about the unpleasant side of a country. It deals with crime and its darker side. La vie est un sale boulot is no exception. If what Janis Otsiemi describes is real, then there’s no need expecting anything good from the police. Here, they are corrupt and part of the crime world. They don’t really fight against crime, they take advantage of their job and status to benefit from crime. I’ve seen books where the police look the other way not to disrupt organized crime because somewhere they’re linked to the power in place. But here, they make money the same way that the criminals they’re supposed to chase do. Incredible and sad for the Gabonese people if it’s as bad as what Otsiemi describes. It was eyes-opening for the sheltered Westener that I am, another reason why it was worth reading.
While La vie est un sale boulot is not exceptional, Otsiemi does a good job and I’m glad a French publisher brought him to our attention. I’m sorry but this is not available in English. If you can read French, it’s worth trying out.
Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.
I bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.
The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.
Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.
The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:
|Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée.||In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.|
This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.
Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).
In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with “Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do.” Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?
Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.
Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?
Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.
A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.
A Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.
Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.
Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.
I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.
Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…
Nathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.
I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)
Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:
“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.
Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.
Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:
“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.
Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.
When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.
I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:
“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”
Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.
The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:
Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”
The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.
I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.
I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.
Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)
This one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.
My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.
My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.
Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.
I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.
Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.
Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)
I had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:
We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.
I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!
And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.
All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)
I managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.
All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.
A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.
Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.
Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?
The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza
Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.
I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.
Yes, I must get a tree.
All that is left
Constance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.
Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.
Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?
Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.
Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.
We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.
Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.
I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.
It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas. For readers who celebrate this holiday, I hope you’re somewhere safe and surrounded by friends and family. For readers who don’t have Christmas as a tradition, I send you my best wishes for this day anyway. In the media and in shopping malls, Christmas has turned into a giant consuming fest. On a more private level, I think it’s still a moment of year to be with family and friends. It remains linked to childhood and, I hope, it relates to happy and innocent times.
I’m not religious but Christmas is also a time to be generous and open to others. In France, we have a charity named Les Restos du Coeur. It was founded in 1985 by an artist, Coluche. He wanted to do something to feed the poor and decided on opening restaurants. Today it distributes 132.5 million meals and started a lot of different actions to help people in need. From the start, this charity has been supported by artists, especially by singers and actors who organize a huge concert every winter. For a few years now, writers have donated short stories to put together an annual collection whose profit goes to Les Restos du Coeur. I have the 2016 edition and in the foreword, it says that in 2014, 1.4 million of meals were distributed thanks to this book. And since each book brings in four free meals, I let you do the math and imagine how many books were sold.
The collections are named 13 à table, which means 13 people around the table. Actually, twelve writers participate. I guess the thirteenth shadow participant is the reader or the beneficiay of the meals. In the 2016 collection, the common theme was siblings. The writers are Françoise Bourdin, Michel Bussi, Maxime Chattam, Stéphane De Groodt, François d’Epenoux, Karine Giebel, Douglas Kennedy, Alexandra Lapierre, Agnès Ledig, Nadine Monfils, Romain Puértolas and Bernard Werber. Most of them I’d never read. All are francophone writers except for Douglas Kennedy. He’s American and he’s more successful here than in his own country, it makes sense to find him here.
These stories explore relationships between siblings or the feelings about only children. Love, jealousy, longing for brothers or sisters and complicity. They show the power of this unique link between people who share the same parents.
The best short stories in the collection were the ones by Michel Bussi and Maxime Chattam. Both of them are dark and I can’t tell much about them without spoiling them. These are two crime fiction writers and both stories reach a certain level of perversity.
Françoise Bourdin tells a story about two very different brothers, one wealthy and bourgeois, the other more rebel and bohemian. Both are middle-aged. They see each other regularly and the bourgeois one tends to think his brother is a bit of a mooch…until he sees he helps him out too, just not on a financial level.
In Aleyna, Karine Giebel chose to explore the implacable law imposed to sisters by older brothers into some cultures. Here it is the Turkish community and the need for a girl to be pure and ready for imposed marriages. According to the UN, 5000 women die each year in the name of honor.
Douglas Kennedy wrote a story about a man who confide in his aunt only to get slapped in the face when he realizes he played right into the unknown and unhealthy relationship his aunt has with her brother, this man’s father.
I don’t know how I missed Nadine Monfils as a writer. She’s Belgian and has already 60 novels under her belt, most of them crime fiction. Her story La robe bleue is a bit Noir but not on the crime side.
It was a very enjoyable collection to read. On this day of grande bouffe et petits cadeaux (big meals and small gifts) as Renaud sings sarcastically in his song Hexagone, I thought it was the right time to pause for a moment and remember that not everyone spends a cozy Christmas day with a full belly.