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Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 9 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (1950) French title: La chasse aux canards. Translated into French from the Dutch (Belgium) by Elly Overziers et Jean Raine.

I’m terribly late with my billets and here I am in June, writing about a novel I read back in January. I am overworked and I don’t have enough time to keep up with everything but let’s be honest, as far as this billet is concerned, I was dragging my feet.

The Duck Hunt is the bleakest story I’ve read this year, it’s even worse than Caribou Island. We’re in the early 1920s in the Dutch speaking countryside of Belgium. The Metsiers live in an isolated farm. Here’s the picture: the father was killed during a duck hunt, the mother has an affair with Peter, the farm hand; Yannie, the mildly-retarded son is head over heels in love with his…sister Ana and the said daughter and sister just broke things off with another farmer, the Fat Smelders. Then Ana meets Jim Braddock, a black American soldier stationed in her village. That’s the cheery setting of The Duck Hunt.

Hugo Claus alternates short chapters, all one-person narratives. We see the events through everyone’s eyes: Peter, Ma, Ana, Yannie, Jim Braddock and even Jules, another villager. The American soldier is the only one who’s called by his full name, probably because he’s the stranger and the foreigner.

Although I admire Claus’s craft –he manages to pack a lot in a short 137 pages – I can’t say I enjoyed or even like The Duck Hunt. I have trouble liking books set in grim villages where unhealthy relationships are born from too much isolation and too much proximity. It gives an unpleasant vibe of consanguinity mixed with crass ignorance. It made me shudder and I wasn’t keen on finishing it and I’ve been procrastinating the billet ever since, reluctant to go back to this disagreeable atmosphere. It’s like The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I really disliked.

It’s obviously a good piece of literature but it’s not what I like to read. After reading this and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I bought The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald because I was in desperate need of a feel-good novel. I’ve just read it and the billet will hopefully come soon.

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 23 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

Run River by Joan Didion

November 23, 2014 31 comments

Run River by Joan Didion. 1963. French title: Une saison de nuits.

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

It’s August 1959, it is the first paragraph of Run River and I was hooked. I wanted to know about Everett and Lily and about this shot. She remains quiet, as if she expected it, as if she were in her own world, where the outside world hardly penetrates. I saw Lily as the woman on the painting Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)

Hopper_MORNING_SUN

What happened? Everett shot Ryder Channing by the river, where Channing was to meet his lover, Lily. From the very first chapter we know this murder happens, we know why but what we don’t know is how Everett and Lily are going to react to it. Is Everett going to tell the police it was intentional or are they going to disguise it into an accident? Will Lily help Everett? Will Everett want to be helped?

After that, the novel goes back in time from 1938 and dissects Everett and Lily’s marriage. It is set in Northern California, in a ranch on the Sacramento River, near Sacramento. Everett McClellan has inherited the ranch from his family who comes from the first pioneers in California. We are near Sacramento, it means that the ranch is on the land which belonged to Sutter less than a century ago. So Everett’s great-grandparents were probably part of the locusts I mentioned in my billet about Sutter’s Gold by Cendrars.

Lily Knight comes from the same background. As her father repeatedly points out You come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it. He owns and runs a ranch in the same area, mostly growing fruits. Mr Knight was involved in politics and was even candidate to be the governor of California.

Didion_Run_RiverEverett is freshly graduated from Stanford when he meets Lily again. She’s his little sister Martha’s friend. She’s barely 18 and home after a year at Berkeley. She didn’t like her experience at university and she’s happy to be home, in safe territory. Everett realizes she’s all grown up and they start a relationship. Although he hardly knows how to express his feelings, we gather that he’s crazy in love with her and insists upon marrying as soon as possible. It is as if he wanted to secure her as his before she had a chance to meet someone else and leave him. She’s not sure to love him but prefers to go with the flow than take action. I think that there are two decisions in life that don’t need much thinking: getting married and having a child. No thinking is needed because the decision should be obvious. If the answer is not obviously “yes”, then it’s “no”. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him but after all, he represents the kind of man she should marry. That opens a wide and clear path to a disastrous marriage. Lily and Everett have common values and they both enjoy life on the ranch. Everett can’t imagine doing anything else than growing hops and Lily always pictured herself in that environment, so they do have this in common. However, they have little to say to each other and fail to communicate and create the deep connection that keeps a marriage alive despite the ups and downs.

Except when she was in trouble (when her father died, or when she was pregnant with Knight), she could think of little to say to Everett: she was not, nor was he, a teller of anecdotes or gossip, and sometimes weeks passed without their having what could be called, in even the crudest sense, a conversation. Usually in bed she pretended she was someone else, a stranger, and she supposed tat Everett did too; when she did not pretend she was someone else, she pretended that Everett was.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? It feels like she has given up on him. Everett is there physically and he loves her deeply but he doesn’t manage to reach out to her.

Martha turned off the light again. “Everett thinks the sun rises and sets with you. You should realize that.”

“I realize it.”

“I mean you should realize how simple Everett is.”

Everett may be simple, the problem is that Lily isn’t. On her side, she’s not grounded enough to live well with someone as simple as that. She’s not the perfect rancher’s wife. She’s not much interested in wifely duties even if she plays her role. But that’s a role for her, not her real identity.

Joan Didion describes Lily as a representative of a generation of women who don’t have careers but went to university. She goes straight from her father to her husband, from daughter to wife and mother. She never gets time to be a woman, except maybe during that short time at university. But for Lily, that time was wasted. She’s shy, she comes from a sheltered environment and she’s not ready to integrate into student life. She gets married and doesn’t know who she is and what she wants in life. It doesn’t help their relationship. She’s not a very likeable character, in my opinion. The story is told from her point of view and I would have liked to have Everett’s side of the story. I’m left wondering how things were for him. Since he’s not communicative, even Lily can only speculate. They fail each other but are never able to talk about it openly.

Martha is a disturbing element their marriage. Lily and Everett live on the McClellan ranch, with Mr McClellan senior and Martha until her untimely death. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) Lily and Everett have known each other forever and they both love Martha dearly but I couldn’t help thinking Everett and she had almost an incestuous relationship:

“You might marry Everett,” Martha McClellan had suggested to Lily, once when they were both children, “if I decide not to.” “You aren’t allowed to marry your own brother” Lily had said.

You could think of it as a coincidence but I don’t think that all little girls profess that they’d want to marry their older brother. This passage also shows that Lily and Everett ending up married was a given in their microcosm.

Martha is a bit unbalanced. She’s prone to fits and melancholy. She acts out and has a love-and-hate relationship with Ryder Channing, the man Everett will kill years later. He’s not a rancher, more someone in business, always seeking a new venture. To people from their milieu, he’s not a suitable husband and Martha knows it. She pretends not to be in love with him because she always imagined herself as the wife of a rich rancher. And that he’s not. Her untimely death leaves her ghost hanging over Lily and Everett’s marriage. Lily always knew that deep down her friend never thought her worthy of marrying her brother. Everett has a hard time dealing with his grief. Martha’s shadow is always lurking in the shadows of their lives.

Apart from Lily and Everett’s individual story, Run River is also fantastic analysis of the culture and roots of the Sacramento area. Everett and Lily are the last representatives of the pioneer’s spirit. Ryder Channing represents the new California.

Like Clark McCormack, Channing conveyed the distinct impression that he could live by his wits alone. They were both free agents, adventurers who turned whatever came their way to some advantage; both pleasant, knowledgeable, and in some final way incomprehensible to Everett.

Becoming a rich rancher is not Channing’s idea of success. Like Sutter, the McClellans are rooted on their ranch and have a hard time imagining that their life could change. Martha couldn’t let go of her dream to marry a rancher to marry a man like Channing. They like the old ways and they look down on the Channings around them. Their parents tried to infuse them with the pioneer’s spirit but failed. Everett has no other ambition than to grow hops. Lily can’t grab what she wants out of life, she doesn’t even know what she wants.

Didion was born in Sacramento, she comes from that culture and she observes a turning point in her environment. Lily and Everett’s story is seen as the epilogue of the pioneer’s experience in California. I’ve also read a collection of her essays, L’Amérique and to me she’s the writer of this other California, the rural one, where the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath were headed. I read it not so long after Steinbeck’s novel and I was surprised to read that in 1938 the Okies were still pitching tents at the far end of the ranch, near the main highway south. When did it stop? When did all these people find a job and have a decent home? Of course she describes the landscapes, the city and life near the river. For example, she mentions the intense heat very often. It dictates people’s schedule in the summer, disrupts sleep and impacts their everyday life.

Didion’s style is stunning and sharp. She’s not into overgrown sentences but more into clinical description of events and feelings. Her characters are human but she’s not too complacent with them. Subtle touches of her literary paintbrush create a palpable microcosm. Her style reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. I love Hopper. On his paintings, the details of the scene are precise. The characters look away from us. They’re in their world and they seem a little sad. The scenes leave me a bit unsettled, wondering if something terrible is hovering over these people’s life or speculating about what’s going on in their mind. The subjects are often pensive, physically present but retreated in their thoughts. They don’t give away what they think or who they are. The light on the paintings enforces this impression. We only see the scene as the painter wants us to see it. We only see Lily and Everett’s life as Didion wants us to see it. Hopper and Didion both picture America from the 1920s to the 1950s and it probably explains why I had images of Hopper’s paintings in mind, even if Hopper’s scenes are set on the East coast. See Lily and Everett together in Room in New York (1932)

EDWARD HOPPER

As you have probably guessed by now, this is an excellent novel. It’s a page turner, a subtle description of a relationship and a parallel analysis of a part of California’s history. Didion is rather critical about this novel but I think she should be proud of it. Great news: Run River is her debut novel and it’s not considered to be her best! I can’t wait to read something else by her. I have The Year of Magical Thinking at home and I dread to read it because I know it’s well written and I expect it to be engaging, emotionally.

I leave you with a last quote, one that made me think:

Maybe the most difficult, the most important thing anyone would do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

No French toast from me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s

May 24, 2014 29 comments

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.

Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • House of Flowers
  • A Diamond Guitar
  • A Christmas Memory.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisBreakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.

I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.

I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.

That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.

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