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

December 12, 2018 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will he get out his predicament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Three theatres, three plays

March 3, 2018 10 comments

As regular readers know, I love going to the theatre and I have a subscription at my local theatre. I choose the plays early in June for the next season. Needless to say, unless the play is a classic or based upon a novel I know, I never remember what I’m going to see when I go to a play I scheduled so many months before. Keep this in mind.

My local theatre, Le Théâtre des Célestins, has two stages, a big one à l’italienne and a small one called Célestine. Usually the big one is for classics and plays with a large audience and the small one is for contemporary plays. The big stage is this gorgeous historical stage.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The small stage is such an intimate setting that you can almost see pimples on the actors’ faces. Keep this in mind too.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Cooking With Elvis by Lee Hall with my sister and my sixteen-years old daughter. It’s an English play with the atmosphere of the film The Full Monty, with this very British mix of social misery and comedy. In Cooking With Elvis, we’re in a broken family of three. The father who used to be an Elvis impersonator had a car accident and is now paralyzed. His (unnamed) wife and daughter Jill are left to deal with the aftermath. His wife tries to cope and to live again by being frivolous. She goes out, drinks and has one-night stands. His daughter Jill cooks all the time, trying to bring her father back by cooking his favorite meals. With such a different approach of how life should be going on, it’s not a surprise that mother and daughter fight all the time. Comes Stuart, a young guy who started as one of Mother’s fling but stuck with her and quickly moved in with the family. He was still living with his parents, his age is between daughter and mother, he’s barely more mature than teenage Jill. It is a rather sad setting with an impossible situation for the two women: the man of the family is a vegetable and there is no hope of recovery. The mother looks for affection and sex to escape her reality and as she points out, she’s only 39, her life isn’t over. Plus, her marriage wasn’t that wonderful and she’s not really missing out. Jill will have to accept that the father and Elvis impersonator she loved so much isn’t quite there any longer.

It’s sad, of course but it’s also funny. The director chose to have the father raise from his seat and sing Elvis Presley songs in all his impersonator glory. It diffused the tension and also helped seeing what Jill misses and how irritating it could have been to be married to such a man. It’s a play about sex, food and rock-and-roll.

Now, remember what I told you before about not remembering the play’s blurb, about the pimple-seeing sized stage and The Full Monty reference? Imagine you’re sitting by your daughter and this Stuart character keeps shedding his clothes on stage? Not just prancing in his boxer briefs, that would be too easy, no, showing his full package was apparently necessary. If there was any mystery left for her about male anatomy, there’s none now. I was so embarrassed I think I missed out on the fun. True, it shows well how poor Jill must have felt in real life with her mother’s lovers strutting in the apartment. But was it really necessary? So many times? And the blowjob show? Kuddos for the actor and his courage to play this character because the audience was very close. I’m so glad I wasn’t in the front rows.

I don’t think I’m a prude but I also don’t think that all this nakedness was necessary to serve Lee Hall’s play. Has anyone of you seen this play? Did the director make the same choices about the Stuart character? The topic of a family shattered by an accident was alsi the main theme of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. Same pitch totally different approach.

 

The next play I saw was in the great Italian room and it was totally different. It’s called Petit Eloge de la nuit. The publisher Folio has this collection of “Little tribute to…” and Ingrid Astier wrote about “the night”. Little Tribute to the Night is made of vignettes about the night in all its forms. It was made into a play by Gérald Garutti who chose Pierre Richard to be the narrator/actor. He’s on stage, sharing Astier’s visions of the night. Dressed in white and tanned, he looks like a explorator ready to take us to a journey into the night. It has literary references but not only. It explores what the night can be: magical, disquieting, fun and full of partying, the kingdom of dreams and nightmares, the host of our anxiety, a moment to stare at the starts, a moment to rest and think.

I wanted to see Pierre Richard on stage, he’s a marvelous actor who’s over 80. He still has a spring in his steps that I hope I’ll have if I reach that age. The direction was good, poetic at times. I thought there were too many videos and pictures on the large screen on the scene. Including videos and picture slide shows seems to be fashionable in theatre these days. Sometimes it fits well with the play and sometimes it just seems lazy. Here, I’m not sure it was always welcome but maybe it allowed Pierre Richard to rest. After all, he’s 83 and he was alone on stage. It was a lovely evening and if you’re in France, it’s worth going to see this play.

 

Last play I saw was The Rivers and the Forests by Marguerite Duras, directed by Michel Didym. It was in another theatre Les Ateliers, a small stage where the play was transferred because the Célestine was damaged by the recent floods.

Duras created three characters who meet on a street in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, a very posh neighborhood. They were on a crosswalk when a woman’s dog bit the calf of a man and another woman witnessed it. The characters aren’t named, they’re strangers that are thrown together because Zigou the dog wanted a taste of the man’s calf. They start talking and the dog’s owner would like to take the man to the Institut Pasteur were he can be tested for rabies. As the dialogue unfolds we understand that the dog’s owner killed her husband, that it’s not the first time that the dog bites a passerby and that she’s so lonely that she enjoys spending time at the Institut Pasteur where the concierge comes from the same provincial town as her. The other woman is stuck in a loveless and maybe abusive marriage and the man is also lonely.

Duras manages to show loneliness in big cities in her quirky and dry language. She also portrays two female characters who weren’t good marriage material in their parents’ eyes and who were pushed into marrying the first man who paid them a bit of attention. The fact that one was much older that their daughter or that the other was violent didn’t deter them from the match. It’s all hidden in little sentences thrown here and there, among acid jokes and apparent absurdity. But when you think back about what you’ve seen, it’s there, this statement about women’s condition in the early 1960s. (The play was written in 1964) The actors were excellent. Charlie Nielson looked like he has been picked from a 1950s movie. Brigitte Catillon and Catherine Matisse were perfect impersonations of 16th arrondissement bourgeoises. The set was nicely put, an exact replica of a Parisian street. My daughter was with me this time too: no naked men to report, only a cute dog.

Next play is Georges Dandin by Molière. A safe bet. (I hope. But you never know. I once saw a Hamlet version where the actor ended up naked too)

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 40 comments

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)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis 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)

vonnegutI 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)

beauvoir_hommesI 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?

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin – A must-read

July 26, 2015 26 comments

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) French title: Face à l’homme blanc.

book_club_2For July, our Book Club had picked a collection of eight short stories by James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man. Written between 1948 and 1965, these short stories were first published in magazines and totally blew me away. This is going to be one of my best reads for 2015. For those who wouldn’t know, James Baldwin is an African-American writer, born in Harlem in 1924. He was gay and struggled with the two prejudices of being black and gay in America. He left New York in 1948, settled in Paris and spent most of his later life in France. It’s important to know these biographical elements to understand his short stories. Here’s the list of the stories.

  • The Rockpile
  • The Outing
  • The Man child
  • Previous Condition
  • Sonny’s Blues
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon
  • Come Out the Wilderness
  • Going to Meet the Man

The Rockpile and The Outing feature the same characters, young black men in Harlem at the end of the 1940s. They show the life of the black community in Harlem, the codes, the importance of religion. If you’ve ever attended a service in Harlem or read a book by Chester Himes, this will ring a bell. Baldwin gives such a vivid picture of his neighborhood and of the complexity of being homosexual in this context.

After a moment, Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.

All the stories give us an insight of what it was to be black in America in that time. Some are set in the South, some in New York and one in Paris. This Morning, This Evening, So Soon is the most powerful story of the collection as it encapsulates all the others and dissects the condition of Afro-Americans. In this story, the narrator is black, American, from Harlem, living in Paris and on the verge of going home. He’s a successful singer, he’s married to a Swedish woman, Harriet and they have a son together, Paul. Baldwin uses the French word to describe Paul, he’s a métis, which means mixed-race.

It’s their last moments in Paris and the narrator is worried and wary. He remembers how life was for him back home and he’s afraid to go back. He’s been living in Paris for twelve years and he fears that he’s forgotten to behave like a black man in front of Whites in America. He explains that twelve years in Paris have liberated him from the ingrained attitude he used to take in front of a White. When his sister comes to Paris and gets acquainted with Harriet, it’s the first time she can speak to a white woman as her equal. He describes the proper attitude to have to stay out of trouble: a white person expects a Black to be stupid and respond with obsequiousness. Any attitude out of this line might be perceived as rebellious and the consequences of rebellion are too hard to tempt fate and not comply. Our narrator isn’t sure he can pull off the right attitude anymore.

In several stories, Baldwin also describes love relationships between Blacks and Whites and the prejudices attached to them. White men have preconceived ideas of black women: they don’t respect them and there’s this presumption of them being slutty. Black women may be tempted to date a white guy to climb the social ladder faster but it has a cost. The other way round, white women who would marry a black man have a tough life because it’s seen as degrading. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the narrator is worried for his white wife Harriet. He wonders if she’ll be exposed to harsh racism for marrying him. They’ve lived peacefully in Paris, she doesn’t know what life will be in the USA.

The stories go from 1948 to 1965. The first stories are full of resignation. They show the discrimination against Blacks in housing, at work and the difficulty to step out of the comfort of Harlem. The black outsiders, the ones who try to make their life among the Whites are in survival mode and never really fit in. The last story, Going to Meet the Man was published in 1965. The fight for civil rights is ongoing and the Blacks stop submitting to fate. With this short story, we spend an uncomfortable time in the mind of a white policeman in a state of the Deep South. The Blacks are fighting for their rights; he starts having insomnia. He has more and more difficulty witnessing atrocities and taking part to the repression. Through him, we saw how racism is embedded in his mind since childhood.

Baldwin_Going_ManJames Baldwin describes people who live on edge. They live in fear. They are afraid of white people, of having the wrong attitude, of being seen as antagonistic in spite of them. In their mind eye, they constantly look over their shoulder, it’s like an instinct for survival. They have the impression that they live at the Whites’ mercy, that the law isn’t on their side. It’s like living in a dictatorship where the arbitrary is king. And yet, he’s not angry or rebellious. He’s analyzing with incredible lucidity and precision the damages done by racism on a psyche. The characters aren’t free. They are not free of being themselves when they go out of their neighborhood; they have to control themselves to fit in; they live with a strong and rooted fear. I’m white. I’ve never read any writer who could make you understand and feel so well what it is to be victim of racism and how deeply it affects the soul of the persons who are ostracized for the color of their skin.

Baldwin has a knack for psychological insight. He x-rays the black psyche and he manages to bring it to the reader, to make them see through other people’s eyes. I understood why James Brown’s singing Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud was a strong message. That is an accomplishment in itself. It is associated with a sensible analysis of the American and French societies and with a strong sense of place. Paris comes to life like in a book by René Fallet and New York is stunning as in Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.

Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven. The people, so surrounded by heights that they had lost any sense of what heights were, rather resembled, nevertheless, these gray rigidities and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

The factual and moving description of the indelible marks that racism carves on someone’s soul will certainly stay with me. It is set in the USA and it is about African-Americans. But France doesn’t have a spotless record. The narrator of This Morning, This Evening, So Soon who lives in Paris says that the North-Africans immigrants are his kindred spirits. And he was right at the time (1960, in the middle of the war in Algeria) and unfortunately, he would be right today. Because, let’s face it, Islamic terrorism feeds the temptation to condemn someone on their “Arabic” looks. Because the police control you more often when your face says your family has roots in North Africa. Because the frequency of these controls leave permanent damages on someone’s identity. Because snide comments of ordinary racism you hear in the office, in your friend or family circle sometimes or on the streets are like a rampant disease, ready to spread further. And let’s not forget how hard it is for Christiane Taubira to be a black and female minister of justice.

I think Going to Meet the Man is a must-read for white American readers. It is also a must-read for white Europeans. We all need to face our history and our everyday life attitude.

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth breaking a #TBR20 oath, here’s a last quote, a taste of Baldwin’s marvelous style. It’s about jazz music.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order in it as it hits the air. What is evoked on him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 21 comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

Not a cinch, a Pynch

July 30, 2014 28 comments

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. (1966) French title: Vente à la criée du lot 49.

Pynchon_Lot_49I have all the symptoms of the book-to-be-abandoned illness. What are they? You glance at the book and you think about watching TV. You see the book on the table and you think about the next one you’ll read. You open the book and you don’t remember what you’ve read before. Normal, because you left days between now and the last time you opened it. You can’t remember the characters’ names or who is who. You look at the number of pages to read before you reach the next chapter and until the end. You sigh a lot. All this happened to me with The Crying of Lot 49.

In other words, Pynchon and I weren’t on reading terms. I never managed to enter into the plot, I was constantly distracted by details such as the names of the characters (Oedipa Maas, Mike Fallopian…), losing sight of the plot’s thread (I needed an Ariadne, not an Oedipa). I really tried to be interested in the mystery of the book but I couldn’t. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and run.

Sorry to disappoint Pynchon’s fans, but I couldn’t make it. This writer was on the daunting list and on the daunting list it stays. Please leave comments and tell me what you thought about The Crying of Lot 49 if you have read it. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about Kosztolányi.

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

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