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The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 10 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

February 10, 2018 14 comments

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) French title: Ma brillante carrière.

If the souls of lives were voiced in music, there are some that none but a great organ could express, others the clash of a full orchestra, a few to which nought but the refined and exquisite sadness of a violin could do justice. Many might be likened unto common pianos, jangling and out of tune, and some to the feeble piping of a penny whistle, and mine could be told with a couple of nails in a rusty tin-pot.

Sybylla Melvyn is an opinionated young girl living in rural Australia in the 1890s. She first grew up on a station until her father moved his family to start a dairy farm. Due to several years of severe droughts and poor business decisions, her family gets poorer and poorer while her father wastes all their earnings in alcohol.

She is sent away to live with her grandmother who is wealthier and cares for her company. These are the happiest years of her life. She has the opportunity to read, to have interesting dicussions and to be in good company. She gets acquainted with Harold Beecham who falls in love with her and wants to marry her.

Sybylla is the narrator of the book and we see her life and other people’s reactions solely through her lenses. And her lenses are quite biased. Her personality is extraordinary for her sex, time and age. Sybylla is quite the tomboy. Her vision of men and marriage is rather jaded and she has no intention of marrying as expected of her.

Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

Sybylla rejects the idea of love and marriage but I’m not sure it’s really to keep her freedom. She’s convinced that she’s ugly and that men only fall for pretty girls. Therefore, she assumes that she’s unlovable. So, there is no way Harold Beecham could actually love her for herself. She’s not the average young girl, not interested in clothes and appearance. She’s more into books and theatre, more interested in intellectual activities than the ones devoted to her sex.

So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual–it is your only chance. Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her.

Unfortunately, this still rings true, don’t you think? There are no such things as dashing silver temples for women and we still use the expression “trophy wife”. I’m with Sybylla in this, trophy wife is an awful career to have.

Miles Franklin was a teenager when she wrote My Brilliant Career and Sybylla has the unflinching mind of a teenager. She lacks nuances in her thinking, she’s blind to recommendations from older people around her and she’s certain she understands it all. She’s also at a period of life when one questions their parents’ choices and assesses their character.

My mother is a good woman–a very good woman–and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.

What a great way to describe how someone can rub you the wrong way and always get the worst of you. It could sound unfair but it’s not, considering her mother’s behavior in the novel. She’s hard with her daughter, who rebels too much. She’s also embitered by her poverty and her miserable life with a useless and drunkard of a husband. Sybylla also kills any romantic ideas one could have of living on a dairy farm. As she points out:

I am not writing of dairy-farming, the genteel and artistic profession as eulogized in leading articles of agricultural newspapers and as taught in agricultural colleges. I am depicting practical dairying as I have lived it, and seen it lived, by dozens of families around me.

And this life is grueling. The chores are heavy and leave little time or energy for anything else. They destroy the farmers’ bodies, they limit their free time for cultivating their minds. They’re at the mercy of the weather and of market rates. This part hasn’t changed much and it’s a bit disheartening.

Miles Franklin must have been a spirited young lady. And a feminist. As a lot of women of her time, Sybylla doesn’t have a lot of possibilities for a career.

“What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls.” “What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I’d as soon go on the wallaby.” “You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don’t take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age.”

In Australia, like in Europe at the time, girls who needed to work didn’t have a lot of career choices opened to them. In the end, what is Sybylla’s brilliant career mentioned in the book title? Well, she wants to be a writer! You’ll have to read the book to know how this pans out.

I enjoyed My Brilliant Career for Sybylla’s tone and the picture of rural Australia in the 1890s. I have to confess she irritated me sometimes, because she was so set in her ways and so little inclined to question her vision of the world. Pride and Prejudice was a better title than My Brilliant Career for Franklin’s novel but well, it was already taken.

It was my first Australian book from the 19thC (I know it was published in 1901 but it’s still a 19thC book for me) and I read it in English. There were a lot of unfamiliar words to describe the land and some like Kookaburras or jackeroo had a funny ring to them. Like I would be later with The Three Miss Kings, I was surprised by Franklin’s freedom of speech. Sybylla’s ideas on marriage, religion, men and life in general are unconventional. Women seemed to have more space to express themselves, probably because the country was so young and made of daring people (I think you had to have guts to leave safe and mild Europe to travel so far and settle in a brand new land).

This read is another of my contributions to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This was also my first read out of the wonderful list of Australian Literature that I made after all the recommendations I received. It is my turn to say it is highly recommended.

As you may know the Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prestigious literary award. I’m not aware of another country where their most sought-after literary prize is named after a woman writer. Do you know another one?

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 16 comments

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) Original French title: L’Etranger.

Preamble: I know that L’Etranger by Albert Camus has been translated into The Outsider or The Stranger. I’ll stick to the French title to keep everyone happy even if I think that The Outsider is a better title.

Like a lot of French teenagers, I studied L’Etranger in school. I was fourteen when I read it and I remember that I enjoyed it despite studying it in class. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to read it and I decided to read it along with her.

For those who haven’t read this stunning novella by Albert Camus, it opens with some of the most famous sentences of French literature.

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

Translation by Matthew Ward.

Meursault is a young bachelor living in Algiers during the French colonization. His mother was in an old home when she died, and the first chapters describe his going to the home and attending the funeral. The heat is blinding and staggering.

Back in Algiers, Meursault resumes his everyday life. He works in an office in a shipping company. He’s reliable enough and his boss is thinking about sending him to the new office in Paris. He has a liaison with Marie, goes to the beach with her and gets to know his neighbor Raymond. Meursault’s life changes for the worst when he kills an Arab on the beach on a hot Sunday. The first part of the book is about Meursault’s life before his crime and the second part is about his imprisonment and his trial.

Meursault is a strange character. He glides through life, letting people around him leading the way. He’s not involved in his life. He enjoys his quotidian but wouldn’t fight for it. He’s not in love with Marie, he likes her well enough but he wouldn’t be affected by her leaving him. He spends time with his neighbor who openly asks him to be his buddy, he acquiesces without conviction. He’s adrift, nothing makes sense and is worth fighting for. He’s an outsider because he refuses to obey to society’s rules. He also refuses to lie and express feelings or opinions that he doesn’t feel or think.

I’m not going to analyze L’Etranger. I’m not qualified for that and honestly, what could I bring to what academics have already written about it? I’d rather discuss my response to it.

When I first read L’Etranger, it stayed with me for the story, its absurd ending and the unfairness of it. I remember I wanted to shake Meursault up, to yell at him and push him to react, to force him to take action and do something to save himself. Teenagers are always hit hard by unfairness. I was also irritated by his passivity.

My second reading is more educated, I suppose. I still want to shake him because I tend to act and not stay put when something happens. However, I’m more tolerant to his reaction now, not as irritated as I was as a teenager.

I’m also more aware of the context, of the description of life in Algiers under the French colonization. Algeria was a French department, a special status that meant that this territory was ruled the same way as departments on mainland France. I was shocked to see the investigation judge pulling out a crucifix from his drawer and starting to ask Meursault whether he believed in God. This has been so forbidden in France since 1905. The trial seems to be happening a political or religious court: the verdict is known before the hearing starts and beliefs are more important than facts. There’s no appeal for trials at the court of assizes at the time and the guillotine was still working.

But after years of reading literature, I was bowled over by Camus’s flawless style. I didn’t realize how good he was the first time I read it. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the seaside and life in Algiers. I could imagine the beaches, the hot sand and the stifling heat. I have two quotes to share, I couldn’t find any translation, so I played translator. *cringe* Please forgive their clumsiness.

Aujourd’hui, le soleil débordant qui faisait tressaillir le paysage le rendait inhumain et déprimant. Today, the overflowing sun that made the landscape quiver rendered it inhuman and depressing.

And…

C’était le même éclatement rouge. Sur le sable, la mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues. Je marchais lentement vers les rochers et je sentais mon front se gonfler sous le soleil. Toute cette chaleur s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance. Et chaque fois que je sentais son grand souffle chaud sur mon visage, je serrais les dents, je fermais les poings dans les poches de mon pantalon, je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil et de cette ivresse opaque qu’il me déversait. A chaque épée de lumière jaillie du sable, d’un coquillage blanchi ou d’un débris de verre, mes mâchoires se crispaient. J’ai marché longtemps. It was the same red eruption. On the sand, the sea was panting from the quick and shallow breathing of her little waves. I was walking slowly towards the rocks and I felt my forehead swell under the sun. All this heat was weighing me down and pushing against my progression. And each time that I felt its deep hot breath on my face I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trousers’ pockets, I coiled my all self to win against the sun and the opaque intoxication he poured on me. For each sword of light spurting out of the sand from a whitened shell or a piece of glass, my jaw tensed up. I walked for a long time.

Aren’t we with Meursault on this hot beach under the biting sun? I love the images, the way the elements seem to assault Meursault’s senses. His narrative is also concise and precise. It’s straight to the point and extremely efficient. Mind-blowing.

I’ll end this billet by mentioning the BD version of L’Etranger by Jacques Fernandez. It’s faithful to the novel. The characters jump out of the pages; the landscapes and the city of Algiers seem real. It’s available in English and it’s a good companion to the novel.

Now I’m going to read The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

True Country by Kim Scott A trip to Aboriginal Australia

January 28, 2018 35 comments

True Country by Kim Scott (1993) French title: Le Vrai Pays. (Translated by Thierry Chevrier with the help of Marie Derrien)

Kim Scott is an Australian writer born in Perth in 1957. His mother is white and his father is Aboriginal, from the Nyungar tribe. He’s an English teacher and he spent some time teaching at an Aboriginal community in the north of Western Australia. Kim Scott explores the issue of the white colonization in Australia and its consequences but also gives a written memory to Aboriginal culture and simply uses his mixed origins to give a voice to his Aboriginal people.

A few years back, I tried to read his novel, That Deadman Dance but I had to abandon it. Not that I didn’t like it or that it was lacking but my English and my knowledge of Australia weren’t good enough. I needed a French translation. And the only books by Kim Scott available in French are True Country and Benang. I shouldn’t complain though, True Country has only been translated into French and Benang into French and Dutch. We are lucky readers here, thanks to Les Editions du Rocher and Actes Sud.

Lucky me, Lisa from ANZ LitLovers had not read True Country yet and she accepted to read it along with me. Her review is available on her blog and it’s going to be a real treat for me to discuss this book with an educated Australian reader.

The starting point of True Country is the arrival of a new set of teachers in Karnama, an Aboriginal community in the North of Western Australia.

There is a Catholic mission in Karnama and a school for Aboriginal children. Alex is the new principal of the school and he came with his wife Annette and his eight-year old son, Alan. The English teacher is Billy, accompanied by his wife Liz. Billy is mixed white and Aboriginal and as you can guess, he’s based on Kim Scott’s personal experience as an English teacher in rural Australia.

Karnama is isolated, the teachers are ill-prepared for their task. The climate is terrible with intense heat during the dry season and torrential rains during the rainy season. Nature is not exactly welcoming with crocodiles and all kinds of dangerous animals and plants. The isolation is vertiginous for a European. Hours until the next city and in case of medical urgency, they rely on the Flying Doctors.

In short chapters, Kim Scott relates life in Karnama for Billy and Liz. He shows the clash of culture between the white and Aboriginal inhabitants. It’s a strange ambience in Karnama where the Whites still feel superior to the Aborigens. It is definitely a colonial atmosphere, like in Africa during the English or French colonization.

The Whites have all the positions with responsibilities and run the place. They have better houses with air conditioning. We witness their diners where they complain about the Aborigines and how they are not to be trusted. The teachers have trouble getting the children in school on time and with proper pupil attire. They just don’t have the same way of life and unfortunately the teachers think that theirs is the right way to live. The approach of life and the vision of the world is different from the start. A striking example is the notion of house and home.

Locals come to the teachers’ houses unannounced, invite themselves in and touch their things. Their own houses are open and not so private or personal. Their behaviour irritates Liz or Annette. This is a detail that tells all about the clash of culture. It shows the different approach of life, with a focus on property and privacy on one side that has no equivalent on the other.

Both parts mean well but this is something that is ingrained from childhood and accepting what is seen as an invasion of privacy on one side or refraining from coming in on the other side requires a lot of going against gut reactions and it’s not easy. Education about homes and houses comes from far away in our lives. Even in Western countries, we have differences. In France, it’s very impolite to help yourself in someone’s fridge unless you’re at a good friend’s house or staying with your family. It’s more relaxed in the USA and when French students go to stay with an American family, they receive written instructions about how to behave and this thing about the fridge is mentioned as “Do it, they won’t understand why you just don’t help yourself”. I’ve done stays like this and even a simple thing as helping yourself in a fridge is difficult to do when you’ve been told from a young age that it is not polite. Your mind must take over and remind you that it’s allowed there and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable doing it. And despite everything you might tell yourself, you still feel uncomfortable taking a bottle of water in the fridge.

So, imagine what happens with such different conceptions of homes as between Nyungar and Whites.

I liked that Kim Scott doesn’t sugar-coat the situation and doesn’t deliver a black and white (no pun intended) vision of life in Karnama. He shows Aborigines misbehaving and the ravages of alcohol. According to a note left by the translator, Aborigines have a poor tolerance to alcohol due to genetics dispositions; they get drunk very fast and they are mean drunks.

I wondered what the perspectives are for people living in Karnama. They are trapped between two cultures and none of them expressed itself totally. There are no jobs in the sense of “Western capitalism” jobs and the traditional structures of the Nyungar seem to have disappeared. They are in a weird no-man’s-land, not integrated in Western civilization and already too out of their ancestral way-of-life to live it.

Pindan Country _ Kimberley, Western Australia. From Wikipedia

All these misunderstandings, the hopelessness of the locals’ future and the latent conflict between the two communities make the atmosphere a bit heavy, on the verge of a catastrophe. During the fishing trips, the swimming parties and various activities where Whites and Aborigines mix and do something together, you have the feeling they live on the razor’s edge. On both side, they are always a hair away from making a tiny mistake that could turn an innocent outing into a drama.

With his mixed origins Billy is a go-between. He’s open minded and curious about Nyungar culture and traditions. He’s in search of his own past and it’s easy to see why he took this teaching position. He starts recording old Fatima’s stories to keep track of their oral culture and to find a bridge between him and his pupils. He wants to use these stories in class, to have teaching material the children can relate to.

The other Whites’ motivations are unclear. Why did Alex and Annette choose to come to Karnama? Does it help one’s career to have done time in the bush? I missed out on the psychology of the characters. I would have wanted to know more about their past, their inner thoughts and their struggles. I didn’t bond with any of them except Billy and Liz. I think Liz is the most remarkable character of the book. She’s nonjudgmental and reaches out to the locals. She probably followed Billy to Karnama and takes everything in one stride. I would have loved to hear about their relationship, how they came here and what kind of discussion they had at night. This lack of information about the characters made me see the book as a written reportage, a succession of chapters where I followed Billy and his relearning of his ancestral roots and customs.

This leads me to an important stylistic part of True Country. The narration alternates between Billy’s point of view and an omniscient narrator that represent the voice of the Nyungar people. This narrator is like a God’s voice observing the humans living below and commenting on their actions. It’s is full of wisdom with a mischievous sense of humour. It opens the book with a welcome chapter,

First Thing, Welcome.

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly there, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling up in this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s there you belong. A place like this.

The Aboriginal narrator is the one that stands back and comments. It’s not part of the action but gives subtitles. It’s another middleman between the reader and the scenes that unfold on the pages. Sometimes it comes right in the middle of a page and it forces the reader to stop and think about what he’s reading. It’s someone taking your arm and saying “hold on” Look at the scenery. Look at the interactions between the characters. Take your time, observe and listen. It’s often a very poetic voice.

This change of point of view lost me in That Deadman Dance. Reading in French helped.

This is why I want to praise the work of the French translators, Thierry Chevrier helped by Marie Derrien. I loved the footnotes they left in the book. They were enlightening about Australia and the Aborigines. That’s a perk of reading a good and annotated translation. The translator goes further than transcribing the English text into French. With his French background, he knows when a French can get lost in the text or might miss something important. The footnotes touched all kinds of topics. There were explanations about the fauna and flora because it’s so different from ours. I enjoyed immensely the comments about Scott’s style pointing out things coming from his Aboriginal side and how it seeped into his English. I laughed at a comment about Australians and their beer bellies, I appreciated help about car models, agriculture and other local things that are foreign to me. He gave indications about the huge distances between cities because they’re hard to imagine here. In France, a long drive is 800 km, which is about the distance between Melbourne and Sydney which seem very close from one another on the map above. In True Country, the translator was holding the reader’s hand, helping him through the foreignness of the place and of the culture. I might have missed out on the English but I got so much more from the translation that I’m happy I read True Country in French.

I read True Country with the Aboriginal voiceover holding my hand and the translator holding my other hand. It’s been a fascinating trip to Karnama, one I would haven enjoyed more if I’d gotten to know Billy and Liz better.

In any case, I’m now better equipped to read A Deadman Dance in English. I’ll give it another try, probably after my trip to Australia.

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

December 29, 2017 9 comments

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) French title: Docteur Glas Translated from the Swedish by Marcellita de Molkte-Huitfeld and Ghislaine Lavagne.

Doctor Glas is a striking novella by Hjalmar Söderberg. It is the diary of the eponymous doctor from June 12th to October 7th, 1905. Dr Glas is a general practitioner in Stockholm. He’s a brilliant mind without social skills. He’s terribly lonely.

N’y a-t-il en dehors de moi personne qui soit seul au monde ? Moi, Tyko Gabriel Glas, docteur en médecine, à qui parfois il est donné d’aider les autres sans pouvoir s’aider soi-même, et qui, à trente-trois ans, n’a jamais connu de femme ? It makes me feel as if there’s no one in the world lonely at this moment but I. I, doctor of medicine Tyko Gabriel Glas, who sometimes helps others but has never been able to help himself, and who, on entering his thirty-fourth year of life, has never yet been with a woman.

Translated by David JC Barrett.

This quote comes from the first pages of the book. We know right away that Doctor Glas is an odd man with his own issues. In the first entry of his journal, he relates a promenade in the streets of Stockholm and his displeasure to run into Rev Gregorius, his patient and a nearby pastor. The man repulses him to the point of comparing him to a poisonous mushroom.

One day, Mrs Gregorius confides in him: her husband forces himself on her and she wonders if the good doctor couldn’t tell her husband that he should stop all sexual intercourse with her, for medical reasons, of course. The brave doctor is touched by her plea, a plea he’s ready to believe as he already hates Rev Gregorius. He agrees to help her and he gets more and more involved in her life, to the point of falling in love with her, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She makes him cross lines, think about crossing more lines and question medical boundaries and his society’s hypocrisy.

Day after day, we read the thoughts of this unconventional doctor who writes about sensitive topics. He raises ethical questions that are still unresolved today. He wonders about birth control and abortion, not that he thinks that women should have the right to do what they want with their body or choose their time to become a mother. No, he thinks that there are already enough people on earth as it is. He also wonders about euthanasia: shouldn’t people be allowed to decide to die, especially if they have a terminal illness?

These thoughts were already in him but Mrs Gregorius’s story pushes them on the top of his mind. What is the ethical thing to do? He’s not ready to cross all lines but he can’t help thinking about these lines.

Doctor Glas was a scandal when it was published and it’s easy to understand why. Söderberg is brave enough to write about ethical questions from a doctor’s point of view. His character is not warm, someone you feel compassion for. He’s icy and perhaps his steely vision of men allows him to think out of the conventional path. Rev Gregorius, seen from Glas’s eyes, is repulsive. His wife is a lot younger than him and she’s not a sympathetic character either. Sometimes I had the impression she was manipulating Glas to be as free as possible from her husband to enjoy her relationship with her lover. It’s ambiguous.

Doctor Glas is remarkable for its directness. The doctor writes boldly about sex, death and the place of the church in the Swedish society. I don’t think Söderberg used the literary form to promote his ideas. He wrote the portray of a trouble man confronted to a complicated ethical question. How will he react? He has to choose to help Mrs Gregorius or not and this leads him to delicate questions.

I thought that Doctor Glas was a brilliant piece of literature. It’s concise and gets to the point. It’s less than 150 pages long and manages to draw the picture of a single individual while raising important ethical questions.

Highly recommended.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 18 comments

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (1934) French title: Vos jours sont comptés. Translated from the Hungarian by Jean-Luc Moreau.

For December, our Book Club had picked They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, the first volume of his famous Transylvanian Trilogy. Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950) was a liberal Hungarian nobleman from Transylvania involved in politics. He was part of the high society in Budapest and in Transylvania. His Transylvanian Trilogy pictures Hungary before WWI and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Joseph Roth describes this decline on the Austrian side in The Radetzky March, Bánffy shows the other side of the coin in Hungary.

They Were Counted is a great picture of the high society in Budapest. We follow two cousins, Bálint Abády and László Gyerőffy. We’re in 1904 and they’re both in their twenties. Bálint went to university in Vienna and spent a few years in Foreign Affairs abroad. He has just been elected at the Hungarian Parliament. Bálint is now ready to take part in the country’s political future and to take the reins of his estate. László lost his parents when he was young and was raised by relatives. He’s a talented pianist but could not go to music school as he would have liked. He feels that he doesn’t belong to any family, that he’s barely tolerated in high society and it’s a big chip on his shoulder. He’s secretly in love with one of his cousin, Klára Kollonich. His future is uncertain because he would love to be a musician and he doesn’t have the fortune to stay idle and just go to music school.

The century is young, they’re at the beginning of their adult life and they have to choose their path.

Bánffi describes the life in Hungarian high society, a life made of balls, hunting parties in the country. It’s the classic life of European nobility at the turning of the century. According to the atmosphere and the mores, Budapest sounded closer to Paris than to London though.

Bánffi also portrays the complicated political issues that Bálint has to face in Parliament. I suppose that everything is accurate as Bánffi was part of this world. I have to confess I got lost in the intricacies of Hungarian politics. I got the big picture though: they were always in opposition with Vienna, they were not over the missed opportunity of the 1848 revolution and they were fighting futile battles instead of concentrating on real issues to improve their fellow citizen’s living conditions. In mirror to Roth’s Radetzky March, we see a Hungarian nobility who fails to see the real challenges of a changing world and a country hindered by old-fashioned politicians unable to renew themselves. The situation in Transylvania is even more complicated as the Hungarians and the Romanians have to live together and don’t speak the same language. I understood that the Romanians were oppressed by the Hungarians who had the actual power. (Power lent by the Austrian emperor.)

I suspect that of the two main characters, Bálint is the closest to Bánffy himself. He’s open-minded and a progressist. Now that he’s a deputy and that he’s back home on his land, he wants to modernize his country. Bálint’s father died when he was young and during his illness, he left a set of directives to help his wife manage their estate and keep it intact for their son. Now that he’s old enough to manage it, Bálint is determined to improve the economy on his land. He visits with his steward and tries to implement new methods. His naïve enthusiasm bumps into the established order. His men don’t dare to speak their mind in front of him and say yes to everything. They have also implemented a system made of corruption and violence and they don’t want the master to shatter it through misplaced modernism. The conservatism that kills the country is not the prerogative of the noble leading class.

László is more like a Balzacian hero. He goes to Budapest firmly decided to live modestly on his income and study music now that he’s the master of himself and can afford this choice. This lasts a few weeks until he’s sucked into a whirlwind of parties as the new season starts in Budapest. These social events are opportunities to see Klára and it pushes him to attend as many balls and soirées as possible. This high life costs a lot of money though and puts him in a difficult financial position. He’s also too charming for his own good and craves acceptance from this world. With this personality, he was set to be snatched by this life and drown in it.

Both Bálint and László have a complicated love life. Bálint found out too late that he was in love with Adrienne Milóth, someone he could have married. They had a real friendship, made of deep conversations and complicity. But at the time, Bálint was blinded by his affair with a married woman and when he came back from abroad, Adrienne was married to the oaf Pál Uzdy. It’s not a love marriage, Adrienne only wanted to be independent from her parents. On László’s side, we have the classic love for someone he can’t marry because Klára’s parents would not approve of it. Her mother has other plans for her daughters and they all involve climbing the social ladder through prestigious marriages. Nothing new here compared to 19thC literature.

However, Bánffi goes further than putting his heroes in desperate situations. He also shows how stifling their world was for women. They have no freedom at all. They go from their parents’ rule to their husbands’ one. They have no opportunity to have a career and he doesn’t picture the equivalent of literary salons in Budapest. Surely there were some. Bánffy draws a sad picture of the men of his class. They objectify women, they are predatory and wooing means hunting. Even the polished and respectful Bálint acts this way around Adrienne. And at the same time, we see women who cheat on their husbands, select a new lover and weave a well-thought trap to get them. All in all, the relationships between men and women didn’t seem very healthy to me. It’s violent under the politeness. And again, we are in a society that discards half of their brains because these brains belong to females.

They Were Counted is a fabulous picture of Hungary and Transylvania at the time. Bánffy wrote it in 1934 after the war and the collapse of the empire. He’s very lucid about the nobility’s failure to handle changes. This world was dying and WWI only accelerated its agony.

The original title of Bánffy’s masterpiece is Erdélyi Tőtenét – Megszámláltattál. Sometimes I like to check the original title of a book and see if the French title is the direct translation of the original or if it’s something different for the French public. Since I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to Google Translate to see the translation in French and in English. Same result in both languages, the title means Transylvanian torture with anxiety. It gives another vision to the book, doesn’t it?

They Were Counted ends with a double cliffhanger. With 750 pages, it’s a long book and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read the two volumes left. On the one hand, I want to know what will become of Bálint and László. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to start another 600 pages book right now. Still on the fence on this. If you’ve read it, how are the two other volumes?

Me, You by Erri de Luca

December 10, 2017 12 comments

Me, You by Erri de Luca (1998) French title: Tu, mio. Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.

C’était l’été, et même si nous vivions des années difficiles, des années d’après-guerre, ces mois sur l’île étaient une zone franche. Des libertés impensables étaient permises et les caractères de chacun pouvaient se révéler, s’affirmer. Nous sommes devenus des adultes après ce temps-là, nous sommes le fruit d’une île plutôt que d’une terre ferme. It was the summer and even if we were going through difficult years, post-war years, these months on the island were a free zone. Unbelievable liberties were allowed, our personalities could blossom and strengthen. We became adults after this time. We are more the product of an island than of dry land.

My clumsy translation.

When Me, You by Erri de Luca opens, we’re on a fisherman’s boat with our narrator. He’s sixteen and he’s spending the summer on an island near Naples, where he lives the rest of the year. We’re in the 1950s, it’s post-war Italy. The narrator spends his time fishing with his uncle and a local fisherman, Nicola. His free time is spent with his cousin Daniele. Daniele is older than him and the narrator tags along when Daniele meets his group of friends. This is how our narrator meets Caia, a mysterious young woman. He has a big crush on her and observes her from afar. On her side, she’s drawn to this silent adolescent. Unrequited young love and teenage fascination for the other sex could be the aim of this story. But it’s not. It explores these new emotions teenagers experience at sixteen but the post-war context brings a new depth to the story.

Caia is Jewish and the narrator soon understands that she escaped the worst but that her family was murdered by the Nazis during the war. The horrors of the Shoah bring a shadow over this sunny summer.

WWII also invites itself in the narrator’s summer through Nicola, the fisherman. He went to war in Yugoslavia and the narrator makes him talk about his war time. Nicola reluctantly unveils bits of his years in service. Ugliness seeps into the narrator’s sheltered life.

That summer, our narrator tries to confront two witnesses of the war, an unintentional participant and a victim. He wants to understand. The island is also a touristy place and when he sees German tourists, he wonders about their actions during the war. Who are these tourists under their summer clothes? Former active supporters of the Nazi regime or people who just tried to survive?

Our narrator questions the immediate past and wonders: what have the people of the different camps become? You, Me explores the coming of age of a teenager and the scars left by war in a country. We always think about war time, how awful it must have been and so on. This explores what happens when people from opposite camps have to live together, how victims try to survive, how demobilized soldiers slip into peace time routine.

As always, Erri de Luca masters deep questioning about the human condition with gentleness. He’s never bitter but never naïve either. And his style is sumptuous and poetic.

Le soleil est une main de surface, un papier de verre, qui, l’été, dégrossit la terre, la nivelle, la lisse, sèche et maigre à fleur de poussière. Il fait la même chose avec les corps. The sun is a smoother of surfaces, a kind of sandpaper that during the summer smooths down the earth, evens it out, polishes it, leaving it thin and dry, a film of dust. With the body it does the same thing.

Translation by Beth Archer Brombert.

I think part of the poetry is lost in translation here. In French, the sun is compared to a hand that smoothes the landscape with sandpaper and the hand has disappeared in the English translation. The “à fleur de poussière” is also more poetic and evocative than the “film of dust” used in English. The French gives the impression that the sun is a giant manual worker who shapes the landscape with the expertise and love of a skilled artisan.

Camouflaged in a coming-of-age story is the frightening question of how to live together after the ugliness and crimes of WWII. It shows mankind’s ability to move on after this awful war and how nobody really wanted to face the events. The criminals want to live under the radar. The victims want to move on but may be confronted to their torturers. The soldiers have to go back to civilian life. It’s as if everyone had gone out of the usual envelope of their self and now they have to put this outgrowth back into the initial self. And of course, it won’t fit. Our narrator is perceptive and guesses these struggles. He wants these outgrowths to express themselves before being tamed into their newly found normalcy.

This is a 140 pages novella and yet Erri de Luca managed to resurrect life on this Mediterranean island in the 1950s, to describe teenage angst and the discovery of love and to explore the aftermath of WWII in people’s everyday life.

Highly recommended, just as one of his other books, Three Horses.

PS: I wonder why the Italian title Tu, mio became Me, You in English instead of the literal You, Me.

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