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Posts Tagged ‘Belgian Literature’

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outlaw by Georges Simenon

November 11, 2015 19 comments

The Outlaw by Georges Simenon (1941). Original French title: L’outlaw.

C’était terrible ! Stan était trop intelligent. Il avait conscience d’être aussi intelligent, sinon plus, que n’importe qui. Il pensait à tout !

Il savait même qu’il allait faire une bêtise et pourtant il était incapable de ne pas la faire ! Comment expliquer cela ?

It was terrible! Stan was too intelligent. He was aware of his being as intelligent as anyone else, if not more. He thought of everything.

He even knew that he was about to do something stupid and yet he was unable not to do it! How to explain this?  

Simenon_outlawWhen The Outlaw opens, it’s night, it’s winter and Stan and his girlfriend Nouchi are walking around in Paris. They’re broke and cannot go back to their cheap hotel because they haven’t paid for the room and they know that the owner will be on the prowl, waiting for his payment or to throw them out.

Stan is Polish and Nouchi is Hungarian. They are both illegal migrants in the Paris of the 1930s. They’ve been together for a while and have come back to Europe after a few years in New York. We soon understand that they had to leave after Stan did something stupid.

The first chapters are poignant as Stan feels trapped in his penniless life. He lives in constant fear of the police. They  walk around, looking for an open café to warm themselves a bit. They are desperate. They’re not allowed to work, they’ve already gotten all the money they could from friends. We follow Stan’s train of thoughts and he doesn’t see the end of the tunnel.

Il marchait. Il pensait. Il pensait durement, méchamment. Ses narines se pinçaient et il serrait les poings. Il n’avait pas le droit de s’asseoir sur un banc, car il aurait attiré l’attention et la première idée de n’importe quel agent serait de lui demander ses papiers ! He walked. He was thinking. He was thinking harshly, meanly. His nose was pinched and his fists were clenched. He couldn’t sit on a bench because it would have drawn attention to him and the first idea any deputy would get was to has him for his papers.

Nouchi and Stan need food and shelter. Exhaustion plays dirty tricks with Stan’s mind. He comes with the idea to bargain with the police: for 5000 francs, he will give them information about a gang of Polish criminals who operate from the same shabby hotel as the one they’re staying in. Instead, they want him to infiltrate the gang.

Simenon_outlaw_EnglishFrom there starts a rather confusing hide-and-seek game. The police are using Stan’s information but are still surveilling him. They are also staking out the Polish gang. I never quite understood whether the police were already aware of this gang’s activities or if Stan put them on it. Stan hopes to leave that mess scot-free and with the money. But Stan isn’t as clever as he thinks and he’s driven by fear, a bad adviser. He’s a young thug who isn’t brave enough to be as violent as his thug persona would require to and he can’t help wanting to earn easy money.

It could have been a great book if the plot had been polished a bit. It feels like it’s been written in a hurry and not edited much. I was more interested in the setting, the Paris of that time and Stan’s status than in the actual story.

It sounds strange to consider Polish and Hungarian citizens as illegal migrants as Poland and Hungary are now part of the EU and we can live wherever we want in the Union. Stan’s current nationality reminds us of the political instability in Europe.

Je suis né à Wilno. Donc, avant la guerre, j’étais russe. Après, nous avons été lithuaniens… Les Polonais sont venus mais, au fond, nous sommes toujours lithuaniens. I was born in Wilno. So before the war, I was Russian. Then we became Lithuanian…The Poles came but deep down, we remained Lithuanian.

All this in a life time. I can’t imagine what it was for them. (Of course, I picked up on this since Romain Gary was born in 1914 un Wilno.)

Simenon gives a chilling idea of what it was (is?) to be an illegal migrant. Stan and Spa from Spa Sleeps by Dinev would understand each other at some level although Spa isn’t willing to do become a criminal to get money.

That part was more appealing to me than the rest and Simenon set Stan’s state-of-mind really well and prepared the reader to understand what he did later. There’s no excuse for crimes but there are explanations on how criminals got there. More about this later this month with my billet about Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach.

This was #TBR20 number 16.

Holland, the other country for cheese.

October 2, 2014 15 comments

Cheese by Willem Elschott. 1933. French title: Fromage (Translated from the Dutch by Xavier Hanotte)

Pour aborder les problèmes sérieux, le lit conjugal me paraît l’endroit le plus approprié. Là au moins, on est seul avec son épouse. Les couvertures amortissent les voix, l’obscurité favorise la réflexion et puisqu’on ne peut pas se voir, aucune des deux parties n’est soumise à l’émotion de son interlocuteur. Là, on aborde toute ce qu’on n’ose pas vraiment dire à visage découvert, et ce fut donc là que, bien allongé sur mon côté droit, après un silence inaugural, j’annonçais à ma femme que j’allais devenir négociant. To tackle with serious issues, the conjugal bed always seems the most appropriate place. There, at least, you’re alone with your wife. The blankets cover the voices, the darkness makes thinking easier and since you can’t see each other, no party is subjected to the emotions of the other. There you can deal with anything you can’t say face to face. So this is where, lying on my right side and after an inaugural silence, that I disclosed to my wife that I was becoming a merchant. (My translation)

 elschott_cheeseLast year I visited Brussels and of course ended up in a bookstore. I wanted to read something Belgian that wasn’t a comic book. That’s where I bought Cheese by Willem Elschott, attracted by the title and the quote by Le Monde saying “C’est Woody Allen au pays du gouda. Un véritable regal!” (It’s Woody Allen in the land of Gouda cheese. A real treat) The sole mention of Woody Allen would have sold me the book. The cheese did the rest.

The other day Max told us about his days as a pick-and-mix employee. I had mine as a fromage à la coupe employee. It’s working in a supermarket and sell cheese that you cut on demand for customers. That’s probably a French thing. While I was fulfilling my school obligation to have a sales internship, I learnt several things about cheese: Roquefort leaks, Munster leaves your fingers stinking and Holland cheeses are bloody difficult to cut, especially mature Mimolette. But back to the book.

Frans Laarsmans works as a clerk at General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerp. When his mother dies, he strikes an acquaintance with Mr Van Schoonbeke, a friend of his brother Dr Laarmans. Frans becomes a frequent visitor at Van Schoonbeke’s house where he mingles among bourgeois from Antwerp. They’re out of his league, he struggles to keep up with them and Van Schoonbeke pushes him to become the sales representative of the Dutch firm Hornstra in Belgium and Luxemburg.

C’était sans doute un peu cavalier de sa part, car à mon avis, personne n’avait le droit de voir en moi l’homme de la situation avant que je ne m’y sois vu. It was without a doubt a bit cheeky from him. In my opinion, no one had the right to see the man of the situation in le before I’d seen myself as such. (my translation)

elschott_cheeseA little pushing from Van Schoonbeke and here’s our Frans loaded with ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses to sell in his sales territory. The poor man doesn’t even like cheese. The novel relates with a great sense of humour the adventures of a clerk in the land of commerce. Frans is our narrator and his candidness shows that he’s totally delusional about the world he lives in. Frans is completely at loss as how to start the business, cover the territory. He knows nothing about selling, visiting clients, setting up a sales plan and shipping cheeses. The Edam whole cheeses are heavy and he’s barely able to lift one. He has no client database and knows nothing about sales techniques.

This new experience as a cheese merchant after a 30 year time as a clerk will be an eye opener. Frans is a funny character but not always likeable. He loves his wife but despises her…on principle, because she’s a woman. He’s not much impressed by his teenage children even he’s a loving father. He didn’t think much about his former job but will discover a side of his colleagues he never imagined. His wife is a lot less stupid than he thought and his children are supportive in his new career.

In appearance it’s light and funny. Yet it shows in a comical way all Frans’ flaws and it lashes out on the bourgeois society in Antwerp who need to puff up their members to respect them. Status is a virtue in itself. Without Van Schoombeke’s shame of Frans being a simple clerk, he wouldn’t have suggested that he started a business. It was written in the 1930s but so many details are still true about people avid search for status and about business practices.

Bref, I had a lot of fun reading this little gem and I have a new incentive to put a photogenic grin on your face : “Read Cheese !”

PS: The English cover is a lot better than the French. It represents the book: Frans overwhelmed by a huge quantity of cheese.

Maigret as a bleu

August 5, 2012 19 comments

La première enquête de Maigret by Georges Simenon (1903-1989) The title means : Maigret’s first investigation.

I’ve only read Le chien jaune by Simenon. I have a vague memory of a novel in a foggy city in Britanny and of sitting in a classroom, head resting on my hand, waiting for the bell to ring with patient resignation. After reading reviews of Simenon’s books by fellow bloggers, I decided to try another one. True, the reviews I read weren’t about the Maigret series, but still I wanted to try one again, in an attempt to wipe away the ennui I endured when I first read him.

Now the book.

We’re in 1913, in Paris, pre-WWI and the city is still full of fiacres. Jules Maigret is the secretary of the commissaire in the Saint-Georges police station. In the night from 15th to 16th April 1913, a musician, Justin Minard arrives at the police station and declares that he heard a shooting in an hotel particulier rue Chaptal. The mansion belongs to the powerful Gendreau family and Maigret’s boss, well introduced in the Parisian high society, doesn’t want an investigation. Feeling Maigret isn’t ready to give up, he sends him on an unofficial one, hoping he will fail. We follow him during his investigation.

I can’t say I was enthralled by the plot but I’m convinced I should read more of Simenon. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

Une balustrade noire partageait la pièce en deux. Du côté réservé au public, il n’y avait qu’un banc sans dossier, peint en noir lui aussi, contre le mur blanchi à la chaux et couvert d’affiches administratives. De l’autre côté, il y avait des pupitres, des encriers, des casiers remplis de registres énormes, noirs encore, de sorte que tout était noir et blanc. Il y avait surtout, debout sur une plaque de tôle, un poêle en fonte comme on n’en voit plus aujourd’hui que dans les gares des petites villes, avec son tuyau qui montait d’abord vers le plafond, puis se coudait, traversant tout l’espace avant d’aller se perdre dans le mur. A black balustrade split the room in two. On the side reserved to the public, there was only one bench without a back. It was black too and set against the whitewashed wall covered with administrative posters. On the other side of the balustrade, there were desks, inkwells, lockers full of huge books, also black. Everything was black and white. There was also, standing on a metal sheet, a cast iron stove that can only be still seen in railroad stations of small towns. Its pipe climbed to the ceiling, then bent and crossed the whole room before getting lost in the wall.My translation, please be lenient, it’s not easy to translate.

A few sentences and you’re propelled in this commissariat. You can imagine the place, smell the dust, feel the atmosphere, the people going in and out bringing into the building the ugliness of the world. It reminded me of the first paragraph of Skylark.

This volume is not the first Maigret Simenon wrote though. Contrary to contemporary crime fiction writers who develop their character in later volumes, Simenon imagined his character’s beginnings in the police after his readers have known him as an accomplished commissaire. Is it because he wrote it in Arizona in 1945 that this novel is so tainted with nostalgia? Simenon never knew Paris during La Belle Epoque, he arrived in the City of Lights in 1922. However, this first Maigret brings to life the popular Paris of that time: the cafés, the apaches, the working class, the food, the drinks (Mignard drinks fraisette) and the still new neighbourhood of the future 17th arrondissement.

In French, a bleu is a beginner. It conveys the idea of being freshly out of school, educated but lacking field experience. Maigret is a bleu. His head is full of the principles and methods he learnt in the police academy and he struggles to put them into practice or to pick the useful ones and leave behind the inapplicable ones. He discovers at his expense that not all the things he needs to know were included in the textbooks.

Simenon confronts Maigret with reality. In his head, the difference between good and evil is clear. He’s certain that the police is efficient and wouldn’t cover a crime. In his mind, things are black or white, like the commissariat he works in. This first investigation throws him in all kinds of grey shades. He won’t get out intact. Simenon also shows him as ambitious, already eying the Quai d’Orsay as his future office. And Maigret is newlywed and it is kind of funny to meet Mme Maigret before she becomes a dull wife.

La première enquête de Maigret was entertaining and I enjoyed reading Simenon reconstructing his hero’s first steps in his profession and the first months of his married life. It was funny to read about a clumsy Maigret full of illusions about justice and police as you might expect a beginner to be. Someway it broke in my head the automatic equation Maigret = Bruno Kremer, which is good.

A Winter Journey, by Amélie Nothomb

September 5, 2010 9 comments

Le Voyage d’hiver, by Amélie Nothomb, read by Thibault de Montalembert. 

Yesterday, I subscribed to my local media library. As I was to accomplish a repelling amount of housework during the week-end, I decided to find solace in audio books. That’s how I borrowed “Le Voyage d’hiver”, which has not been translated in English yet. On Wikipedia, the English title I found was “The Winter Journey”. But I would rather use the word “trip” than “journey” as the drug-related meaning of “trip” has a sense in this story. 

The book opens with the narrator – we will learn later that his name is Zoïle, sitting at Charles de Gaulle airport and waiting for the 1:30 pm flight for somewhere. The destination doesn’t matter as he intends to hijack the plane and crash it. He is writing his first and last diary to explain how he got idea to commit such a crime even if relating his story is pointless as his journal is bound to disappear with him in the crash.

Zoïle, whose name comes from a Greek sophist philosopher, works for EDF (1) and visits destitute people to help them reduce their heating bills by financing house improvements on thermal insulation. (2) He thus meets Astrolabe and her autistic room mate Aliénor. When he first rings at their flat, he knows that Aliénor is a writer and mistakes her for Astrolabe. He could not imagine that the gifted writer could be this ugly autistic simpleton while her beautiful friend was an ordinary person. He falls in love with Astrolabe and they start a peculiar love relationship.  

Amélie Nothomb plays with names, with literary references. Her prose is liquid, funny, easy to read/hear. Music has a decisive impact on events, the title refers to a lead by Schubert and the music of Aphex Twin (apparently a British group doing electronic music, but I don’t know about them) is heard at the climax of the book.

On a second level of reading, Aliénor and Astrolabe seem to be the division of Amélie Nothomb herself. The names both starts with an “A”. In Aliénor, we hear “alien” and “aliéné”, which means “insane” in French. Aliénor is other and insane. Astrolabe, which means “star-taker”, is nursing Aliénor, protecting her. She translates in intelligible language the books Aliénor dictates. They have an intense relationship, as if they were one unique person.  

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book. It’s a short one, less than 150 pages and only a two hours listening. Maybe it is what Anglophones call a novella, but I’m not sure. This concept has no equivalent in French and though I understand what it is, I still struggle to figure out if a book is a novel or a novella.

 I had a good time listening to The Winter Journey. Amélie Nothomb has a witted and funny style. Better, she just knows how to tell good stories with strange characters, and all the while insert subtle remarks on love, hate, beauty, ugliness and human behaviour.

This book doesn’t bring anything new to literature or will probably not be read in twenty years but it is good entertainment.

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 (1) The French electricity company

(2) I think that this kind of program really exists, to meet the Kyoto Protocol engagements on saving energy to fight against global warming.

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