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The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

April 14, 2018 31 comments

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for exampla that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polsih of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

Spada by Bodgan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

March 25, 2018 10 comments

Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. (2008). Not available in English. Translated from the Romanian by Jean-Louis Courriol.

Le problème, ce n’est pas cette affaire, c’est la politisation de l’affaire. C’est que Ràdoulescou, soutenu par Nénisor Vasilé, veut transformer une banale enquête policière en un conflit ethnique risquant d’affecter ma crédibilité à l’étranger et de me déstabiliser à l’intérieur. The problem doesn’t come from this case but from its politicization. The problem is that Ràdulescu, helped by Nénisor Vasilé, wants to change a mundane criminal investigation into an ethnical conflict that might threaten my credibility abroad and destabilize me at home.

And that’s Spada in a nutshell. We’re in Romania in 2008, one year after Romania joined the European Union and the speaker in this quote is the president of the country.  There’s a killer loose in the streets of Bucarest. He kills with precision, flawlessly and the police have not a clue about who he could be. The only thing they know is that all the victims are from Roma minority and all have a police record. They are criminals of all sorts, young thugs, pushy debt collectors, pimps, drug dealers and whatnots. The population of Bucarest doesn’t mourn their deaths. The police are hopeless, due to a shocking lack of means and motivation. The press takes up the case and it’s all over the place.

Spada is not focused on the resolution of the crimes and finding out who the murderer is. Spada is focused on the political treatment of it. The current president is under pressure from all parts. The elections for presidency come in a few months, he has to save face in front of the European Union leaders, the opposition sees it as an opportunity to improve their image and the leaders of minorities take advantage of it to further their cause.

Spada shows how all sides of the political game want to benefit from these unsolved murders and how the politicians in power maneuver to save face, to nip in the bud all potential consequences of this on their upcoming political campaign. The opposition impersonated by Ràdulescu sees in this debacle a way to promote their candidates and press on the inefficiency of the president. Spada also zooms on the leaders of the minorities in Romania, Roma and Hungarian communities and shows how they’re ready to use the situation at their own advantage and puff up to gain more political influence. Spada puts in broad daylight how the leading political parties manipulate the extreme right party to stir up trouble, to create some panic and steer the voters towards them. Spada also demonstrate how difficult the exercise is for the president, tacking between his home strategy and his need to respect some political correctness not to upset leaders from the West.

All the tactics, secret meetings and plans show a country where corruption is massive, a country where methods from the Communist era are not forgotten. We’re only 20 years after the fall of Caucescu. It’s a lot and not that much at the same time.

Spada brilliantly pictures how easy it is to manipulate people. We see how a population is quick to believe the worst of the Roma minority, how fast immoral politicians can turn a people against the ones they treat as second-class citizens, the ones that are “others”, “not like them”. Unfortunately, you don’t need a strong wind to fan the flames of fear and hatred. People naturally shy away from complex realities and they are always drawn to simple messages, even if simplistic thinking leads to violence and exclusion.

If I had read Spada in 2015, I would have looked at it like a novel set in a country with a rather young democracy, a country that has still work to do to get rid of the old guard and old fashioned ingrained methods. But I read it in 2018, after the Brexit referendum was launched for selfish political reasons, after the appalling pro-Brexit campaign and all the hatred that emerged afterwards. I read it after the election of a racist president in the US, after the extreme right parties have had frightening breakthroughs all over Europe. Hatred, the fear of “others”, of alterity and its use for base political tactics is what Spada is all about. As concerned Western citizens, we have to read this.

Marina Sofia tells me that Spada means dagger in Romanian. It’s the weapon used by the killer. It’s also the instrument used by the politicians and their cliques to slash the clothes of a fragile but oh so necessary democracy.

Highly recommended. Translation tragedy, unfortunately.

PS : Explanations about the French cover of the book. In French, a panier de crabes (literally a basket of crabs) is what you call in English a vipers’ nest. That’s a good image for the president’s entourage and the whole political/press small world described in this book. But in my opinion, it’s also a perfect drawing to picture the cancer of corruption and the lust for power of all the players of this dirty game.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy

December 27, 2017 21 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.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 24 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

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