Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Classic’

Literary escapade : Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann – dedicated to Marcel Proust

July 6, 2019 21 comments

This week I had the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann in Paris. It’s a literary hotel dedicated to Marcel Proust and in the neighborhood where Proust lived his whole life. The building itself brings you back in time:

Proust in on the façade and inside, the decoration is Proust-inspired, in the lobby, the staircase, the rooms and in the breakfast room. There’s a timeline to disclose Proust’s biography, the room card have a Proust jacket and quotes from In Search of Lost Time are printed on the walls.

The rooms are Proust inspired, each of them is named after a character of In Seach of Lost Time and marketing did its best to play on the Proust pattern. See here the bathroom door, the nightstand and the coffee corner.

They did not put cork-padded walls like in Marcel’s bedroom and I’m not sure you can send the staff on nightly errands Proust used to do with his faithful servant Céleste Albaret.

All this marketed décor could be a bit tacky if the hotel had stopped there, after staging a Proust atmosphere. The charming part is in the display tables full of Proust memorabilia. There are display cabinets and tables in the lobby, with letters written by Proust to his friends. The visitor can admire a dress made by Doucet, the famous dressmaker of Proust’s time.

Here’s a display dedicated to Céleste Albaret, who gave us a lot of details about Proust’s quotidian in her memoir. It’s her Rememberance of Things Past and it’s a lovely read. My billet about it is here.

I think it’s moving to see her letters, her pictures here, in a place that celebrates her master. She shared precious information with Proust’s readers and we should all be grateful that she decided to talk instead of taking her memories to her grave.

There’s also a marvelous map of Paris and the places Proust used to shop to or visit.

Each place comes with a caption, its location and whether it still exists or not. I could have stayed in front of it forever to imagine a literary walk to follow Proust and Céleste’s footsteps.

The lobby includes a library full of books by Proust or about Proust.

This hotel truly celebrates literature and goes beyond exploiting the “Proust trademark”, if such a thing exists in our world. After all, I was the only guest walking around, spending time by the displays and taking pictures of everything I could. I can’t be cynical about this place because I felt a genuine love for books and literature. I thought it was charming and I take any opportunity to promote literature and reading as a good thing. There are never too many reasons to praise books and authors.

If you’re in Paris one of these days and feel like checking out the lobby, the address is 11-15 rue de Constatinople, 75008 Paris. Meanwhile, you can see better photos on their website.

I wasn’t going to participate to July in Paris hosted by Tamara because, being French, I feel like I’m cheating. But this billet goes well with the event, so I’ll join in.

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 4 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

___________

(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 28 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Ilustration Hélène Builly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

%d bloggers like this: