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20 Books of Summer #11: Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti – A fascinating novel about fishing campaigns in Iceland’s waters in the 19th century.

August 10, 2020 13 comments

Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti (1886) Original French title: Pêcheur d’Islande.

I’d never read Pierre Loti. For me, he was a 19thC author who wrote adventure novels. I thought that Fisherman of Iceland was a something about an expedition to explore Iceland. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was set in Brittany and is about Breton fishermen. (I know, I really have a knack for finding books that involve fishing)

Fisherman of Iceland is set in the Paimpol area, in North Brittany. From 1852 to 1935, fishermen from the region left their homes for six-month cod-fishing campaigns near Iceland. They left mid-February and came back in end of August. They fished, prepared the cod and put it in salt for keeping. Imagine that they used fishing lines, not nets. They sold the fish in the Bordeaux area and came home with the holds loaded with fresh salt for the next campaign. There was only one call during the campaign and some cruisers from the French State sailed to the fishing areas to bring mail and supplies.

The work was very hard and dangerous but it paid well. At least when the boats returned safely. More than two-thousand men never came home from Iceland and Newfoundland. Generations of men never spent a summer in France, as they were enrolled as ships’ boys at a young age. The villagers’ lives were organized around the fishing schedule. For example, weddings were all celebrated between October and February.

Fisherman of Iceland is Loti’s most successful book. It was a bestseller when it went out in 1886. By 1924, 445 French editions of the book had been published. It’s a love story between a sailor, Yann Gaos and his sweetheart Gaud Mével, mixed with the friendship between Sylvestre, Yann and Gaud.

Forget about the love story, that’s not the most interesting part of the book. Honestly, Loti’s characters are paper-thin, not developed enough and depicted with a Douanier Rousseau literary brush. Nice to look at but not feeling like real-life characters. The descriptions of the landscapes make up for that lack of depth. Loti writes in classic French but keeps it simple and accessible for readers. No calling the sea “Neptune’s kingdom” or compare these sailors to Greek heroes as it could happen for a writer of that time.

Biscuits for sailors. They had to break them with a hammer to eat them

Fisherman of Iceland is interesting to read for the history of these fishing campaigns. I didn’t know about them. I knew about French fishermen sailing to Newfoundland but not in the Iceland waters. Loti describes life on the boats, life at home and the celebration around the fishing campaigns.

It shows the religious traditions, the preparation of the trips and the community’s life at the time.  I discovered that military service lasted five years in the 1880s and that the French State took the opportunity to teach French to all these young men who only spoke local dialects. The Third Republic was really the one to bring public education for all and unify the country around the French language. It killed local dialects. Whether it was a good thing or not is still under discussion.

With Sylvestre leaving for the military navy, I learnt about the Tonkin Campaign in Indochina.

The novel is set in Paimpol, Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even. I’ve been to the museum of the Icelanders in Ploubazlanec. The first part is dedicated to the Iceland campaigns and the other to contemporary merchant navy. The Iceland part explained the whole historical context and showed items from the times. The background of Loti’s novel holds a whole room and it was fascinating to see and read about it, especially since I was reading the novel.

Picture of Guillaume Floury

Pierre Loti was a navy officer. This is where he met two fishermen named Guillaume Floury and Sylvestre Floury. The first became Yann Gaos in the book and the other is Sylvestre Moan. The rumor says that Sylvestre Floury saved Loti’s life in Saigon.

Loti spent some time in Ploubazlanec, fell in love with a local girl and was rejected. We can be grateful that he poured his broken heart into literature. Many descriptions in Fisherman of Iceland are true-to-life, except for the ones of life on the fishing ships. Loti romanticized and glossed over the gory details.

Ploubazlanec really celebrates its history and there’s an Iceland walk in the village. This is why our next Literary Escapade will take you to Ploubazlanec and Pors-Even on the locations described in Fisherman of Iceland.

TBC…

20 Books of Summer #7 : Nada by Carmen Laforêt – Twelve months in the life of a young woman

July 31, 2020 24 comments

Nada by Carmen Laforêt (1944) French title: Nada. Translated by Marie-Madeleine Peignot and Mathilde Pomès. Revised by Maria Guzmán

While I’m off wandering and doing Literary Escapades, I’m still reading. This year, as part of Spanish Lit Month and 20 Books of Summer, I decided to read Nada by Carmen Laforet along with Vishy.

When Nada opens, eighteen-year old Andrea arrives to Barcelona to attend university and study literature. She’s an orphan and used to live with her cousin in the country. Now, she’s going to live with her maternal uncles, aunt and grandmother.

Her train is late and it’s night when she finally reaches the family apartment on Aribau Street. The grandmother opens the door and it’s as if Andrea falls into a horror movie: the apartment is dark, stuffed with old furniture, it’s dirty and dusty, the people living there look old, tired and menacing. The scene is striking and the reader wonders where Andrea enters. She’s led to the living-room, with her bed made on an old sofa. It’s as if she’s disturbing spiders and other creatures.

The reader knows right away that something’s not right in this household. Being poor doesn’t mean being filthy and there’s something disturbing about Andrea’s welcome.

Andrea will share the lives of her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Roman, her uncle Juan and his wife Gloria and their baby. The grandmother is a sweet and religious old lady who would sacrifice her well-being to maintain the peace. Angustias is a righteous spinster who warns Andrea against Gloria and wants to control her life. Juan is a would-be painter who can’t accept that he has no talent. He doesn’t make enough money to support his family. Roman is a talented musician, too lazy to make a good career out of it. In any case, we’re in 1944 and Barcelona is still recovering from the Civil War.

Andrea finds herself in the middle of the unhealthy ties between the family members. Angustias wants Andrea to be her pet but you don’t catch flies with vinegar. Andrea silently resists. Roman tries to attract her with honey, but she still feels ill at ease and perceives that he’s manipulative. Gloria concentrates all the violence of the family: Angustias hates her, Juan beats her and Roman desires her and belittles her. There are undercurrent of past events between the three.

Roman is a central character in the novel. He’s charismatic and cruel. He counts on his enigmatic personality to draw people in his nets. Other people are preys.

Andrea starts going to university and befriends Ena. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air for Andrea but also the source of torments. She’s too poor to fit with Ena’s family and she feels like an outsider in her circle of bohemian friends too.

From the very first pages, the reader feels that this experience in Barcelona will be crucial in Andrea’s life and that drama is inevitable.

Nada reminded me of Hello Sadness by Françoise Sagan, probably because both have young women as main characters and both were written when their authors were very young.

Andrea also sounded like an existentialist character. Sartre’s Nausea was published in 1938 and Camus’s Outsider in 1942. Like Meursault, Andrea is a bit aloof and her friend Ena notices it. She doesn’t fit into the usual young woman mold: she doesn’t wear make up, doesn’t think about boys and getting married. She’s not even passionate about her studies.

She’s floating on the sea of her life, trying to navigate around the violent outbursts at home, staying with her friends but not belonging. She doesn’t seem committed to anything. The young men who try to seduce her can’t find a grip to climb over her personal walls. They fail and fall like inexperienced climbers in front of a smooth rock face.

Sometimes Andrea cares about others, about Ena especially but she’s mostly indifferent about her relatives. She’s invaded by an overwhelming sadness at times and a depressing vision of life. Who can blame her, considering her circumstances?

Barcelona is a character in the book too. Andrea flees from the house and spends hours wandering in the city’s streets. The architecture and the weather leave marks on her moods.

Despite her apparent apathy, Andrea is a fighter. She resists all attempts at putting her on someone’s side. She fought for leaving the country to study in Barcelona. She silently stands up to Angustias. She won’t bend and she fights for her freewill. Nobody will take her freedom of thinking and even if in appearance, she doesn’t make a fuss about anything, her mind is her own.

Is this silent resistance the author’s vision of how to resist the Franco dictatorship? Staying safe and keeping one’s freewill must have been a challenge back then. Times must have been tough in Barcelona, a former bastion of the Republicans. Nada stays away from political issues and doesn’t delve on the war years but it’s underlying.

In the end, Nada tells twelve months in the life of a young woman and sounds like an existentialist coming-of-age novel.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 22 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

May 11, 2020 22 comments

Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (119) French title: Vie des douze Césars. Translated from the Latin by Henri Ailloud. Original title: De vita duodecim Caesarum libri.

During my (still ongoing) operation Tackle the TBR, I came across Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I don’t remember when I bought it but I suppose it didn’t sound so daunting after my delightful experience with Ars Amatoria by Ovid.

Let’s say that this experience wasn’t as conclusive and to be honest, I stopped reading after Nero’s life. I read a translation that dates back to 1931/1932 and I don’t know whether it was intended for students or readers.

I remember studying passages of De rerum natura by Lucretius and being happy that the French translation was as close to the text as possible, to track down how the translation was done. However, it was unreadable for a reader with no academic purpose. Maybe this translation falls into the second category as it was a strenuous and frustrating read.

It was tiring for very practical reasons. I have a paperback copy and it’s written in very small print. I’m at the uncomfortable stage where small prints are hard to read and my eyesight is still too good for reading glasses. It was frustrating because I was reading and not remembering what I was reading, so I only have vague memories about what I read and only retained some anecdotes.

As the title of the book suggests it, Suetonius writes the bio of the twelve emperors from Julius Ceasar (1st C BC) to Domitian (1st C AD). Contrary to our usual bios, he doesn’t write chronologically but by theme. He writes about their accomplishments in the military, the kind of ruler they were, what they built, how they managed money and treated their people.

Then he explores their family and mores. Gossip Suetonius doesn’t gloss over the horrors: pedophilia, torture, overspending, whims, murders, incest, you name it, they’ve done it. And he describes their physical appearance and their health, gory details and all.

Life of the Twelve Caesars is certainly a terrific resource for historians but it was too difficult for the common reader that I am. I lacked the cultural references and the historical knowledge necessary to fully appreciate it. And the names! Even more confusing than in Russian novel.

Sure, I discovered that Caligula exhibited public diversions in Sicily, Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul besides a contest for pre-eminence in the Grecian and Roman eloquence; in which we are told that such as were baffled bestowed rewards upon the best performers, and were obliged to compose speeches in their praise: but that those who performed the worst, were forced to blot out what they had written with a sponge or their tongue, unless they preferred to be beaten with a rod, or plunged over head and ears into the nearest river.

That’s a way to say that failure was not a option. I wonder why there’s an s at the end of Lyon and I suppose that the river was the Saône since it is the closest to the Roman part of the city.

When reading about Nero and his artistic endeavours, I thought that in today’s world, he would have been a reality TV star since above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity, being the rival of every man who obtained the applause of the people for any thing he did. At least Nero had a decent haircut.

I smiled when I saw that Caligula’s prefect of the pretorian guard was named Macro, who became Macron in the French translation.

I didn’t know that emperors could decide to change the alphabet as Claudius did.

He besides invented three new letters, and added them to the former alphabet, as highly necessary. He published a book to recommend them while he was yet only a private person; but on his elevation to imperial power he had little difficulty in introducing them into common use; and these letters are still extant in a variety of books, registers, and inscriptions upon buildings.

Apparently, Rome was a moveable feast and caesars could also change the calendar, as Augustus did:

He restored the calendar, which had been corrected by Julius Caesar, but through negligence was again fallen into confusion, to its former regularity; and upon that occasion, called the month Sextilis, by his own name, August, rather than September, in which he was born; because in it he had obtained his first consulship, and all his most considerable victories.

 Sure, why not change the name of a month? To think that we still have that name, now!

I could go on and on with various anecdotes like this which I found in my notes and not in my memory. Sadly.

I think that Life of the Twelve Caesars is good for scholars but not so much for the common reader. We, common readers, need a middleman to dive into this. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome at the turning point between republic and empire, I highly recommend the Steven Saylor series. It’s written as crime fiction and it’s brilliant. It describes the politics, the mores and the workings of the political apparel of that time.

PS: The translation I used comes from Project Gutenberg.

A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge – Melbourne, tea cups and romance

April 26, 2020 20 comments

A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge. (1896) Not available in French.

I decided to sign up for Australian Women Writer Challenge again. I had joined this literary event in 2018 and all my Australian readings are in here. AWW (#AWW2020) is hosted by Australian bloggers and its rules are described on their website.

The idea is to read four, six, ten or more books written by Australian women writers. I’ve already read four, so I’m joining the party now. The first ones are two books by Catherine Helen Spence, her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will and her Autobiography

I had A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge on the TBR because it was included in my omnibus collection of books by Cambridge that I acquired when I read The Three Miss Kings.

It also includes Sisters, A Mere Chance, Materfamilias, The Retrospect and her memoirs Thirty Years in Australia. I’ve read Sisters (upcoming billet). Among the ones I still have on the TBR, which one would you recommend?

A Humble Entreprise doesn’t seem to be one of Cambridge’s most famous books, it’s not even listed on her Wikipedia page.

A Humble Entreprise opens with a familiar scene of 19thC novels: Joseph Liddon, a dutiful clerk at the Churchills’ offices and dies in a tram accident, leaving his wife and his three grown-up children without an income.

His young son is hired as a clerk in the same office as his father but he can’t support the whole family with his entry-level wages. The eldest daughter, Jenny, comes with a plan: she convinces her mother and sister to open a tea shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. To keep the running of the shop simple and efficient, they decide to serve tea, coffee and scones, since Mrs Liddon excels at baking them.

She puts an ad in the paper to advertise the place and Mr Churchill, her father’s former employer, stumble upon it. He remembers about the late Mr Liddon and also that his family declined any financial help from the firm. He’s impressed by their entrepreneurship and their willingness to support themselves with their tea shop.

He decides to visit the place and endorse it. He asks his wife and daughter to have tea there on their next shopping trip to Melbourne and to promote the shop to their lady friends.

Soon, thanks to Jenny’s sound management of their money and Mrs Churchill’s patronage, the place is successful.

Meanwhile, at the Churchill mansion, the family prepares themselves to the return of Mr Churchill’s eldest son, Anthony, from his trip in Europe. His stepmother is particularly happy to see him again, she who hoped to marry him but eventually married his father. She’s still romantically attracted to her stepson, which brings a certain twist to the story.

Anthony is thirty-five, still single and thinks it’s time to settle down. If only he could find the right wife. He has played the field enough and knows he doesn’t want a frivolous wife who only cares about clothes and parties. He wants an industrious, caring wife, one who’ll want to take care of their children and not let them too much in the care of nannies.

Guess what happens when he meets hard-working, no-nonsense and entrepreneurial Jenny?

A Humble Entreprise is written for a readership of young girls. Ada Cambridge uses this light and fluffy romance to give advice about love and marriage. There are several passages in which Anthony muses over the qualities he wants in his future wife. Pretty doesn’t come first, he’s more looking for companionship. Ada Cambridge addresses directly to her readers:

And, my dear girls—to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed—I am credibly informed that quite a large number of men are inclined to matrimony or otherwise by considerations of the same kind. You don’t think so, when you are at play together in the ball-room and on the tennis-ground, and you fancy it is your “day out,” so to speak; but they tell me in confidence that it is the fact. They adore your pretty face and your pretty frocks; they are immensely exhilarated by your sprightly banter and sentimental overtures; they absolutely revel in the pastime of making love, and will go miles and miles for the chance of it; but when it comes to thinking of a home and family, the vital circumstances of life for its entire remaining term, why, they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear—at any rate, not all of them.

Something Jane Austen says in one sentence in Emma, “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

Of course, her views on marriage are in accordance with the mores of her time but she still advocates equality in the personal relationship. She sees marriage as a loving partnership and she clearly wants to teach her readers that beauty evaporates with time and that a good character with adequate skills lasts longer. They should work on useful skills instead of entertaining ones.

I wonder why she didn’t go further and explain to her female readers what they should look for in a husband. After all, women of sense do not want a silly husband either. Drunkards, gamblers, idlers, spendthrifts, cheaters and quick-tempered men should raise warning flags as well. Perhaps she didn’t go there because girls didn’t have the luxury to be picky and could only hope for the best.

A Humble Entreprise is a fluffy novella I’ve read in one sitting, which was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to read a feel-good novella and it filled the bill. Cambridge writes in a light tone and has a good sense of humour, as you can see in her description of the Churchills going out to downtown Melbourne:

Half an hour later her husband and stepdaughter, two highly-finished, perfectly-tailored figures, sober and stately, severely unpretentious, yet breathing wealth and consequence at every point, set forth together through spacious gardens to the road and the tram—which appeared to the minute, as it always does for men of the Churchill stamp, who are never too soon or too late for anything.

As always, because I’m curious about everyday life in other countries and previous centuries, I enjoyed reading about Melbourne in the 19thC.

Recommended to readers who enjoy 19thC literature and are not allergic to romance.

PS: About the cover. I really don’t understand where this cover comes from. It’s miles away from the atmosphere of the book, as far from it as Nana is from Emma. The second picture is more accurate, you can imagine Jenny running the tea shop while her mother bakes the scones and her sister holds the cash register.

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – Austenian, feminist and progressist

February 9, 2020 22 comments

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1865) Not available in French

According to Wikipedia, Miles Franklin called Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), the Greatest Australian Woman. And after reading her biography, I can understand why. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Australia when she was 14, after her family lost their fortune.

She became a journalist and a writer. She was the first woman to compete in a political election in Adelaide. She was a social activist and worked to  improve the quotidian of children living in institutions. She never married but raised orphaned children. Her plate on her birth house in Melrose, Scotland, says it all.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is her most famous novel. When the book opens, we’re in a solicitor’s office in Scotland. Mr Hogarth, a bachelor who raised his late sister’s daughters, Jane and Elsie, has just passed away. He was a gentleman with an estate in Scotland, not very far from Edinburg. He raised the girls as if they were boys, not because he’d wished they’re were boys but because he thought that a boy’s education was a lot more useful in life than a woman’s and that society shouldn’t waste half of its brain power.

When the solicitor unveils the stipulations of Mr Hogarth’s will, everyone is in shock. Jane and Elsie are left with almost nothing, because their uncle wanted them to use their skills to provide for themselves. He was certain that their education was enough to help them find a well-paid job.

His fortune and his estate go to his son, Francis Hogarth, a man in his early thirties that nobody has ever heard of. Mr Hogarth got secretly married in his youth and provided for his son and made sure that he became a sensible adult. Francis had been working as a bank clerk for 18 years when his father died. The will stipulates that Francis cannot help his cousins and cannot marry one of them, unless his inheritance goes to charities.

That’s the setting. What will Jane, Elsie and Francis become after this twist of fate? I’m not going to give away too much of the plot because it’s such a pleasure to follow Jane, Elsie and Francis in their endeavors.

Spence put elements from her own experience in the book and uses it to push her social and political ideas. The girls go and live with a former launderess Peggy Walker. She used to work for Mr Hogarth and now raises her sister’s children. She spent several years in a station in Australia and opens Jane and Elsie to the possibilities offered by life in the colonies. She’s a window to Australia.

Francis Hogarth is a good man, who is embarrassed by all the money he inherited. He would like to help his cousins but he can’t. He and Jane develop a good relationship, as he enjoys her conversation and her intelligence. He had to earn a living before getting all his money, and knows the value of hard work and well-earned money. He will experiment new things in his estate, to better the lives of the labourers on his land.

Elsie is prettier than Jane, more feminine too. She’s more likely to make an advantageous marriage. In appearance, she’s more fragile than Jane and relies on her older sister. She’l make a living as a milliner.

Of course, Jane can’t find a job in Edinburg because nobody wants to hire a woman even if she has the skills to be a bank clerk like Francis. Finding a job as a governess seems tricky since she can’t play the piano, embroider or paint. She eventually finds one with the Philipps, a Scottish family who got rich in Australia and is now back in the old country and lives in London.

Spence mixes a set of characters who have lived in Scotland all their lives and some who have lived in Scotland and in Australia. It allows her to compare the two ways of life and advertise life in the colonies. Through her characters, she discusses a lot of topics but I think that the most important point she’s making are that people should be judged according to their own value and accomplishments and not according to their birth.

Indeed, Jane and Elsie never look down on people who were not born in their social class and don’t hesitate to live with Peggy Walker or ask Miss Thomson’s for advice. They respect people who have a good work ethic, common sense and do their best with the cards they were given. And, according to Spence, Australia offers that kind of possibilities.

Spencer also insists on education as a mean to develop one’s skills and reach one’s potential. What’s the use of an education centered on arts and crafts? It’s a beautiful companion to other skills –Francis Hogarth is a well-read man—but how useful is it to find work? Why not help poor but capable young men to better themselves through a good education that gives them access to better paid professions? That’s what Jane does with Tom, one of Peggy Walker’s nephews. The social canvas is brand new in Australia, Spence says that capable people have better chances at succeeding there than in Scotland.

Reminder: this book was published in 1865. She was such a modern thinker.

Mr Hogarth’s Will isn’t just about giving a forum to Spence’s ideas. It is also a wonderful Austenian novel with lovely characters. Jane and Elsie have something of Elinor and Marianne and of Jane and Elizabeth. Francis Hogarth could have been friends with Mr Knightley. There’s a Miss Philipps who could be Miss Bingley’s offspring. I had a soft spot for Mr Philipps, an affectionate man who gives a real shot at fatherhood and has quite a modern way to interact with his children. He seemed to be a better version of Mr Bennet.

So, many, many, many thanks to Lisa, for reviewing this book. I would never have read this without her and I had a wonderful reading time in Jane, Elsie and Francis’s company. Thankfully, I am able to read books in English because this is not available in French. What a Translation Tragedy.

I wonder why this wasn’t transalted at the time it was published. Did the political and feminist tone of Mr Hogarth’s Will rubbed the male French publishers of the 19thC the wrong way? I’ve read five books of the 19thC whose main theme is the fate of women without a fortune or who are unmarried. I’ve read The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888), Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope (1865), The Odd Women by George Gissing (1893), The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1883) and Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Out of the five, only the Trollope is available in French, because, well, it’s Trollope and still, the translation dates back to 2010!!! I’m a bit suspicious. Isn’t that a strange coincidence that these novels who question the place given to women in the British society were not made available to the French public? I think that the French society of the 19thC was a chauvinist society and that it lasted decades into the 20thC. The French 19thC had many women leading literary salons but no prominent female writer except George Sand. At least, no published ones, because, who knows how much talent was wasted? Is it farfetched to think that these British and Australian novels were questioning the established order regarding the roles of men and women and thus were judged too controversial for translation?

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution. 

AWW_2020

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong : Sorry, but I quit

November 16, 2019 45 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) French title: Berlin ALexanderplatz. Translated by Olivier Le Lay

This is my second attempt at reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Lizzy and Caroline host it this year for German Lit Month and I thought I’d try again. I stretched my fingers to hold the chunkster, put the sticky notes in the book to mark the weeks of the readalong and started to spend time with Franz Biberkopf, the hero of this 613 pages long novel. (At least in French and in my Folio edition. Don’t forget that, due to the language, books are about 10% longer in French than in English)

Despite my motivation, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz again. I don’t care to know what’s going to happen to Franz Biberkopf. I was reading and pages were gliding over my brain like water on trout’s skin. (Yeah, no more fly-fishing reads for me, I have scars) In other words, I was reading and not imprinting anything.

I tried to force myself and after a few painful reading sessions, I started to wonder why I was inflicting this to myself. For the bragging rights? To tick a box on the 1001-books-you-must-read-before-you-die list? (I’m closeted 1001-books lister) I had to stop and remind myself that nobody cares whether I finish it or not, that reading is my hobby, not my duty. And reading must remain a pleasure, and nothing else. Goodbye to Berlin!

So, I hope that the other participants to the readalong have a great time with Döblin. My thoughts haven’t changed in five years and what I wrote in my previous billet is still valid.

Tschüβ!

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

July 6, 2019 22 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 5 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 12 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)

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