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Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 2 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)

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 33 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

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