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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 10 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 27 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Literary UFO

December 16, 2012 10 comments

Ad Acta by Patrick Ourednik 2011. French title: Classé sans suite Not translated into English, I think. So I translated all the quotes, sad attempt, I know.

I bought this little gem of a book upon the recommendation of a bookstore employee. He told me it was funny and he was right. I had a lot of fun reading this novel but I don’t know how to write about it; I don’t know if I lack the words or if I just don’t know where to start. By the first chapter, perhaps?

1.e4 e5 é. F4 exf4 3. Fc4 d6 4. Cf3 Fg4 5. o-o Dd7 6. d4 g5 7. c3 Cc6 8. Da4 Fe7 9. b4 h5 10. b5 Cd8 11. Cbd2 Ch6 12. E5 Ce6 13. Fa3 Cf5 14. D5 Ceg7 15. Tfe1 Ce3 16. Bb3 Th6 17. exd6 cxd6 18. Ce4 Fxf3 19. gxf3 g4 20. b6 a6 21/ Fe2 Cgf5 22. Bd2 f6 23. c4 Rf7 24. Tac1 Tg8 25. Rhi h4 26. fxg4 Cg3+ 27. hxg3+ 28. Rg1 Tgh8 29. Ff3 Dxg4

This is the first chapter of the book. For me, it was cryptic and it intrigued me. Ad Acta is a literary UFO in an organized gallery of portraits while playing with literary genres. Our main character is grumpy and nasty Mr Viktor Dyk. He’s an elderly man, utterly cynical.

Dyk avait coutume de déclamer des sentences de son cru agrémentées de fausses références, le plus souvent bibliques. Il avait compris depuis longtemps que dans ce pays, la plus haute manifestation d’intelligence consiste à répéter ce que quelqu’un a déjà dit. Dyk was in the habit of declaiming sentences of his own making spiced up with faux references, most of the time biblical. He had understood a long time ago that in this country, the highest proof of intelligence was to repeat what someone else had already said.

He was a poor husband, a poor father. He’s not likeable at all. He’s the homonym of a famous Czech writer and committed a bad novel a long time ago. He likes that other people view him as a writer even if he has no illusion about his literary gift. When the book opens, we meet him in a park in Prague, where he’s sitting on a bench. He purposely gives wrong directions to a female student who asks for help to find her way. Dyk is nasty like an old man in a cartoon or like Scrooge maybe. As he discusses with other elderly people from the neighbourhood, he learns that Mrs Horak has just died. She was in a car accident. But the reader soon finds out that her death is suspect. Suicide or murder?

The novel alternates between the characters, more or less related to Dyk and Mrs Horak’s fate. And Ourednik starts playing with the codes of crime fiction.

Ourednik_classe_sans_suiteRegular readers of this blog know that I’m not keen on reading writers’ bios or checking their background or the context a book was written in. But here, after reading half of the book, I stopped and wondered. Wait, who is this writer? Why are there so many references to France? Does he live in France? Why do I feel like I’m in the middle of a Queneau-Perec experience? I looked for Ourednik on the Internet. Ah! He does live in Paris and he’s fond of the Oulipo movement. Mr Dyk writes under the pen name of Viktor Jary a book entitled La Vie devant soi. (Life before us) For this reader, it can only be a reference to La Vie devant soi by Romain Gary, which is btw the biggest literary mystification of the history of French literature. Is that a hint that Ad Acta is another literary mystification? It could be…

Ourednik has a witty prose and I loved his sense of humour and you can discover it in these short quotes:

Cher monsieur, vous avez bien un cerveau dans le crâne. C’est scientifiquement irréfutable. Trouvez-le. Dear Sir, you do have a brain in your skull. It’s scientific and undisputable. Find it.

Or:

Et voilà qu’un autre débarquait. Un gars comme une montagne, pétillant de santé, un de ces connards que même les maladies évitent. And right there, another one appeared. A guy as big as a mountain, bubbling with good health, one of those pricks that even illnesses avoid.

Or

Monsieur Prazak avait raison au moins sur un point: l’idiotie humaine est la seule chose sur terre qui puisse donner une idée de l’infini. Mr Prazak was right at least on one point: human stupidity was the only thing on earth that could give one a fair understanding of the infinity.

Maybe I’m totally obsessed with Romain Gary (I see you nod enthusiastically at this assertion) but this last quote reminded me of this one in Adieu, Gary Cooper:

C’était pas croyable qu’il pût y avoir dans un seul mec tant de connerie. Il y avait de quoi nourrir tout un peuple. It was unbelievable that there could be so much stupidity in one man. There was enough to feed a whole people.

In addition to his sarcastic prose, Ourednik plays with the reader, leading them astray, addressing them directly on a facetious tone. The ending is puzzling. Literally a puzzle you’re not sure you put together the right way. Reading this is more than enjoyable; I chuckled and laughed and had fun trying to figure out all the hidden references. It’s a riddle.

Ourednik also portrays Prague and the Czech Republic after 1989. He points out the changes, the impact of capitalism, of consumerism. The city is a building site, foreign companies invest there and sometimes buildings, cemeteries from the past disappear. It’s also full of little remarks about the Czech character. But isn’t Ourednik making fun of us, avid readers, when he spreads these little pearls of wisdom through the book? After all, he says about Dyk:

A quoi il faut ajouter le handicap traditionnel des écrivains tchèques: ils prennent leurs livres au sérieux. Dyk perdit un temps fou à trouver l’idée directrice et à enchevêtrer les vérités discrètement morales qu’il convenait de faire entendre dans un roman.

And you need to add on the traditional handicap of the Czech writer: they take their books seriously. Dyk lost ages looking for the right leading idea and intertwining the discreetly moral truths that had to pervade in a novel.

I can almost imagine him winking at me! Or is he making fun of Milan Kundera?

Find another review here

Patrick Ourednik and the writer’s condition

November 7, 2012 13 comments

I already know that this quote won’t fit into my future extatic billet about Ad Acta by Czech writer Patrick Ourednik. Classé sans suite in French and nothing in English because it has not been translated, which I don’t understand with all the fuss you make about Perec and here you have a Perec-like / Queneau-like writer and it doesn’t reach your shelves.  How inconsistent.

But enough ranting, the quote:

Il y a lieu de rappeler, particulièrement aux jeunes lecteurs, qu’à l’époque où Dyk écrivait son premier –et comme l’avenir le montrerait, dernier — roman, les écrivains étaient livrés à eux-mêmes. Aucun manuel, pas un seul atelier d’écriture créative, pas le moindre Devenez écrivain en trois mois, leçon numéro un, choisissez un sujet adapté, leçon numéro deux, recherchez dans un dictionnaire des adjectifs peu usités, leçon numéro trois, n’ayez pas peur des métaphores, leçon numéro quatre, soyez pittoresque et suggestif, leçon numéro cinq, le regard de l’auteur sur les passages épiques éclaire mieux la psychologie des personnages que le plus réussi des dialogues. Rien de tout ça, juste la cruelle solitude du créateur, la machine à écrire, le ruban qui se coinçait sans arrêt et la gomme à papier spéciale qui trouait invariablement chaque page laborieusement tapée à la moindre faute de frappe.

A quoi il faut ajouter le handicap traditionnel des écrivains tchèques: ils prennent leurs livres au sérieux. Dyk perdit un temps fou à trouver l’idée directrice et à enchevêtrer les vérités discrètement morales qu’il convenait de faire entendre dans un roman.

If I translate it as best I can (and it’s not easy)

We need to remind the readers, especially the youngest ones, that at the time when Dyk was writing his first –and as the future would prove, his last– novel, writers were left to their own devices. Not textbooks, not a single creative writing class, no How to Become a Writer in Three Months, lesson number one, choose your subject well; lesson number two, look for seldom used adjectives in the dictionary; lesson number three, don’t be afraid of metaphors, lesson number four, be picturesque and suggestive; lesson number five, the writer’s perspective on the epic passages sheds a better light on the characters’ psychology than the best crafted dialogues. Nothing like this, only the cruel solitude of the artist, the typewriter with its ribbon that always got stuck, the special rubber that always made a hole in each laboriously typed page whenever you made a typing error.

And you need to add on the traditional handicap of the Czech writer: they take their books seriously. Dyk lost ages looking for the right leading idea and intertwining the discreetly moral truths that had to pervade in a novel.

…billet to come soon, when I’ve finished the book.

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