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Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 16 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. Extremely powerful.

March 19, 2017 16 comments

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé (2006) Translated by Adriana Hunter. Original French title : Eldorado

Eldorado opens on the streets of Catania, Sicily. Captain Salvatore Piracci is in the Italian navy and he commands the Zeffiro. He spends his time between Catania and Lampedusa, protecting European borders and rescuing immigrants who arrive to the coasts of Sicily. He’s on leave, going home after a walk at the fish market when he realizes someone is following him. A woman says that she wants to talk to him. He lets her in his apartment and she reminds him that he rescued her two years before. She was on a boat coming from Beirut. The smugglers’ crew had embarked migrants in Beirut and had left the boat on lifeboats, condemning the migrants to a sure death. The Italian navy had found them and Captain Piracci had seen her off the ship. She remembered him when she saw him by chance in Catania. She wants him to give her his gun because she wants to go to Syria and kill the person who got the migrants’ money, chartered this ship and gave the crew the order to leave. Piracci relents and gives her his gun. He won’t be the same after this encounter and will start questioning his mission and his role in the whole immigration flux.

In parallel to Piracci, we get acquainted with Soleiman who lives in Sudan. His brother Jamal has arranged for them to leave Port-Sudan to go to Europe. We will follow his journey.

Eldorado is a powerful book. It shows two sides of the illegal immigrants coming to Europe. With Piracci, we see the exhaustion of the Sicilian people confronted with misery and death on a daily basis. The cemetery in Lampedusa is not big enough to bury all the corpses that are found in the sea or on the beaches. Piracci isn’t in an enviable position: on the one hand, he rescues people, snatches them from the sea and on the other hand, he gives them to the police to have them put in camps. The repetition of the job weighs on him and the woman’s request sets him off and pushes him to change his life.

With Soleiman, we see the desperation of the migrant. Laurent Gaudé describes the heartbreak of leaving one’s life behind to jump into the unknown. Here’s Soleiman with his brother Jamal before they leave their hometown:

Je contemple mon frère qui regarde la place. Le soleil se couche doucement. J’ai vingt-cinq ans. Le reste de ma vie va se dérouler dans un lieu dont je ne sais rien, que je ne connais pas et que je ne choisirai peut-être même pas. Nous allons laisser derrière nous la tombe de nos ancêtres. Nous allons laisser notre nom, ce beau nom qui fait que nous sommes ici des gens que l’on respecte. Parce que le quartier connaît l’histoire de notre famille. Il est encore dans ces rues des vieillards qui connurent nos grands-parents. Nous laisserons ce nom ici, accroché aux branches des arbres comme un vêtement d’enfant abandonné que personne ne vient réclamer. Là où irons nous ne serons rien. Des pauvres. Sans histoire. Sans argent. I gaze at my brother who stares at the plaza. The sun sets down slowly. I am twenty-five years old. I will live the rest of my life in a place I know nothing about and that I may not even choose. We are going to leave our ancestors’ graves behind. We are going to leave our name, this beautiful name that makes of us persons that people respect here. Because the neighborhood knows our family’s story. On the streets, there are still old men who knew our grandparents. We will leave our name here, hung to the tree branches like a child clothe that was abandoned and that nobody came to claim. Where we go, we’ll be nothing. Poor people. Without history. Penniless.

They know their life is a sacrifice and still think it’s worth trying, not for them, not even for their children but for their grandchildren.

Nous n’aurons pas la vie que nous méritons, dis-je à voix basse. Tu le sais comme moi. Et nos enfants, Jamal, nos enfants ne seront nés nulle part. Fils d’immigrés là où nous irons. Ignorant tout de leur pays. Leur vie aussi sera brûlée. Mais leurs enfants à eux seront saufs. Je le sais. C’est ainsi. Il faut trois générations. Les enfants de nos enfants naîtront là-bas chez eux. Ils auront l’appétit que nous leur auront transmis et l’habileté qui nous manquait. Cela me va. Je demande juste au ciel de me laisser voir nos petits-enfants. We won’t live the life we deserve, I said in a low voice. You know it as well as I do. And our children, Jamal, our children will be born nowhere. Immigrants’ children where we’ll be. Ignorant of their country. Their life will be burnt too. But their children will be safe. I know it. This is how it is. It takes three generations. Our children’s children will be home in that country. They will have the appetite we’ll pass on to them and the skills that we lacked. I’m OK with it. I just ask God to let me see our grand-children.

Through Piracci, the woman and Soleiman, we see the horror of the trafficking behind the journeys and the different ways the smugglers take advantage of the migrants. We see the horror of the journey and the determination and hope in the migrants’ eyes.

Gaudé questions the toll that this takes on the migrants and how they change during their trip from their country to the doors of Europe. But he also depicts the toll it takes on the Sicilians.

Gaudé’s prose is magnificent. I read his novel in French and I can only hope that my translations did him justice. The English translator is Adriana Hunter and I remember other bloggers praising her translations. So, the English version should be good. Gaudé’s style is simple and heartbreaking. Short sentences that convey well the person’s mind and their surroundings. There’s no pathos and yet the emotion is real. He’s not angry or protesting, he makes you go down from the impersonal version you read in papers or hear on the radio to show you this issue on a human level. I read this tucked in a lounge chair on my terrace on this sunny spring day. Safe and healthy. Lucky. Gaudé took me by the hand and seemed to tell me “Look, this could be you in their place. You were only born in France by accident. How would you survive this? What scars would it etch on you?”

I have read Eldorado in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down. Literature has no political power. She only has the power to expand the reader’s humanity, to let them experience things and feelings that are foreign to their daily existence. Political power in not in literature, it’s in the reader’s hands. I thought about all the people voted or are tempted to vote for a party or a politician who advocates an inward-looking and racist attitude. I wish that all these people read this luminous novel. I believe that after reading Eldorado, if these readers have in an ounce of compassion for other human beings, they will be ashamed of their past or future ballot paper. That’s where literature’s power lays.

PS: This is the second time I’ve read a book by Laurent Gaudé. The first one was Sous le soleil des Scorta, and you can read my billet hereEldorado didn’t win the Prix Goncourt but that’s probably just because Laurent Gaudé had already won it with Sous le soleil des Scorta and a writer can’t win the Prix Goncourt twice.

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

February 20, 2017 17 comments

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (Volumes 1 to 3) (2014-2016) Original French title: L’Arabe du futur.

sattouf_1A colleague recently lent me the comic books The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. Before going further and tell you about it, I’m going to introduce a new French word: bande-dessinée, or BD. This is the French word for comic books. Literally, it means drawing strip. I like it better than comic book because BD sounds neutral. Comic book conveys the idea that what you’re going to read is funny. But not all comic books are funny. So, BD it will be on this blog.

Back to The Arab of the Future. Riad Sattouf is the son of a Syrian man, Abdel-Razak Sattouf and of a French woman, Clémentine. They met in Paris when Abdel was working on his thesis at La Sorbonne. Riad was born in 1978 and The Arab of the Future is a BD about the author’s childhood in different places in the Middle East. Its subtitle is A Youth in the Middle East.

Abdel is convinced that pan-Arabism will be the future of the Arab people. He wants to teach at university and doesn’t want to stay in France. He first accepts a position in Tripoli (Libya), where Gaddafi is in power. Abdel is in awe of Arab dictators because he thinks they will bring modernity to their people, because he sees them as manly and powerful. He believes they will improve people’s lives.


The Arab of the Future
is told through Riad’s eyes and in these three volumes, he’s a child. He describes everything with candor and as children do, he takes things as they are. They are his normality and us, as adults, cringe at what he describes. Sattouf the author manages to mix the description of life in these countries with Riad’s personal life with his family.

sattouf_2The Sattoufs remain in Libya from 1978 to 1984. They live under Gaddafi’s rule and Riad describes his daily life. Houses belong to the government and don’t have locks. Anyone can settle in a house even if someone’s already living there. As a consequence, Riad’s mother never lets their apartment unattended. Anyone could come and claim it and they’d be homeless.

After a few years, they move to Syria, in Abdel’s village near Homs, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Riad has now a little brother, Yahua.  He’s and he gets acquainted with his Syrian family. He explains the mores, the politics in their family and the relationship between siblings and cousins. Abdel is happy to live near his mother despite his rocky relationship with his older brother. Clémentine settles in this remote village that lives a century behind compared to France or even to Damas. The water looks strange, power goes out for hours in the day and she cooks on some portable stove. They have no decoration in their home and she’s stuck there. She doesn’t speak Arab and cannot communicate with her in-laws. She cannot work, of course, so she stays at home, takes care of the house and children and teaches French to Riad.

Riad describes his life as a child. He learns how to speak Arab in school and with his father’s family and French at home. We see how he plays games with the neighboring cousins and a good part of the book is dedicated to his first year in school. Clémentine didn’t want him to go to school in Ter Maaleh, the village they live in but Abdel insisted. He wants Riad to be a good pupil and become the Arab of the Future. We readers discover what school is like in a dictatorship: experiencing corporal punishment, singing the national anthem every morning and learning how to worship the president.

As a little boy, Riad was blond. Of course, he’s the only blond person around and his hair color is a problem for him. The other pupils think he’s Jewish and nothing can be worse than that in Syria. He’s not at ease in school and he’s afraid of bullies.

The second volume goes from 1984 to 1985 and the Sattoufs are still in Syria. They settle there and through visits to acquaintances and rich relatives, we discover another side of Syria’s dictatorship. We also go to Homs and see how Abdel buys contraband goods to furnish their home and improve their comfort.

The third volume goes from 1985 to 1987. There’s more about life in Ter Maleh. Riad grows up, he understands the conversations of the adults. He relates how poorly women are treated. One of his aunts is killed by a family member because she was pregnant without being married. She was a widow and had previously been married by her parents to a much older man. Women of this generation didn’t go to school and one of Riad’s aunt pretends that she can’t read when she obviously learnt how to read as the same time Abdel did.

sattouf_3Abdel’s family doesn’t understand why he chose to live in this godforsaken village when he could live in France. Trips to France are organized and Riad is filled with wonder when he goes to the supermarket. He visits his maternal grand-parents in rural Brittany. He learns how to catch crabs by the sea.

Oddly, I made a connection between the peasants of Brittany and the ones in Syria. Clémentine’s family is one generation ahead of Abdel’s. Clémentine’s mother is apparently the result of the French Republic’s school system. She came from poor peasant family, studied in school and went to Paris to work in a post-office. She came back to Brittany when she retired. Seen through Riad’s young and innocent eyes, visiting old illiterate Breton peasants is a lot like visiting old illiterate Syrian relatives. Except that in Syria, the illiterate relatives can be Abdel’s siblings, like his sister.

For Riad, this is normal life. He lives in the two cultures and he adapts. When he’s in Syria, the background of the BD is pink. When he’s in France, it’s blue. These are two worlds that never collide; his grand-parents never saw each other. He makes the difference between the two but he likes both. He wants to be a good Syrian pupil to please his father and studies French with his mother.

It’s more complicated for his parents. Riad lives in two cultures and Abdel lives between two cultures. He wears a suit at the university and a jellaba at home. He’s an atheist but his mother bugs him relentlessly about religion and following the rules. It’s hard for him to promote modernity and respect traditional ways of life in order not to offend his family. It must have been hard for him to see his dream of living in a modern Syria fall apart under the blows of reality. The regime is a dictatorship. Corruption is the norm and everything can be bought, even what he worships more than anything else, education and diplomas.

And what about Clémentine? In her mind, she lives in French. She celebrates Christmas and Riad’s the only child in Ter Maleh that Santa Claus visits. Everything is so far away from French culture that I wonder how she survived. She can’t connect with anyone because she doesn’t speak Arab. She’s at home all the time and she can’t work. She must have been very much in love with her husband to accept these living conditions and this atmosphere. Sometimes I wanted her to rebel, to demand to leave this backward village and at least live in Damas. And sometimes, she does rebel. And Abdel tries to bring a bit of France to her.

All these ingredients make of The Arab of the Future a fantastic read. I loved it. It’s educational and not judgmental. It doesn’t sugarcoat barbaric traditions and shows real life in Libya and Syria’s dictatorships. Riad is a casual observer and we readers read between the lines. It’s extremely well staged, not to mention a sweet sense of humour.

I could write pages about it and for you, there’s only one way to go now: get it and read it. The first two volume have been published in English by Metropolitan Books. Thanks to them for bringing this wonderful BD to the English-speaking public.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

The Boy by Marcus Malte

October 23, 2016 20 comments

The Boy by Marcus Malte. (2016) Not available in English. (Yet) Original French title: Le garçon.

malte_garconRemember, back in September, when I introduced you to the Rentrée littéraire and I told you I’d visited a bookstore and asked for a recommendation? It was Le garçon by Marcus Malte. (The Boy) With 550 pages, it’s a river novel that flows from 1908 to 1938 and tells us the life of a boy. He doesn’t have a real name. He never talks but he’s still the hero. The novel opens in 1908, the boy’s mother is dying. They’re taking a last trip together and she’s told him what to do with her body after her death. They lived as hermits. He knows nothing of the world and behaves like an untamed animal.

But he leaves his shelter to go and meet the men. He travels like an animal and arrives to a hamlet. He spends a few months there among of community made of four farms and four families. Joseph is their leader. His had married an Indian from Mexico. She’s dead now and their son is mentally disabled. Joseph’s wife brought her culture to this village and this part of the novel rings like old stories. The boy doesn’t speak and he tries to understand the world he’s in. He doesn’t really think in abstract words but with images. Malte uses this trick to make the reader understand that the boy’s mind is expanding, it’s growing and making connections but so far, putting articulated thoughts on abstract thinking evades him.

Ainsi l’homme-chêne et la femme-nuage avaient donné naissance à l’enfant-ruisseau qui était devenu l’enfant-rivière puis l’enfant-torrent. De même, l’homme-renard et la femme-mante ont engendré l’enfant-crapaud et l’enfant-ver. C’est une chose étrange. C’est une notion parmi les plus délicates à saisir pour le garçon : ascendance et descendance. Fratrie. Les liens du sang. Difficile à démêler pour quelqu’un qui n’a pas idée de leur existence, ou si vague. (page 87) And the oak-man and the cloud-woman had given birth to the stream-child who became the river-child and then the torrent-child. And the fox-man and the mantis woman had fathered the toad-child and the worm-child. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of the most complicated notion to grasp for the boy: ancestry and progeny. Siblings. Blood ties. Hard to unravel to someone who has no clear idea of their existence. (Page 87)

He stays in this hamlet until the end of 1908. An earthquake happens and they think he brought it on them and he’s thrown out of the community.

He ends up with Brabek, a huge wrestler from Romania. He lives in a travel trailer and goes from village to village to make wrestling shows and earn money. He’s lonely and he takes the boy in. Brabek accepts the boy, loves to have an attentive ear for his stories and craves companionship. The boy gets attached to the giant softy and his horse. Brabek is a Quasimodo in love with Victor Hugo and he shares Hugo’s talent freely with the boy. This section of the book reminded me a lot of Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary, for the atmosphere, the shows and the thoughts about life included in this section. I wish I could ask Marcus Malte about it.

Then Brabek dies and the boy takes the horse and trailer and travels further. We leave picaresque literature and enter the playing field of 19thC novelists. A carriage accident brings the boy into the house of Gustave van Ecke and his daughter Emma. This scene reminded me of the meeting between Marianne et Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Gustave van Ecke used to grow apples. A Gustave who grows apple, the fruit of Normandy and has a daughter named Emma? Flaubert came to mind and Marcus Malte writes:

La voici. Elle qui porte ce prénom d’amour déchu, celui d’une héroïne qui cherchait l’or et trouva le plomb. p184 Here she comes. She has the name of fallen love, one of a heroine who was looking for gold and only found lead.

The name van Ecke sounds like a Flemish painter and this section of the book brought back images of portraits by Dutch painters or outdoors scenes by impressionist ones. Emma and Gustave are lonely. She’s an only child and needs a companion. He never recovered from his wife’s death. Her name was Laure, like Petrarque’s great love. The boy still doesn’t talk but he fills a void. Emma, like Austen’s namesake, is not looking for a husband. She’s happy to take care of her father and she cherishes the freedom being single brings her. The boy finds his place in this generous household.

The boy will spend four years with Emma and Gustave in Paris. Time goes by and Malte anchors us back in the world history through lists of informations about the time. It helps us put the boy and his friends in perspective in the grand scheme of things.

In 1912, the boy is 18 and his senses are fully awake. Emma and the boy fall in lust and in love.  Their love story is a meteor and a hot and naughty affair. It is a whirlwind of feelings, sensations and experiences. It’s joyful like I Want You by Bob Dylan and the images are as vivid as the ones on I Want You in the film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes.

Meanwhile the boy grows up. He observes things and people. He adjusts. And Malte describes all this as if it were a film.

WWI arrives with its horror and its absurdity. In a chapter, Malte describes all the family ties between the ruling families in Europe. All the countries have kings and queens and France is the odd man out with their Prime Minister Poincaré. It emphasizes the

The boy is in Verdun and in other desolate places in the Somme. In a paragraph, Malte describes the trauma of the war.

C’est un pays de labours. Un pays de fermes, de villages, de blé, de vignes, de vaches, d’églises. C’est un pays de pis et de saints. C’était. La magie de la guerre. Qui tout transforme, hommes et relief. Mets un casque sur le crâne d’un boulanger et ça devient un soldat. Mets un aigle sur son casque et ça devient un ennemi. Sème, plante des graines d’acier dans un champ de betteraves et ça devient un charnier. p355 It is a land of ploughing. A land of farms, villages, grain, vineyards, cows and churches. It’s a country of udders and saints. It was. The magic of war. Which changes everything, man and land. Put a helmet on the skull of a baker and he becomes a soldier. Put an eagle on that helmet and he becomes an enemy. Sow, plant steel grain in a beetroot field and it becomes a mass grave.

That’s for the boy’s reality. Emma’s reality is different but cruel too.

Chaque courrier est une menace. C’est de là que vient le danger. Chaque jour des obus, des milliers d’obus délivrés par la poste. Timbrés. Propres. Des balles à domicile. A bout portant. Combien de victimes tombées en silence devant leur boîte aux lettres ou dans leur cuisine, dans leur salon ? p353 Each mail is a threat. That’s where the danger comes from. Each day, bombs, thousands of bombs delivered by postmen. Stamped. Clean. Delivered bullets. Close range bullets. How many victims fallen silently in front of their mailbox, in their kitchen or their living-room?

I think this quote really nails the violence of the pain brought by these letters and the use of war terms is particularly effective. The violence is direct and physical on the front but it exists too for the ones who are back home.

I won’t tell you more about the story or it would reveal too much. This is a beautiful book and I’m glad I read it. The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondance. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent. It intermingles the boy’s personal story with History. It’s a coming-of-age novel. It questions the roots of humanity and the path between anima and human. It’s incredibly well-done. My only complaint is that it was a bit too long at times.Otherwise, it’s a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art.

So, a big thank you to the independent bookshop L’Esprit Livre and their passionate libraire.

Nancy at Ipsofactodotme has also reviewed it here.

 

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

October 2, 2016 9 comments

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. (1978) Original French title: La gross femme d’à côté est enceinte.

Michel Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942. He’s one of the most famous writers in Québec, well-known for his plays and novels. The Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal is a series of six novels set in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood in Montreal. The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the first volume of this series.

Everything in this novel happens on May 2nd, 1942. Spring is back, the sun is out and it’s the first warm day of the season. A forty-two years old woman is pregnant and stuck in an apartment of this popular neighborhood of Montreal. She’s never named but the family around her is. An extended family shares this apartment. The matriarch is Victoire, 75, a formidable dame who frightens or disgusts her grand-children. She has three children: Edouard, 35, single; Albertine, married to Paul and who has two children, Thérèse (11) and Marcel (4) and Gabriel, married to the pregnant woman and father of Richard (11) and Philippe (8). Six adults and four children live together. Paul is away at war on Great-Britain’s side. A fifth child is on the way.

Tremblay describes the life of the family from several points of view, the adults, the children. It goes outside the apartment, in the neighborhood and the reader discovers different people who have interactions with this family. Three old ladies knitting sweaters are ghosts acting as guardian angels for the inhabitants. Tremblay transforms the reader into an omniscient fly. He takes us everywhere and makes us witness of everyday life scenes. He shows snapshots of life in Montreal at the time. He gives us access to the characters’ innermost thoughts, one of them being a cat. Dialogues are written in typical Canadian French and the reader can hear the accent. All the characters are linked to each other, one way or the other. We follow the threads of the connections and fly from one household to the other, from one present to the other with backward glances at the past.

Not everything is joyful. Not everything is friendly. There’s a feeling of joyous mayhem in the house, of noisy meals, of adults making efforts to get along. Victoire dominates her son Edouard, who seems almost castrated by her presence. Albertine is worried about Paul and not overly fond of her role as a mother. She’s a bit jealous of the obvious tenderness between Gabriel and his wife. The children are more or less left on their own. Adults rely on Thérèse to watch Marcel. They form a group with its own rules and allegiances. Thérèse is on the threshold of adolescence and starts talking back to her mother. And the fat pregnant woman loves her husband very much, really wants that last baby and entertains herself with books.

Tremblay pictures the prostitutes who live around the block, the other pregnat women and the stories behind their pregnancies, the shopkeeper Marie-Sylvia and her cat Duplessis. This is a blue collar neighborhood, the one Tremblay grew up in.

WWII is in the back ground. Paul has been mobilized. Gabriel is at home because his wife is pregnant and the rumor mill works overtime: did he knock his wife up to avoid going to war? I didn’t know WWII had impacted Canada that much, with men at war and ration coupons. Tremblay relays a bit of rebellion against the thought of fighting for Great-Britain’s benefit. People don’t feel like this war is theirs too.

Through the descriptions, the reader grasps the workings of the society of the time. Old Tante Ti Lou used to live in Ottawa just a few decades after it was founded and is full of spicy stories about it. Victor Hugo was censored. The women from Plateau Mont-Royal never go to the English-speaking parts of the city. At the Parc Lafontaine, where Thérèse takes the children for the day, it is forbidden for boys over six years old to go on the playgrounds with girls. The authorities considered that swings and other games could show the girls’ panties and that it was improper for boys over six to see them, even if they were family. This rule is a problem for our group of children: Richard and Philip can’t go and play with Thérèse and Marcel.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is a wonderful introduction to popular French Canadian language. Spoken language is transcribed on paper and it makes the picture even more vivid. It transports the reader back in time. It adds an indispensable soundtrack to accompany the images Tremblay creates. I checked out the first pages of the English translation and I’m afraid the accent is gone. To imagine what it sounds like, think of Thomas Hardy’s rendition of peasant speech: words cut-off, local expressions, popular dialogues.

Tremblay’s novel is full of nostalgia but not sad. It is a way to keep this neighborhood alive and give it immortality through literature. It is a faithful and good natured homage to small people. You imagine women meeting at the grocery stores, gossiping and calling each other from one flat to the other. You picture children playing on the streets with running noses and banged up knees. Tremblay winks at us and takes us for a ride in his childhood neighborhood. It’s like visiting Newark with Roth or listening to Renaud sing Les dimanches à la con. A fantastic trip down memory lane. I loved this book so much that I have already bought the second volume, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 32 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.

ET DIRE QU’ON ENVOIE CES FILLES DANS UNE INSTITUTIONS SERIEUSE (McGILL) POUR APPRENDRE LA CLARTE, L’ANALYSE ET LE DOUTE SCIENTIFIQUE. ELLES SONT TELLEMENT INFECTEES PAR LA PROPAGANDE JUDEO-CHRETIENNE QUE DES QU’ELLES PARLENT A UN NEGRE, ELLES SE METTENT A PENSER EN PRIMITIVES. POUR ELLES, UN NEGRE EST TROP NAIF POUR MENTIR. C’EST PAS LEUR FAUTE, IL Y A EU, AUPARAVANT, LA BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, LE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC. (*) TO THINK THAT THESE GIRLS ARE SENT TO A SERIOUS ACADEMIC INSTITUTION (McGILL) TO LEARN CLARITY, ANALYSIS AND SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM. THEY ARE SO MUCH INFECTED BY JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA THAT AS SOON AS THEY TALK TO A NEGRO, THEY START THINKING AS PRIMITIVES. FOR THEM, A NEGRO IS TOO NAÏVE TO LIE. IT AIN’T THEIR FAULT, BEFORE, THERE WERE THE BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, THE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC.

They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.

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