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The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 10 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

February 10, 2018 14 comments

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) French title: Ma brillante carrière.

If the souls of lives were voiced in music, there are some that none but a great organ could express, others the clash of a full orchestra, a few to which nought but the refined and exquisite sadness of a violin could do justice. Many might be likened unto common pianos, jangling and out of tune, and some to the feeble piping of a penny whistle, and mine could be told with a couple of nails in a rusty tin-pot.

Sybylla Melvyn is an opinionated young girl living in rural Australia in the 1890s. She first grew up on a station until her father moved his family to start a dairy farm. Due to several years of severe droughts and poor business decisions, her family gets poorer and poorer while her father wastes all their earnings in alcohol.

She is sent away to live with her grandmother who is wealthier and cares for her company. These are the happiest years of her life. She has the opportunity to read, to have interesting dicussions and to be in good company. She gets acquainted with Harold Beecham who falls in love with her and wants to marry her.

Sybylla is the narrator of the book and we see her life and other people’s reactions solely through her lenses. And her lenses are quite biased. Her personality is extraordinary for her sex, time and age. Sybylla is quite the tomboy. Her vision of men and marriage is rather jaded and she has no intention of marrying as expected of her.

Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

Sybylla rejects the idea of love and marriage but I’m not sure it’s really to keep her freedom. She’s convinced that she’s ugly and that men only fall for pretty girls. Therefore, she assumes that she’s unlovable. So, there is no way Harold Beecham could actually love her for herself. She’s not the average young girl, not interested in clothes and appearance. She’s more into books and theatre, more interested in intellectual activities than the ones devoted to her sex.

So, if you feel that you are afflicted with more than ordinary intelligence, and especially if you are plain with it, hide your brains, cramp your mind, study to appear unintellectual–it is your only chance. Provided a woman is beautiful allowance will be made for all her shortcomings. She can be unchaste, vapid, untruthful, flippant, heartless, and even clever; so long as she is fair to see men will stand by her, and as men, in this world, are “the dog on top”, they are the power to truckle to. A plain woman will have nothing forgiven her.

Unfortunately, this still rings true, don’t you think? There are no such things as dashing silver temples for women and we still use the expression “trophy wife”. I’m with Sybylla in this, trophy wife is an awful career to have.

Miles Franklin was a teenager when she wrote My Brilliant Career and Sybylla has the unflinching mind of a teenager. She lacks nuances in her thinking, she’s blind to recommendations from older people around her and she’s certain she understands it all. She’s also at a period of life when one questions their parents’ choices and assesses their character.

My mother is a good woman–a very good woman–and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.

What a great way to describe how someone can rub you the wrong way and always get the worst of you. It could sound unfair but it’s not, considering her mother’s behavior in the novel. She’s hard with her daughter, who rebels too much. She’s also embitered by her poverty and her miserable life with a useless and drunkard of a husband. Sybylla also kills any romantic ideas one could have of living on a dairy farm. As she points out:

I am not writing of dairy-farming, the genteel and artistic profession as eulogized in leading articles of agricultural newspapers and as taught in agricultural colleges. I am depicting practical dairying as I have lived it, and seen it lived, by dozens of families around me.

And this life is grueling. The chores are heavy and leave little time or energy for anything else. They destroy the farmers’ bodies, they limit their free time for cultivating their minds. They’re at the mercy of the weather and of market rates. This part hasn’t changed much and it’s a bit disheartening.

Miles Franklin must have been a spirited young lady. And a feminist. As a lot of women of her time, Sybylla doesn’t have a lot of possibilities for a career.

“What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls.” “What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I’d as soon go on the wallaby.” “You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don’t take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age.”

In Australia, like in Europe at the time, girls who needed to work didn’t have a lot of career choices opened to them. In the end, what is Sybylla’s brilliant career mentioned in the book title? Well, she wants to be a writer! You’ll have to read the book to know how this pans out.

I enjoyed My Brilliant Career for Sybylla’s tone and the picture of rural Australia in the 1890s. I have to confess she irritated me sometimes, because she was so set in her ways and so little inclined to question her vision of the world. Pride and Prejudice was a better title than My Brilliant Career for Franklin’s novel but well, it was already taken.

It was my first Australian book from the 19thC (I know it was published in 1901 but it’s still a 19thC book for me) and I read it in English. There were a lot of unfamiliar words to describe the land and some like Kookaburras or jackeroo had a funny ring to them. Like I would be later with The Three Miss Kings, I was surprised by Franklin’s freedom of speech. Sybylla’s ideas on marriage, religion, men and life in general are unconventional. Women seemed to have more space to express themselves, probably because the country was so young and made of daring people (I think you had to have guts to leave safe and mild Europe to travel so far and settle in a brand new land).

This read is another of my contributions to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This was also my first read out of the wonderful list of Australian Literature that I made after all the recommendations I received. It is my turn to say it is highly recommended.

As you may know the Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prestigious literary award. I’m not aware of another country where their most sought-after literary prize is named after a woman writer. Do you know another one?

Me, You by Erri de Luca

December 10, 2017 12 comments

Me, You by Erri de Luca (1998) French title: Tu, mio. Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.

C’était l’été, et même si nous vivions des années difficiles, des années d’après-guerre, ces mois sur l’île étaient une zone franche. Des libertés impensables étaient permises et les caractères de chacun pouvaient se révéler, s’affirmer. Nous sommes devenus des adultes après ce temps-là, nous sommes le fruit d’une île plutôt que d’une terre ferme. It was the summer and even if we were going through difficult years, post-war years, these months on the island were a free zone. Unbelievable liberties were allowed, our personalities could blossom and strengthen. We became adults after this time. We are more the product of an island than of dry land.

My clumsy translation.

When Me, You by Erri de Luca opens, we’re on a fisherman’s boat with our narrator. He’s sixteen and he’s spending the summer on an island near Naples, where he lives the rest of the year. We’re in the 1950s, it’s post-war Italy. The narrator spends his time fishing with his uncle and a local fisherman, Nicola. His free time is spent with his cousin Daniele. Daniele is older than him and the narrator tags along when Daniele meets his group of friends. This is how our narrator meets Caia, a mysterious young woman. He has a big crush on her and observes her from afar. On her side, she’s drawn to this silent adolescent. Unrequited young love and teenage fascination for the other sex could be the aim of this story. But it’s not. It explores these new emotions teenagers experience at sixteen but the post-war context brings a new depth to the story.

Caia is Jewish and the narrator soon understands that she escaped the worst but that her family was murdered by the Nazis during the war. The horrors of the Shoah bring a shadow over this sunny summer.

WWII also invites itself in the narrator’s summer through Nicola, the fisherman. He went to war in Yugoslavia and the narrator makes him talk about his war time. Nicola reluctantly unveils bits of his years in service. Ugliness seeps into the narrator’s sheltered life.

That summer, our narrator tries to confront two witnesses of the war, an unintentional participant and a victim. He wants to understand. The island is also a touristy place and when he sees German tourists, he wonders about their actions during the war. Who are these tourists under their summer clothes? Former active supporters of the Nazi regime or people who just tried to survive?

Our narrator questions the immediate past and wonders: what have the people of the different camps become? You, Me explores the coming of age of a teenager and the scars left by war in a country. We always think about war time, how awful it must have been and so on. This explores what happens when people from opposite camps have to live together, how victims try to survive, how demobilized soldiers slip into peace time routine.

As always, Erri de Luca masters deep questioning about the human condition with gentleness. He’s never bitter but never naïve either. And his style is sumptuous and poetic.

Le soleil est une main de surface, un papier de verre, qui, l’été, dégrossit la terre, la nivelle, la lisse, sèche et maigre à fleur de poussière. Il fait la même chose avec les corps. The sun is a smoother of surfaces, a kind of sandpaper that during the summer smooths down the earth, evens it out, polishes it, leaving it thin and dry, a film of dust. With the body it does the same thing.

Translation by Beth Archer Brombert.

I think part of the poetry is lost in translation here. In French, the sun is compared to a hand that smoothes the landscape with sandpaper and the hand has disappeared in the English translation. The “à fleur de poussière” is also more poetic and evocative than the “film of dust” used in English. The French gives the impression that the sun is a giant manual worker who shapes the landscape with the expertise and love of a skilled artisan.

Camouflaged in a coming-of-age story is the frightening question of how to live together after the ugliness and crimes of WWII. It shows mankind’s ability to move on after this awful war and how nobody really wanted to face the events. The criminals want to live under the radar. The victims want to move on but may be confronted to their torturers. The soldiers have to go back to civilian life. It’s as if everyone had gone out of the usual envelope of their self and now they have to put this outgrowth back into the initial self. And of course, it won’t fit. Our narrator is perceptive and guesses these struggles. He wants these outgrowths to express themselves before being tamed into their newly found normalcy.

This is a 140 pages novella and yet Erri de Luca managed to resurrect life on this Mediterranean island in the 1950s, to describe teenage angst and the discovery of love and to explore the aftermath of WWII in people’s everyday life.

Highly recommended, just as one of his other books, Three Horses.

PS: I wonder why the Italian title Tu, mio became Me, You in English instead of the literal You, Me.

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 4 comments

Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek (1924) Traduit du tchèque par Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays.

Un grand merci aux éditions LaBaconnière pour m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de Lettres d’Angleterre de Karel Čapek. C’est exactement le genre de livre que j’apprécie. Le livre en lui-même est un bel objet, illustré par les dessins de l’auteur. La couverture nous montre l’auteur et la qualité du papier en fait un livre qu’on envie d’avoir en main, envie d’avoir en bibliothèque. Les notes en fin de livre sont utiles pour éclairer la lecture sans être intrusives.

Dans ce court opus d’à peine 175 pages, Karel Čapek nous emmène avec lui en voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse, au Pays de Galles et à nouveau en Angleterre. Nous sommes en 1924. Čapek aurait aimé aller en Irlande mais on lui fait gentiment comprendre qu’il n’y a pas de guide touristique de l’Irlande parce que les Anglais ne vont pas là-bas.

A Londres, il est le touriste émerveillé qui voit de ses propres yeux ce qu’il a lu dans les livres. Il est infatigable et tâche d’expérimenter tout ce qu’il peut de la vie à l’anglaise. Il arpente les rues, visite les musées, a la chance d’être introduit dans un club pour gentlemen. Partout, il observe les gens. Dans les bus, dans la rue, dans les musées, dans les pubs. Il visite l’exposition coloniale de 1924 et remarque l’absence totale des cultures des pays de l’Empire Britannique. Ils sont représentés pour leur production mais pas pour leur âme ou leur population. Son émerveillement ne le rend pas aveugle. Il remarque la pollution, la pauvreté, la difficulté de circuler dans Londres. Il s’interroge sur le progrès incontrôlé et ses dégâts collatéraux.

Illustration de l’exposition coloniale

Sa visite à Londres achevée, il prend le train pour l’Ecosse où il est conquis par la beauté des paysages, les gens. Il semble avoir une affection toute particulière pour les vaches et les moutons. Partout où il va, il décrit les moutons, ce qui apporte un fil conducteur insolite au livre. On pourrait presque faire l’étude comparative des races de moutons en Grande-Bretagne!

Il passe au Pays de Galles, où il moque gentiment de la langue galloise et de son impossible prononciation. Il visite tous les lieux touristiques connus à Londres, il va à Oxford et Cambridge, s’arrête au Lake District. Il se promène dans les parcs, va visiter des villages mais aussi des villes industrielles et des ports. Il s’interroge : où est la vraie Angleterre ? Est-ce celle des traditions et des gazons soigneusement entretenus ou celle grouillante de vie des ports et des quartiers ouvriers ?

Le charme absolu de ce livre réside dans l’humour indulgent de Čapek. Il décrit et décrie l’incroyable ennuis des dimanches en Grande-Bretagne:

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi.

Il nous parle du cliché de l’attitude cool, calm and collected qui fait partie de l’image des Anglais mais remarque avec malice : La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Ce ton alerte cède le pas à un style beaucoup plus poétique quand il décrit les paysages somptueux d’Ecosse. Cela donne envie de sauter dans le premier avion pour voir ce dont il nous parle.

Mais il faut que je dise en sèche prose combien c’est beau ici : un lac bleu et violet entre des collines nues –ce lac s’appelle Loch Tay, et toutes les vallées se nomment Glen, toutes les montagnes Ben, et tous les hommes Mac ; un lac bleu et calme, un vent pétillant, des bœufs velus, noirs ou roux, dans les prés, des torrents d’un noir de goudron et des collines désertes, couvertes d’herbe et de bruyère –, comment décrire tout cela ? Le mieux serait tout de même de l’écrire en vers ; mais il ne me vient pas de bonne rime à « vent ».

Čapek nous fait découvrir la Grande-Bretagne avec ses yeux d’écrivain pragois. C’est un homme qui a déjà voyagé dans d’autres pays d’Europe et qui semble s’être senti moins dépaysé en France et en Italie qu’il ne l’est en Angleterre. Il a trouvé plus de chromosomes communs entre son ADN tchèque et l’ADN des continentaux qu’il n’en trouve avec les Londoniens et les Ecossais.

Lettres d’Angleterre est un petit bijou d’humour, de clairvoyance et d’intelligence. Je n’ai qu’une hâte : lire un roman de Karel Čapek pour voir comment ces qualités se retrouvent dans son œuvre de fiction.

A découvrir absolument et merci à LaBaconnière de nous rééditer ces trésors de la littérature.

PS : J’ai également écrit un billet en anglais à propos de ce livre. Il est légèrement différent de la version française.

Letters from England by Karel Čapek

December 1, 2017 2 comments

Letters from England by Karel Čapek (1924) French translation: Lettres d’Angleterre. Translated by Gustave Aucouturier.

En Angleterre, je voudrais être vache ou enfant. Mais, comme je suis un homme adulte et formé, j’ai regardé les gens de ce pays. In England, I’d like to be a cow or a child. But since I’m an educated grownup, I observed the people of this country.

I received Letters from England as an advanced review copy from the publisher LaBaconnière and they obviously know the readers they send books to, because this one was exactly for me.

Letters from England are the illustrated travels of the Czech writer Karel Čapek in England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland was on his radar too but he couldn’t make it in these troubled times.

The first chapters are for London where Čapek is a giddy tourist, disappointed not to feel the spirit of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street and overwhelmed with being there, in a place he’s read so much about. He walks around, strolls in parks, visits museums. (His moments at Madame Tussauds are hilarious). He also went to the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. He’s introduced to club culture and pub culture. He’s confronted to poverty in the East End. He’s candid and he’s in awe but not enough to anesthetize his critical mind.

He tends to compare what he sees with home and with what he’s seen in other countries. Čapek very observant and has a marvellous sense of humour. You can sample it here:

La nuit, les chats font ici l’amour aussi sauvagement que sur les toits de Palerme, en dépit de tout ce qu’on raconte sur le puritanisme anglais. Here at night, cats make love as savagely as on the roofs of Palermo, despite what everyone says about English puritanism.

After London and surroundings, he takes the train to Scotland. Frankly, all tourist agencies in Scotland should quote Čapek. He’s in love with the landscapes, the people, the atmosphere in the cities. You read him, you want to hop on a plane to Scotland. It seems so beautiful. Again, despite his obvious admiration, his sense of humour never fails him.

Dans toute l’Ecosse le dimanche, les trains cessent de marcher, les gares sont fermées et on ne fait rigoureusement rien : c’est merveille que les pendules ne s’arrêtent pas aussi. On Sundays in Scotland, trains stop working, railway stations are closed and people do absolutely nothing: it’s amazing that clocks don’t stop ticking as well.

He went from Scotland to Wales, discovered that he couldn’t fin any tourist guide about Ireland in Great Britain, and went back to England. In all the places he visits, he stops to describe and draw cows and sheep. He has a fondness for these animals and cannot help comparing the different sheep races he encounters. It’s such an entertaining Ariadne thread along the book.

Čapek is more than a lovestruck tourist. He’s a keen observer of his time, curious about other cultures, critical about colonisation, wary about wild industrialisation and its consequences on the working class’s living conditions. His acute intelligence transpires through his funny and spot on commentaries. He compares what he sees of the English way of life to his Czech life and to his experience in other countries. Life in Paris seems more familiar to him than life in London. He sounds less puzzled by his other travels than by this one, as if countries on the continent had more common chromosomes in their DNA.

His descriptions of landscapes border on poetry and we follow an enchanted traveller. His illustrations of his travels supplement the text in a dashing manner. They capture a person, a scene, a part of a monument. They’re so personal and subjective that this reader felt closer to the writer’s experience.

Highly recommended. There will be a billet in French too, slightly different from this one.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret – Wonderful

November 18, 2017 24 comments

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (1973) – Remembrances collected by Georges Belmont.

Céleste was a country girl from the Creuse department who married Odilon Albaret in 1913 and came to live in Paris. Her husband was a taxi driver, one of Marcel Proust’s preferred chauffeurs. This is how Céleste Albaret started to work for Proust, running errands. When Proust dismissed his valet and when WWI started and Odilon was mobilized, she came to live with Proust as his servant. She remained at his service until his death in 1922. She was very loyal to him and refused all interviews after Proust died.

Céleste Albaret was 82 when she finally decided to talk about Proust and her life at his service. Georges Belmont spent 70 hours gathering her memories to turn them into this most valuable book for all Proust lovers.

Belmont managed to write with Céleste’s voice. I felt like I was in the living room of an old lady and that she was in front of me, remembering Proust, giving life to her years with him, to the Paris of this time. Her deep respect for her master brings back the dead world of the Third Republic. She describes relationships between servants and masters that belong to another world, a relationship based on an acute consciousness of class difference mixed with intimacy. These servants knew a lot, had access to very private moments and yet had to remain at their place and never cross the class boundary. Céleste said that she wanted to put a stop to all extravagant rumors she heard about Proust and she needed to tell things how they were. 50 years after his death, she’s still loyal to him but aware of the limitation of her testimony:

Je ne voudrais surtout que l’on n’aille pas s’imaginer que je me présente comme détenant l’absolue vérité, ni encore moins comme ayant résolu de tracer de M. Proust un portrait idéal et tout blanc. Et pourquoi, mon Dieu ? Il n’aurait pas eu moins de charme.

Non, ce que je voudrais que l’on comprenne bien, c’est que, tel qu’il était dans son entier, je l’ai aimé, subi, et savouré. Je ne vois pas ce que je lui ferais gagner à donner de lui l’image d’un petit saint.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I present myself as holding the absolute truth about Mr Proust or as determined to paint an ideal and innocent portrait of him. God, why would I do that? He wouldn’t be less charming.

No, what I would like everyone to understand is that I loved him, I was ruled by him and I savored him just the way he was. I can’t see what he would gain at being pictured as a little saint.

Monsieur Proust embarks us on the quotidian of this magician of a writer who locked himself off for the last eight years of his life to write the masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his closest governess/valet/confident during these years. Needless to say she had a front row seat at the theatre of his life. Céleste describes everything from his daily routine to his creative process.

The first chapters are about his environment, his schedule, his suppliers, his apartment and his family. His schedule is more than odd and to sum it up, I’ll say that Proust lived in Paris but in Melbourne’s time zone. Early morning for him was actually 5 pm in France. Everything was down under in his life and Céleste kept the same hours. Imagine that, during about ten years, she was a night worker. This also means that catering to Proust’s whims entailed running errands all over Paris at any time of the night. Proust could demand a fresh beer or a plate of fried fish at any hour. She would ring at bars and restaurants to get beverages or food, she would go to his friends’ or acquaintances’ place to deliver messages in the middle of the night. Proust knew the places she could turn to for that and his acquaintances knew all about him.

Céleste describes with precious details the setting of Proust’s flat at the 102 Boulevard Haussman. (It’s near the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André) His room was always dark, she could only clean it up when he was out. It was full of heavy furniture that he had inherited from his parents and uncle. The walls were corked to have a soundproof room. He wanted to live in silence, which obliged Céleste to walk around the apartment on tiptoe. Given the importance of his living quarters for Proust’s creativity, I wish his apartment had become a museum we can visit. I would have loved to see the corked room, the curtains, the furniture and smell the remains of his fumigations. We only have his bed at the Musée Carnavalet.

She pictures someone meticulous, demanding, whimsical, focused on finishing his book but always polite and generous. Between them was this strange familiarity coated with formality due to rank and class. He was fond of her, that’s undeniable. Proust loved his mother dearly and was devastated when she died. I think that Céleste brought him the same brand of mothering that his mother provided him. Just like his mother appeased his fears and nurtured him when he was a child, Céleste was a buffer to his disquiet. Her role as a caretaker created the nest he needed to write. She was a friendly ear, a sounding board, someone who fostered his creativity.

We, literature lovers, owe a lot to Céleste Albaret. She witnessed the creation of all the volumes of his work, except Swann’s Way that was already published in 1913. She invented a system to add little pieces of papers to his notebooks to add corrections to one sentence or the other. She cut and stuck all these papers. She liberated him of all material matters and allowed him to focus on writing.

His “morning” ritual always started with fumigations for his asthma. He was very sensitive to dust and Céleste says that he was ill all the time but never complained. (At the same time, his eating habits were disastrous. Croissants and coffee are good but not very nutritive) I wonder if these fumigations had other effects than easing his lungs. Did they include drugs that opened his mind and helped with memories and details?

Céleste evokes the real life people who became characters or parts of characters of In Search of Lost Time. She describes someone who would only go out to check out a detail he needed for his masterpiece. At some point, she compares In Search of Lost Time to a cathedral. And that’s spot on. I don’t know the Chartres cathedral that Proust loved so much but I know the Metz cathedral. I don’t think Proust had seen it because this city was annexed to Germany during most of Proust’s life. You could stare at these cathedrals for ages and always discover new details. The builders of these work of art added things here and there for the observer’s delight. In Seach of Lost Time is like a cathedral indeed. It is a book you bring on a desert island because you can spend a lifetime reading it over and over and always discovering new elements. Proust sculpted details with words.

Céleste spent hours talking to him, listening to his memories, hearing about his nights in the high society. She had a lot of quality time with him that probably made up for all the things she had to endure. She loved him dearly and Georges Belmont conveys her voice, her admiration and her love for this great man. There are a lot of trivial details at the beginning of the book but they are sound foundations for the rest of her memories. The reader enters into Proust’s life through plain everyday life details, just like Céleste did. Once we’re hooked into his life, she unveils the rest. We see the artist, the writer who knew he was brilliant but still needed peer recognition.

The tone is outdated just as Céleste and Proust’s world is. They belong to another era. Céleste recalls her years with Proust fondly but without nostalgia. She comes out as someone who loved him fiercely but who was not blind to his flaws. She never judged him. She sacrificed a lot for him but was aware that she was enabling a great artist.

Monsieur Proust will appeal to Proust lovers but not only. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time, Monsieur Proust is interesting for the Céleste/Proust relationship, for the Paris of the time and for the creation process of an immense artist. It could whet your appetite for his books though. If you have read Proust, you’ll read this with 3D glasses; it will enhance your reading.

Highly recommended to any book and literature lover.

Today is November 18th, 2017 and it is the 95th anniversary of Proust’s death. I wanted to publish this billet this very day to honor his memory.

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

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