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Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 17 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.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

July 6, 2016 35 comments

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

June 27, 2015 14 comments

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. 2009. French title: Long week-end. (Translated by Françoise Adelstain)

For June our Book Club was reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. Our narrator is Henry, he’s older now and he comes back to the Labor Day week-end that changed his life when he was 13.

Henry lives with his mother in Holton Mills, New Hampshire and this is how he describes his family:

IT WAS JUST THE TWO OF US, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie’s son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.

Maynard_FrenchHis mother is rather depressed, I don’t know if it’s the right medical tag but she works from home, hates going out of the house. She barely manages to take care of her son. Henry sees his father every week-end but he doesn’t feel welcome in his new family. Henry doesn’t like sports and his father would like him to play baseball, something Henry doesn’t like. He feels like Richard is a better suited son for his father. So he endures the dreadful weekly diners and grows up with a mother who’s different from other moms.

That Labor Day, they went to the mall to buy some new clothes because school starts in a few days. While they’re in a supermarket, Frank comes to them and asks him to invite him to their home for the week-end. Frank has just escaped from prison. Well, he was in jail, had appendicitis and jumped out of the window of the hospital. Adele takes him in.

Then the unforeseeable happens. Frank is a sweet man and he makes himself at home. He fixes the house, cooks, plays ball with Henry. He and Adele fall in love in front of Henry. And witnessing this upsets him. He’s already troubled by puberty. He thinks about sex all the time. Being around his mother and Frank in a closed space makes him uncomfortable.

Yet, in a sense, he’s happy about it.

Your mother and I thought we’d take a little walk on the beach, son, Frank says to me. And the thought occurs to me that here is one of the best parts about his showing up. I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance.

He’s never seen his mother that way and he really likes Frank. He’s happy for her but has to learn to share her, to leave room for a man. He’s been everything for her for too long.

At the same time, Henry’s forced to see that his mother is a woman, that she and Frank do what’s on his mind all the time. He’s obliged to acknowledge his mother’s sexuality while his in under construction.

And then, there’s the power to know that he can end their love story whenever he wants. He just needs to give a call to the police…

Maynard_EnglishI enjoyed reading Labor Day but was disappointed by its Hollywood ending. I would have liked it nastier. Here, what could have been a really twisted tale becomes rather tame. I had read half of it when Jacqui published her review of Agostino by Alberto Moravia. On paper, the stories have similarities. However, I’m sure they differ in their tone and that Moravia has added that little wicked turn I’m missing here. Well, I’ll see that in a few months when we read Agostino for our Book Club.

That said, Joyce Maynard writes well. I wasn’t an adolescent boy but I suspect that what she describes is accurate. Adele is a rather unusual woman, broken by a past that the book reveals, just as Frank. Henry’s voice is strong and rings true. He reveals his mother and Frank’s backgrounds and stories with a lot of calm and humanity. Touch by touch, their portraits come to life. Maynard creates a strong atmosphere around this novel and the reader feels part of Henry’s world. She pictures the cracks life has inflicted on her characters’ souls.

Labor Day was made into a film by Jason Reitman in 2013. Kate Winslet was Adele, Josh Brolin was Frank and Gattlin Griffith was Henry. Why not. I haven’t seen it but without Maynard’s prose, the story becomes rather ordinary. It has salt under her writer’s pen; I’m not sure it translates well on screen. Have you seen it?

PS : I prefer the French cover. Less corny. Is there a secret competition among American publishers to reward the one who comes with the corniest cover? Sometimes I wonder.

So I’ve seen Far From the Madding Crowd

June 8, 2015 18 comments

Given my fondness for Hardy’s novels, I had to see the 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, screenplay by David Nicholls, with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as Mr Boldwood, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy and Juno Temple as Fanny Robin. Good cast, according to me.

To be honest, about 75% of the audience in the cinema was female and the men who were there seemed to be fulfilling some conjugal duty. My husband was at home, seeing Sense and Sensibility years ago left a permanent scar on him and a new nickname for Hugh Grant, Indeed, which is all he seemed to utter in Ang Lee’s film version of the book. But back to Far From the Madding Crowd.

Télérama rated it average but the journalist seemed to know nothing about Thomas Hardy’s work. Otherwise she wouldn’t have had the idea to compare Far From the Madding Crowd to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wonder that the first was less dramatic and bleak than the latest. No kidding.

Hardy_film_farI remembered the book well, I read it last year and the film is faithful to the novel. The main events are there, except for the two important scenes of the beginning, the one when Gabriel Oak sees Bathsheba Everdene for the first time and finds her proud and the one when she saves his life. I wonder why the director cut those off as they are part of the foundation of the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel.

The story and characters struck me again as very Austenian, more that The Hand of Ethelberta. I developed this idea in my billet about the novel. And thanks to the film, I now know how to pronounce Bathsheba. 🙂 Watching the film and hearing the characters names out-loud gave them a new meaning. I guess Gabriel Oak has a name that suits his temper: he’s solid and has the patience of an angel. Mr Boldwood is not made of the same wood, his obsession with Bathsheba makes him bold. And Sergeant Troy is like a Trojan horse in Bathsheba’s ordered life.

The film is well done but a bit too polished to my taste. Although there are wonderful landscapes –it really, really makes you want to visit England—, I thought the director overused meaningful eye contacts between characters and morning light. It is centered on the plot which is normal for a film but it lacks the salt of Hardy’s writing: the humour, the tenderness for life in Wessex, the peasants’ accent and all the little thoughts about life and human nature that he drops everywhere along the way. I guess it’s hard to capture on film.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good version, equivalent to reading an abridged version of the book. Not as good as reading the original but close enough for you not to feel betrayed by the choice of actors or unforgivable alterations of the plot.

Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 25 comments

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.

hopper_hotel_room

SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

November 1, 2014 26 comments

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960. French title: Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur.

book_club_2After The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. I swear I’m not trying to read every book on the usual syllabus in American high schools. Actually, Harper Lee’s only novel is our Book Club choice for October. (Yes, I’m late with the billet but work took over last week). I have read the French translation by Isabelle Stoïanov, revised by Isabelle Hausser in 2005. She also wrote the afterword. I could probably read the original but I already had a copy in French. So be it.

A small paragraph about the well-known plot: we’re in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch raises his two children Scout and Jem on his own after his wife died. He’s an attorney in Maycomb and when a white woman accuses Tom Robinson of rape, he’s the lawyer appointed by the court. Tom Robinson is a Black man; Atticus will put himself on the side of law and examine the facts with objectivity. His involvement in the case –although involuntary—will stir strong reactions in the community and affect his family.

Lee_To_KillHarper Lee could have written an openly militant book. The novel was published in 1960, during the fight for civil rights in the Deep South. It could have become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 20th century. She avoids this with a child narrator. Even though Scout relates the events years after they occurred (although Atticus is still alive when she tells the story so she’s not an old lady herself), she relates them with the eyes of a child recapturing her vision of the events. In appearance, it’s not a pamphlet but we know with Candide and Persian Letters that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m not overly fond of child narrators, which is why Life Before Us is not my favorite Gary even if it’s an excellent piece of literature and if Momo’s voice is quite unique. It took me time to adjust to Scout’s voice and I was only hooked when the case actually started. Scout’s introduction to her everyday life helped understanding the cultural background of the Maycomb county, of Atticus’s unorthodox parenting and of the special relationship between Scout, Jem, their black governess Calpurnia and their neighbours.

Through Scout’s eyes, we see Maycomb as it is, without judgment. It’s her town, her life. It’s all she knows and it’s her normality. With hindsight, we see a small town prejudiced against African Americans, a deeply religious community, a county that has not totally healed from the Civil War and a town with economic difficulties. Coming along with small town life, we learn about family reputations, leaders of opinion and we realize that men of good aren’t heard if what they have to say disrupts the community’s balance. Everyone has their place and it can’t change.

Of course the trial doesn’t go well for Tom Robinson. It opens the Pandora box of feelings and opinions everybody knew but hid for the sake of living together in peace. To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity, in human rights but it’s not seen in black-and-white terms. We see that Atticus was appointed by the judge on purpose: he knew Atticus would give Tom a fair defense. It’s the judge’s way to support Tom. There is no strong demonstration of support to Atticus’s choices but steady and strong backup in the wings. The men of good choose indirect action, refuse to resort to violence and help each other. That’s the honorable way to drive change, Harper Lee seems to say. Scout understands the undercurrents and her position reminded me of Momo’s comment is Life Before Us:

Il m’a expliqué en souriant que rien n’est blanc ou noir et que le blanc, c’est souvent le noir qui se cache et le noir, c’est parfois le blanc qui s’est fait avoir. Smiling, he explained that nothing is only black or only white and that the white is often the black in hiding and that the black is sometimes the white that has been conned.

I think that’s what Scout learnt too. Harper Lee manages to get her book out of the State-of-the-Nation box to the coming-of-age box. Scout’s perception of the world changed after these events and they were probably even more striking to the thirteen-year-old Jem. Her narration is charming, funny and candid. It alleviates the tension created by the terrible events the novel depicts.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vivid description of life in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It pictures the flowers, birds and surrounding nature. We experience the stifling summer heat that slows human activities and make people sleep outside in their hammocks. We discover the various religious groups and the local customs and dishes. Harper Lee doesn’t embellish things, though. It’s a poor county and there is no space for individual achievements outside the ones the community expects from you. If you want to live differently, you need to leave. Conservatism is almost a religion in itself.

Names are also interesting. Atticus and Calpurnia are Roman names. They rang a bell and I researched them. Guess what: Atticus was Cicero’s correspondent and another Atticus was a philosopher and Calpurnia was Julius Caesar’s last wife. Harper Lee chose to name her lawyer after a philosopher and a litterateur. The Black governess has the name of a great noble Roman family. And Atticus’s sister who settles in his home as a general in a colony and appoints herself as the children’s mother figure is named…Alexandra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

My only regret is that I would have wanted to know more about Scout’s family. Why do the children call their father Atticus and not Dad? How did the mother die? What will become of them after the events? Will Jem become a lawyer too?

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece for the same reasons as The Grapes of Wrath is one. It mixes beautifully thoughts about the society it is set in with the personal destiny of the characters. Both book raise relevant questions. Both are too complex and subtle to be enjoyed in class without the input of an excellent teacher. To grasp at 16 the desperation the Joad family had to feel or to realize what it meant for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson in this State, at that time and in such a small town, you need a middle man to put the context into perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird is also an ode to childhood, to innocent games and beliefs, to scratches on the knees, t-shirts stained with mud and imaginary worlds. Highly recommended.

PS: If you’re in high school and landed here in search of ideas for an essay about this novel, please note that I’m French and that nobody in the English speaking world knows anything about Romain Gary, except the few aficionados following this blog. Just to point out that using Momo’s wisdom will not impress your teacher.

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