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The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

April 18, 2018 3 comments

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

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.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

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

June 30, 2017 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

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