Posts Tagged ‘Non Fiction’

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.

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 15 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

In Syria by Joseph Kessel

March 21, 2015 24 comments

En Syrie by Joseph Kessel (1926) Not available in English.

Joseph Kessel was born in Argentina in 1958. His parents were Jewish and had fled pogroms in Russia. He grew up between the Urals and France. His cosmopolitan origins influenced him and he was a citizen of the world.

In 1926, Kessel was sent in Syria as a journalist. He spent around four weeks there and as he points out in the disclaimer of the book, he cannot pretend to know the region. However, his childhood memories of caravans arriving near his home in the Urals left him captivated with the Orient. En Syrie is a collection of the reportages he wrote during his assignment there. In the first one, Une vue sur Beyrouth (A view over Beirut), he writes:

La Syrie? Que savons-nous d’elle? Avouons-le sans faux orgueil : quelques reminiscences historiques sur les croisades, quelques pages célèbres, les beaux noms de Damas, de Palmyre, de l’Euphrate, voilà tout notre bagage pour une grande et féconde contrée placée sous le mandat français. Syria? What do we know about it? Let’s admit it without false pride: some historical memories about the crusades, some famous pages, the beautiful names of Damascus, of Palmyra, of the Euphrates. This is our only knowledge of a great and fertile country placed under French mandate.

Kessel_SyrieTerribly true. When we study decolonization in school, we learn about the countries rebelling against the French rule and winning their independence one by one. We learn the names of the leaders who led the fights for freedom. We linger a bit on the war in Indochina and the one which left the deepest scars, the war in Algeria. We never hear anything about Lebanon and Syria. And of course nobody tells us about the wars to submit these territories in the first place. I had to read Maupassant to realize it took thirty years to conquer Algeria. The way it’s told, you’d think these people were waiting for us to take charge. So, with the current war in Syria, I was curious to read these reportages, republished for the occasion.

The first pages reveal two things: first the cultural, historical and political context is incredibly complex for a Westerner; second, Syria is at war and it seemed nothing had changed in almost a century, except that they rebel against the French mandate. (I’d never heard about this fights.)

Depuis l’insurrection que seul –il faut le dire—a réprimée le bombardement du général Sarrail (qui peut-être ce jour-là a sauvé le mandat français), la « gouta » de Damas abrite toutes les bandes que stipendie le comité syro-palestinien qui, du Caire, dirige la révolte. Elles sont embusquées là, invisibles, guettant avec la patience orientale l’imprudent qui s’aventure sans protection suffisante. La nuit, souvent, elles attaquent les postes.« gouta » = jardin Since the insurrection that, it needs to be said, only the bombing done by general Sarrail (who may well have saved the French mandate that day) had managed to repress, the “gouta” of Damascus shelters all the groups that the syro-palestinian committee reviles while organizing the rebellion from Cairo. They lie in ambush, invisible, watching out with oriental patience for an imprudent who would wander without sufficient protection. At night, they often attack military positions. “gouta” = garden.

It sounded familia and I wondered what hope there is for this region to be at peace in a foreseeable future. I also thought that the West meddles in issues they know nothing about and probably only makes things worse.

Then Kessel takes us with him in his travels in the country. It’s not a political analysis. It’s more a colorful picture of both sides and a global message of mistrust for politicians. They’re assigned in Syria for too short a time to know the culture of the country and create a reliable network with the influential natives. They see the issues through their Parisian lenses. Consequence: they make rooky mistakes.

Kessel is a strong storyteller. The landscapes and the people come to life under his pen. His cosmopolitan origins and his unquenchable curiosity for the world are an asset. He’s never arrogant. He accepts other cultures as as valuable as his own and this approach gives the reportages a special tone. Almost a century after they were written, they are still readable without blushing of shame for all the contempt that we, colonist countries, poured down on conquered territories. He doesn’t think that the West holds all the answers or that his civilization is superior. It’s refreshing and this special angle makes that the reportages do not sound dated, even if they relate past events.

PS : sorry for the clumsy translation of the second quote, Kessel’s syntax is complicated to translate into English.

Paris in July : Madame du Châtelet

July 18, 2014 22 comments

Discours du le bonheur (1746/1747) by Emilie du Châtelet. (1706-1749) English title: Discourse on Happiness.

My participating to Paris in July organised by Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria feels a bit like cheating. The aim of this blogging event is to celebrate anything French and since I’m French and living in France, I ooze Frenchness with all my pores. What kind of challenge is that? Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity of this rendezvous with French culture to read and write about Le discours sur le bonheur d’Emilie du Châtelet. (Discourse on Happiness)

Chatelet_BonheurI discovered Emilie du Châtelet when I read Voltaire’s biography. They had a tumultuous relationship but remained friends until she died. Emilie du Châtelet was a born scientist; she studied mathematics and physics and her most important achievement is the translation of Newton’s work into French. For a long time, her translation remained the only one available in French. She was brilliant and Voltaire admired her mind. If she were born today in this country, she could have a stellar career. But she was a woman in the 18thC and according to her, studying hard was the only way a woman could reach fame and posterity. She sure did and not only as Voltaire’s lover and study buddy.

With her discourse, Emilie du Châtelet aims at enlightening younger people in order to share her experience of life and help them reach contentment and happiness sooner, without losing time to figure it out by themselves. She sums up her thought marvellously in this quote:

Tâchons de bien nous porter, de n’avoir point de préjugés, d’avoir des passions, de les faire servir à notre bonheur, de remplacer nos passions par des goûts, de conserver précieusement nos illusions, d’être vertueux, de ne jamais nous repentir, d’éloigner de nous les idées tristes, et de ne jamais permettre à notre cœur de conserver une étincelle de goût pour quelqu’un dont le goût diminue et qui cesse ne nous aimer. Il faut bien quitter l’amour un jour, pour peu qu’on vieillisse, et ce jour doit être celui où il cesse de nous rendre heureux. Enfin, songeons à cultiver le goût de l’étude, ce goût qui ne faire dépendre notre bonheur que de nous-mêmes. Préservons-nous de l’ambition, et surtout sachons bien ce que nous voulons être ; décidons-nous sur la route que nous voulons suivre, et tâchons de la semer de fleurs. Let’s try to be in good health, to be devoid of prejudice, to have passions and to make them serve our happiness, to replace our passions by hobbies. Let’s try to nurture our illusions, to be virtuous, to avoid repentance, to push away sad thoughts and to never allow our heart to keep a spark of liking for someone whose love vanishes and who stops loving us. We have to leave love behind, eventually, at least if we get older, and that day must be the day when love ceases to make us happy. And, let’s endeavour to cultivate our fondness for studying because this liking makes our happiness independent from other people. Let’s protect ourselves from ambition and most of all, let’s try to know exactly who we want to be. Then we can choose which path to follow and endeavour to have it paved with flowers.

Well, the quote is marvellous in French. I had to translate it myself, and I’m not able to translate anything into 18thC English; you’ll have to suffer my translation in 21st century English, spoken by a non-native. (Perhaps it just means it’s time for you to learn how to read in French.)

She managed to pack a lot of thoughts in this paragraph, didn’t she? I like her realism. She says before this quote that she’s only writing for people of her social class. She doesn’t pretend to bring her pearls of wisdom to people who don’t share the same background. Not that she thinks that she’s superior or that they’re not worth it. It’s more that she’s conscious that some of her recommendations are difficult to pursue when you have to fight for your daily bread. It’s more a matter of respect. I also like that she starts by mentionning being healthy as the first thing to wish for happiness. She doesn’t mean that you need to be healthy to be happy but that you must not endanger your health to remain on the path to happiness.

A few things speak to me in that quote. I do believe that passions, in the sense of hobbies you’re deeply invested in, make life more interesting and bring us pleasure and happiness. That’s what reading does to me. By nurturing your illusions she means to remain capable of wonderment, to watch a magician without trying to understand his tricks. She believes in suspension of belief as a way to live happy times. She wouldn’t want to know how they make special effects in films. It’s also something I share with her. I enjoy shows from the audience and I’m not much interested in what’s happening behind the curtains or in literature how the writer built their book.

You may be puzzled by the “avoid any repentance” concept. She explains her point. She thinks wallowing in repentance is harmful to one’s happiness; that one should acknowledge and repair their mistake but not rub into it for too long. Understand, apologise, make amends and move on. It goes with avoiding sad thoughts and not letting disquiet invade your life and thoughts and gnaw at your ability for happiness.

In the introduction of this discourse, Elisabeth Badinter argues that all the references to lost love, letting go of your lover are a reference to her relationship with Voltaire. That’s what happened, he got tired of her as a lover, not as a friend or as a thinker.

I personnally think of reading when she mentions studying as a liberating passion: it brings you happiness on your own and on your own terms. When I think of it now, I was an easy child or teenager for my parents; give me a place to stay, enough books and I’m happy. I don’t get bored, I don’t ask for more and I don’t need anyone to entertain me. Well, I do need someone: I need writers and publishers to provide me with these wonderful books.

The best advice she gives is probably in the end: know yourself and try to figure out which road is the best for you.

Voilà, that was my contribution to Paris in July, a way to make you discover a great French lady, someone who was equal to the best scientists of her time and lived a grand passion with Voltaire. I hope I stirred your curiosity, that you’ll check her Wikipedia page or even better that it encouraged to read her biography. She’s introduction to French spirit.

Anyway I say Hi from France. Thanks to Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria for hosting this event and thanks to the participants for the interest they show for my culture and my country.

Barthes for dummies

October 12, 2013 8 comments

Introducing Barthes, a graphic guide by Philip Thody and Piero. 1995.

 Literature is the proof and the assertion of human freedom.

I know this is strange, I’m French and I’m reading a book introducing Barthes in English. It’s not natural, it’s a conscious choice coming from me stumbling upon a graphic guidebook about Barthes at the Tate Modern. I browsed through it, saw no complicated words, liked the drawings and thought “That, my mind can grasp and I’ll finally know why everybody talks about him.”

BarthesIt’s well-done, I think I understood the concepts. Of course, I’m totally unable to assess if it’s faithful to the original thinking of Barthes, if it simplifies too much his works or if it leaves aside relevant part of his texts. Hell, I’ve read this because I knew his name –not from a street plaque, I’ve never encountered a Barthes street— and had heard about him. The only time I tried to read his prose, I couldn’t link the signs with any content. It was filled with too much unknown jargon to be understandable to the philistine I am. Battre en brèche la naturalité du signe doesn’t make much sense to me. Philip Thody manages the anti-Barthesian –I can invent whatever adjective I want, words are just arbitrary signs— task to sum up with clarity Barthes’ work.

So this graphic guide goes through Barthes’ major works in chronological order. I knew some of the titles but had no idea of what they were about. It happens that I’m the Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Barthenism: lots of concepts I partially knew from I don’t know where (Business school probably) and without knowing it came from him. Not that he’d be happy to be associated to anything containing the word “bourgeois” in it.

As it is I agree with a lot of what I’ve read. I don’t believe in Fate, in things being “natural”. Most of what the society wants us to accept as natural is cultural and language is as cultural as anything else. Trying to sell things as natural is a way to keep the society in a stand-still and let the power in the hands of those who already have it. Take women and how convenient it is to talk about maternal instinct and the nature of women that predetermines them to stay at home and nurture kids.

I also agree with the idea of a reader, a spectator setting their mind upon reading a book or watching a play as if it were reality while knowing at the same time that it isn’t. We’ve all experienced this: sometimes we’re not in the right mindset to accept a book as it is. Think of Thomas Hardy. Some readers reproach him for the use of implausible and most convenient coincidences to move the plot forward. When I read Thomas Hardy, I know that it’s implausible but I’ve decided that I’ll believe it while I’m reading the book, just to enjoy the ride. It’s a sort of prerequisite to my reading and I accept them. Just like I accept objectified women in hard-boiled as part of the genre.

Later, Thody explains:

“Barthes’ thinking about literature criticizes the view that an author’s work has to be seen in the context of his life. It rejects any idea that the way to understand a literary work is to find out what the author was consciously trying to do”.

Regular readers of this blog know I don’t really care much about a writer’s biography. I don’t think a reader needs to know about the writer’s life to enjoy and understand a book. I like to approach a novel without prejudice and see it as a stand-alone, apart from the author’s life. The literary worth of a novel is independent of the worth of the writer as a man. Lots of writers would disappear of our shelves if we decided to disregard the works of writers whose life goes against our definition of a good or honourable man. And I think Voyage au bout de la nuit is worth reading despite Céline being anti-Semitic and Emile ou De l’éducation by Rousseau is still widely read even if Rousseau abandoned all his children.

This passage compares Barthes’ view on literature to the traditional technique to study texts and it helped me understand why I hated literature in class. I like Barthes’ vision, a lot. It suits me. And I’ve been doing the exact opposite in class. I hated the explications de texte that Barthes puts on the grill and the ideas that each word of each sentence had been thought and written on purpose by the writer. This was digging out what the author was consciously trying to do. I was young but I thought it pointless and opposite to what I wanted from literature: pleasure, evasion, knowledge, enlightenment and emotions.

Then, there’s this “The only literature worth writing or reading is the one that is about something. In short, it is content and not form that creates literary value”. It’s a little extreme and I’m convinced that great literature allies content and form. The best plot in the world won’t work for me if it’s poorly written. And a good style isn’t enough. That’s why I struggle with experimental literature that emphasizes more on experiment than on trying to say something. I’m fond of Exercice de style because Queneau doesn’t try to wrap it into what it’s not. I’m less tempted by La disparition by Perec; I can’t help thinking that such a constraint as writing without the letter e had inevitable impact on the quality of the plot. Yet it is tagged as a novel.

Well, this is what interested me in Introducing Barthes. I expected it to be more difficult than that and more distant from my experience as a reader. I hope I didn’t write anything stupid that will make specialists roll their eyes. In my defence, I’ll say that it’s not my line of work, it’s not what I majored in, so be lenient with me and correct me gently in the comment section.

I found this graphic book entertaining and easy to read. It’s aimed at Anglophone readers so it explains many French facts that I knew from my background. For example, if you’re French and you’re reading something about Barthes theories, you don’t need so many details about who Racine was, you already know. It’s like Shakespeare for an Anglophone. And also, there’s one minor slip: the Abbé Pierre fought for downs-and-outs in the winter 1954, not 1952.

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