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Caribou Island by David Vann

June 5, 2017 21 comments

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?

Yes

Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

May 25, 2017 26 comments

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou (2009) Original French title: Black Bazar 

Il soutient que l’Africain a été le premier homme sur la Terre, les autres races ne sont venues qu’après. Tous les hommes sont donc des immigrés, sauf les Africains qui sont chez eux ici-bas. He says that the African man was the first man on Earth and that the other races only came after. Therefore, all men are immigrants except African people who are right at home.

Mabanckou is a writer I’d wanted to read for a long time and if I had to tag Black Bazar with something I’d say energetic and refreshing.

The main character is Buttologist, a Congolese dandy who lives in Paris. He’s brokenhearted after his French girlfriend of Congolese origin left him to go live in Congo with a musician he nicknamed The Mongrel. In French, Buttologist is named Fessologue and he got his nickname because of his fondness for female butts. The Mongrel is L’Hybride.

Buttologist pours his thoughs into his journal, Black Bazaar and that’s how the reader has access to his inner mind. We hear about his relationship with Original Color and the trail of sorrow she left behind. We meet with his friends at Jip’s, a bar in the Halles neighborhood in Paris. (That’s where the Beaubourg museum is.) His friends are also immigrants from Africa and they chat about everything. He introduces us to Congolese fashion and teaches us about his community. He lives in a tiny studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, near the Château d’Eau metro station. We walk around with him, see his interaction with the shopkeeper L’Arabe du Coin. He shares his thoughts about his life, about being black in Paris, about the French language. His life changes when he meets Jean-Philippe, a famous author from Haiti, probably Laferrière literary doppelgänger. Buttologist starts to write as well.

Black Bazaar is not a book made for summaries and Cliff Notes. It’s too full of life. The best of the experience lays in Mabanckou’s incredible virtuosity with the French language. He knows it inside and out and plays it effortlessly. His style is full of quirks, twists and innuendos. It sounds simple but it’s not.

Un Blanc qui apprend du tam-tam, c’est normal, ça fait chic, ça fait type qui est ouvert aux autres cultures du monde et pas du tout raciste pour un sou. Un Noir qui bat du tam-tam, ça craint, ça fait trop retour aux sources, à la case départ, à l’état naturel, à la musique dans la peau. C’est pas pour rien que les Européens s’intéressent comme ça au tam-tam. C’est pour comprendre comment les choses se passaient chez nous quand il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens de communication que celui-là.

A white guy who learns how to play tom-tom, it’s normal, it’s chic, it says “I’m a man open to the other cultures of the world and I’m not racist at all”. A Black man who plays the tam-tam, it sucks, it’s too much back to his roots, back to square one, back to his natural state, back to having the beat. It ain’t surprising that Europeans are interested in tom-tom that way. It is to understand how things went in our country when we had no other means of communication.

There is a lot packed up in this simple paragraph. First it resonates with Dany Laferrière’s comments about his meetings with white girls in Montreal in How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. Mabanckou seems to say that when a white man plays the tom-tom, he seems open minded and when a black man does, he seems to be looking for his past. Neither the white man or the black man is seen as simply someone who enjoys playing the tom-tom. There has to be a meaning behind it or more precisely, our cultural background puts a filter on what we see.

Then, there’s the brilliant style. I tried to translate this paragraph as best as I could but a lot of things are lost in translation. It is difficult for me to give back the tone and the register of Black Bazaar. In French, I’d qualify it as highbrow colloquial. The use of ça instead of cela reveals spoken language. Then he makes play on words with casual expressions. Retour à la case départ is the French way to say Back to square one on board games. But in French, a case is also the word used for African huts. So, for a French, it sounds like back to African huts as well. And then, there’s la musique dans la peau which I translated as having the beat. That’s a cliché about black people but in French it has an additional meaning. The literal translation of la musique dans la peau would be to have music in your skin or in English, you’d probably say in your blood. But blood is red for everyone when someone’s skin can be of different color, so the French has another layer. And on top of it, La musique dans la peau was a hit song by Zouk Machine in the 1980s. It was a group of black ladies from Guadalupe singing zouk songs.

This is Alain Mabanckou for you: intelligent colloquial language laced with cultural references and punchy thoughts about the relationships between blacks and whites and the world around him. I could quote other paragraphs with embedded Brassens lyrics or references to Césaire or Dany Lafferière. Writers like Mabanckou keep the French language alive. If books had buddies, Black Bazaar would be friends with A Moveable FeastHow To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Going to Meet the ManAsk the DustPost Office or with The Lonely LondonersBlack Bazaar would be in good company, not with Montaigne and La Boëtie but it would be “friends first”, like in Brassens’s famous song Les Copains d’abord.

NB: Black Bazaar is full of characters with colorful nicknames. I have read Mabanckou in French but had a look at the English version of names coined by the English translator Sarah Ardizzone.

This picture was taken in Bordeaux and it reminded me of Black Bazaar, the book I was reading at the time.

 

Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 18 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

(my translation)

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

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

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

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. Extremely powerful.

March 19, 2017 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

March 18, 2017 11 comments

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 20 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 30 comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.

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It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.

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This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

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(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

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