Posts Tagged ‘Novella’

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.


Maria, rider on the storm

May 20, 2015 24 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

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

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

Riders on the storm

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

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

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

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

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


February 15, 2015 13 comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

The Linnea trilogy

December 21, 2014 11 comments

The Linnea trilogy (my term) is composed of the following books by Katarina Mazetti:

  • Det är slut mellan Gud och mej (God and I broke up, available in English) 1995
  • Det är slut mellan Rödluvan och vargen (The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. Not translated into English) 1998
  • Slutet är bara början (The End Is Only the Beginning. Not translated into English) 2002


I’ve already read two books by Katarina Mazetti (Benny and Shrimp, the English title is silly because the original means The Guy Next Grave) and Family Grave) and I thought they were good light books. You know, the kind of books that aren’t too difficult to read but are still well written? The ones I put in the Beach and Public Transport category? They’re relaxing. When I was struggling with Berlin Alexanderplatz, I read God and I Broke Up. When I was drowning in Flan O’Brien’s prose, I read The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. And I closed the trilogy with The End Is Only the Beginning. I’m a bit in a rush to finish writing about the 2014 books I’ve read before the year ends, so I’m writing one billet about the three novellas.

In the first volume, we meet with Linnea. She’s sixteen and her best friend Pia has just died. She’s grieving while trying to live her adolescence.

On n’a pas de statut quand on a perdu un ami! Si ton mari meurt, tu deviens veuve, une veuve vêtue de noir et les gens baissent la voix en ta présence pendant des années.Si c’est ton meilleur ami qui meurt, les gens te demandent après quelque temps pourquoi tu broies encore du noir. You have no status when you lose a friend! If your husband dies, you become a widow dressed in black and people talk to you in a low voice for years. If your best friend dies, after a while, people ask you why you’re still feeling down.

The novella is a first person narrative; we’re in Linnea’s head and the style reflects perfectly the mix of cockiness and insecurity of adolescence. Losing Pia makes Linnea feel isolated even if in appearances, she’s well adjusted. She has rather good grades, socialises with her classmates and takes part in family life. God and I Broke Up is not the portrait of a depressed teenager. It’s the portrait of an adolescent who lost her confident, the person she could loosen up with. Linnea used Pia as a sounding board for her ideas and vice versa. She’s grieving this precious intimacy. God and I Broke Up is the story of a banal adolescent. She lives in a small Swedish town where there’s not much to do, she goes to school and has the usual crushes, stories about classes and lunch breaks. Her mother is divorced and remarried with Ingo, an inspiring artist. He builds artwork with wood and lets his wife be the bread winner. They have a son together, Knotte who’s very close to Linnea. She’s a middle-class Swedish girl.

The salt of the novella is in the characters, their quirky ways and Linnea’s voice. It addresses the typical questions of adolescence: what about God?, what about love?, what about my future? and who am I? And Linnea tells you…

Il ne faut pas gaspiller sa vie en courant entre les manèges et les stands comme à une fête foraine. Restez là où vous vous sentez vraiment bien. Il vaut mieux se décider en conscience que de laisser tout au hasard. Car il faut se décider. On ne peut pas conduire une moto et écouter le chant des oiseaux en même temps. On ne peut pas être à la fois cascadeuse et heureuse mère de sept enfants. You shoudn’t waste your life running from one attraction to the other like you would in a funfair. Stay where you feel very good. It’s better to make the decision than let chance decided. Because you have to make a decision. You can’t ride a motorbike and at the same time listen to the birds singing. You cannot be a stuntman and the happy mother of seven children.

I liked the second volume, The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up, less than the first one. I don’t know if it’s the same in English or in Swedish –the French title is the exact translation of the original Swedish title, I checked— but in French, Elle a vu le loup (literally, She saw the wolf) means She lost her virginity. So in this second opus of the series, Linnea runs away to Los Angeles and loses her virginity on the way there. I was less keen on this one because I found it a bit unrealistic. What is interesting though is the depiction of Los Angeles. It demystifies the American dream that most European adolescents have. Linnea doesn’t end up in shiny Rodeo Drive. She ends up in the side of Malibu where people speak Spanish better than English and have two or three crappy jobs to survive. That’s a good wake-up call for us who see from the US mostly what the sunny TV series show us.

The last volume relates Linnea’s last year of high school…

Nous voilà au début du premier trimestre de terminale, les professeurs se promènent en levant l’index d’un geste menaçant qui a l’art de plomber l’ambiance : « Ce sera peut-être l’année la plus importante de votre vie, vous comprenez, c’est maintenant que vous décidez de votre avenir !!! » Here we are at the beginning of the first period of senior year. The teachers walk around with their index finger raised in a threatening manner and are masters at spoiling the fun: “This may be the most important year of your life, you understand. This is when you decide on your future!!!”

…—it does ring a bell, doesn’t it? — and it’s about Linnea’s first love relationship with Per, Pia’s older brother. I thought this volume was as good as the first one. It doesn’t go for corny but for funny and real, like here when Linnea describes her attraction to Per:

La pilosité dans le visage des garçons a quelque chose d’attirant, j’avais l’impression que ses sourcils lançaient des décharges de phéromones, et, pour être franche, je ne peux pas y résister. Une tablette de chocolat sur le ventre ne me fait aucun effet—mais donnez-moi un visage poilu et je craque sur le champ. Parfois je me dis que c’est parce que je n’ai jamais eu de chien quand j’étais petite… Hair on a boy’s face is attracting. It was as if his eyebrows were shooting pheromones discharges and to be honest, I can’t resist it. Six-pack abs do nothing to me but give me a hairy face and I melt on the spot. Sometimes I think it’s because I never had a dog as a child.

Er, I suppose the first part of this quote is rather comforting for hairy boys. Please note that in French a six-pack is tablette de chocolat (bars of chocolate). Back to the book. While Linnea contemplates and comments the effects of love on her mind and body, life goes on around her. Her friend Malin is in a tough spot, her grand-mother has a stroke and questions about university linger. Her relationship with Per stems from their connection to Pia and not from common interests so it fizzles over different visions of life. Per is in the military and Linnea’s background is rather alternative. Katarina Mazetti is a feminist and Linnea is a quiet feminist as well. She holds her ground and won’t let Per control her and that’s a valuable message to adolescent girls.

The Linnea trilogy is a light, fun and spot-on read. If you have teenagers around you, I recommend it because it’s the kind of book that leaves you relieved as in “Good, I’m not the only one who feels that way”. And I think it’s a very comforting thought. Plus, it’s easy to read and it may be a way to lure some into reading books!


Agnes by Peter Stamm

December 14, 2014 24 comments

Agnes by Peter Stamm. 1998 French title: Agnès. Translated by Nicole Roethel.

Preamble: I have read Agnes in French. Sorry for the crash course in French conjugation included in this post but it was relevant to my reading. It also means that I had to translate the quotes into English, so they may not reflect Stamm’s style as well as they should.

Agnes is dead. A story killed her. The only thing I’m left of her is this story. It started nine months ago when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. (my translation) Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte. Sie beginnt an jenem Tag vor neun Monaten, als wir uns in der Chicago Public Library zum ersten Mal trafen. Agnès est morte. Une histoire l’a tuée. Il ne me reste d’elle que cette histoire. Elle commence il y a neuf mois, le jour où nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois dans la bibliothèque municipale de Chicago.

These are the first sentences of Peter Stamm’s novella, Agnes. You’re mentally prepared to read a story with a bad ending.

Stamm_AgnesThe unnamed narrator is Swiss and temporarily living in Chicago. He’s a writer of non-fiction books and his publisher commissioned him to write a book about luxurious train carriages in the USA. He’s in Chicago for research. Agnes is writing her thesis on a scientific theme I’m not able to translate into English. They meet at the Chicago Public Library, go for coffee, smoke together outside the building and gradually fall into a relationship and in love.

The narrator is a lot older than her (at a moment he says he could be her father). He’s writing non-fiction because it pays the bills and has abandoned the idea to write a novel. Agnes encourages him to write a story about them. He starts reluctantly but he’s soon caught in the game. He writes what happened, writes in advance how he would like things to happen. And their lives become muddled and influenced by the story. There’s a sort of twisted pattern where what he writes must happen and eventually guides their actions. It also generates discussions afterwards about Agnes’s and his vision of moments they spent together. It’s a bit like those books boys used to read when I was a teenager: it’s called gamebooks in English but in French it was marketed under livre dont vous êtes le héros. (book in which you are the hero.) You create your own story. That’s what Agnes and the narrator embark on and it’s a dangerous game.

This novella is excellent, well-constructed and I wanted to know how things unravelled and what happened to Agnes.

Peter Stamm’s style sounds formal in French. The translator chose two tenses that are a little dated for contemporary literature in French. For example, Agnes says Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je détestasse cela. (My father was adamant about it, although I hated it). The détestasse is no longer used in French, especially in dialogues. It is a tense called l’imparfait du subjonctif and nobody uses it in spoken language and hardly ever in written language. The ending in asse sounds heavy and pompous now. Although grammatically incorrect, it has been replaced by the subjonctif présent in common language. It means that the sentence would have been Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je déteste cela.

I also noticed the use of a past tense called passé simple in the first and second person plural. It’s not as dated as the imparfait du subjonctif but it’s not so used now for the first and second person plural. In Agnes, I mostly noticed it in descriptions, when the narrator relates his time with Agnes. Again, it sounds heavy and emphatic. For example: Nous louâmes une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous prîmes la direction du sud. (We rented a car and early on Friday morning, we headed South) I’m not sure a contemporary French writer would have written like this. I imagine more a sentence using another past tense, the passé composé : Nous avons loué une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous avons pris la direction du sud.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List has read Agnes in German and he also speaks excellent French. So I twitted him to know if the German text sounded as formal as the French translation. (See his review of Agnes here) He said that Stamm uses the subjunctive more than other German speaking writers. I hope that Caroline drops by and gives us her opinion about that. So I assume that the translation is accurate and that the use of these tenses in French is the best way to give back the flavour of the German prose.

I’ll go further. I also noted down the use of passé antérieur like in this sentence said by Agnes, Même si parfois je l’eus souhaité. (Even if sometimes I wished I did.) Nobody says Je l’eus souhaité anymore. We would say Je l’aurais souhaité. Choosing Je l’eus souhaité gives a sense of narration to the phrase. Indeed, the passé antérieur is not used in spoken language but in written language. It’s as if Agnes was speaking in written language because this scene is destined to be included in their novella. It sort of prepares the transcription of what they’re living into future literature.

It participates to the feeling of aloofness oozed by the narrator and Agnes. He’s always preferred keeping his total freedom than give it up partly to be in a relationship:

Et la liberté avait toujours été pour moi plus importante que le bonheur. Peut-être était-ce cela que mes petites amies successives avaient appelé égoïsme. Freedom had always been more important to me than happiness. Perhaps it was what my successive girlfriends had called selfishness.

Although he claims to be deeply in love with Agnes, he holds himself back. And Agnes does the same about her past and doesn’t share much about herself. Both characters are rather hard to define. In appearance, they don’t have much in common. They’re different in gender, age, nationality, occupation. But they do have the same detachment from their life, as if they were more spectators than actors. I have the impression that they watch themselves live through a glass wall and that the story they write is a literal way to indulge in this tendency. Their love is passionate but cold or reserved. It is difficult to nail, that cold passion. They’re detached but not indifferent.

The narrator’s voice is strong and unique. Stamm recreates Chicago very well and his characters came to life in my head. It would make a great film by Won Kar Wai or by a French director. I leave you with one last quote that left me thinking…

Nous pensons tous vivre dans un seul et même monde. Et pourtant, chacun s’agite dans sa propre tanière, ne regarde ni à droite ni à gauche, et ne fait que défricher sa vie en se coupant le chemin du retour avec les déblais. We think we all live in one and only world. And yet, each of us stirs in their own burrow, never looking left or right and only clears their life path while cutting their way back with debris.


Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)


I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.


I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.

Holland, the other country for cheese.

October 2, 2014 15 comments

Cheese by Willem Elschott. 1933. French title: Fromage (Translated from the Dutch by Xavier Hanotte)

Pour aborder les problèmes sérieux, le lit conjugal me paraît l’endroit le plus approprié. Là au moins, on est seul avec son épouse. Les couvertures amortissent les voix, l’obscurité favorise la réflexion et puisqu’on ne peut pas se voir, aucune des deux parties n’est soumise à l’émotion de son interlocuteur. Là, on aborde toute ce qu’on n’ose pas vraiment dire à visage découvert, et ce fut donc là que, bien allongé sur mon côté droit, après un silence inaugural, j’annonçais à ma femme que j’allais devenir négociant. To tackle with serious issues, the conjugal bed always seems the most appropriate place. There, at least, you’re alone with your wife. The blankets cover the voices, the darkness makes thinking easier and since you can’t see each other, no party is subjected to the emotions of the other. There you can deal with anything you can’t say face to face. So this is where, lying on my right side and after an inaugural silence, that I disclosed to my wife that I was becoming a merchant. (My translation)

 elschott_cheeseLast year I visited Brussels and of course ended up in a bookstore. I wanted to read something Belgian that wasn’t a comic book. That’s where I bought Cheese by Willem Elschott, attracted by the title and the quote by Le Monde saying “C’est Woody Allen au pays du gouda. Un véritable regal!” (It’s Woody Allen in the land of Gouda cheese. A real treat) The sole mention of Woody Allen would have sold me the book. The cheese did the rest.

The other day Max told us about his days as a pick-and-mix employee. I had mine as a fromage à la coupe employee. It’s working in a supermarket and sell cheese that you cut on demand for customers. That’s probably a French thing. While I was fulfilling my school obligation to have a sales internship, I learnt several things about cheese: Roquefort leaks, Munster leaves your fingers stinking and Holland cheeses are bloody difficult to cut, especially mature Mimolette. But back to the book.

Frans Laarsmans works as a clerk at General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerp. When his mother dies, he strikes an acquaintance with Mr Van Schoonbeke, a friend of his brother Dr Laarmans. Frans becomes a frequent visitor at Van Schoonbeke’s house where he mingles among bourgeois from Antwerp. They’re out of his league, he struggles to keep up with them and Van Schoonbeke pushes him to become the sales representative of the Dutch firm Hornstra in Belgium and Luxemburg.

C’était sans doute un peu cavalier de sa part, car à mon avis, personne n’avait le droit de voir en moi l’homme de la situation avant que je ne m’y sois vu. It was without a doubt a bit cheeky from him. In my opinion, no one had the right to see the man of the situation in le before I’d seen myself as such. (my translation)

elschott_cheeseA little pushing from Van Schoonbeke and here’s our Frans loaded with ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses to sell in his sales territory. The poor man doesn’t even like cheese. The novel relates with a great sense of humour the adventures of a clerk in the land of commerce. Frans is our narrator and his candidness shows that he’s totally delusional about the world he lives in. Frans is completely at loss as how to start the business, cover the territory. He knows nothing about selling, visiting clients, setting up a sales plan and shipping cheeses. The Edam whole cheeses are heavy and he’s barely able to lift one. He has no client database and knows nothing about sales techniques.

This new experience as a cheese merchant after a 30 year time as a clerk will be an eye opener. Frans is a funny character but not always likeable. He loves his wife but despises her…on principle, because she’s a woman. He’s not much impressed by his teenage children even he’s a loving father. He didn’t think much about his former job but will discover a side of his colleagues he never imagined. His wife is a lot less stupid than he thought and his children are supportive in his new career.

In appearance it’s light and funny. Yet it shows in a comical way all Frans’ flaws and it lashes out on the bourgeois society in Antwerp who need to puff up their members to respect them. Status is a virtue in itself. Without Van Schoombeke’s shame of Frans being a simple clerk, he wouldn’t have suggested that he started a business. It was written in the 1930s but so many details are still true about people avid search for status and about business practices.

Bref, I had a lot of fun reading this little gem and I have a new incentive to put a photogenic grin on your face : “Read Cheese !”

PS: The English cover is a lot better than the French. It represents the book: Frans overwhelmed by a huge quantity of cheese.

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