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Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 10 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

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.

 

I read. It’s like a disease

April 21, 2012 18 comments

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer

November 26, 2011 18 comments

Der Geliebte der Mutter by Urs Widmer. 2000. French title: L’homme que ma mère a aimé. English title: My Mother’s Lover. 

Clara is the only daughter of a self-made-man from Italian origins. In the 1920s and in her twenties, she gets involved in the creation of a young orchestra whose brilliant conductor is Edwin. Clara volunteers for the orchestra, taking charge of the organization of concerts. Edwin and Clara have an affair but aren’t on the same page. He’s looking for a sexual partner; she’s in love with him. Edwin marries someone else. Clara never falls out of love with him.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. There are similarities. Two women desperately in love with a famous man (a writer / a conductor); two men unaware of the consuming love they have kindled. Contrary to Zweig’s woman, Clara is unbalanced, she’s had a hard childhood with a dominating father, has known poverty, rejection. She’s madly in love with Edwin, in the literal sense of the word. She behaves like Virginia Woolf, going into the water at night, all dressed up, carrying a heavy rock, as if she intended to drown herself. She’s suicidal, a terrible mother dragging her boy in her crazy behaviors. I pitied the poor boy and I wondered where his father was. (I think there’s a book about the father’s story)

Clara’s son relates her story, as the title shows it. I didn’t find it convincing. How did he get to know how his mother felt? How did he know about her sex life, her internal turmoil, her personal demons? Is it healthy for him to know that? Clara had no friend, she couldn’t have confided in anyone. Now I found that I miss the 19thC device that consists in an introductory chapter in which the narrator explains where he/she knows the story from.

When I was reading, I saw black and white news films from before WWII. People move slightly faster than their real pace, there’s no sound, only a voice over. I saw the images of Clara’s life and heard her son’s detached tone commenting. A voiceover, flat, matter-of-factly describing things with well-chosen words, maybe taking a necessary distance with it to protect his sanity. I remained aloof too, it didn’t reach me. Plus I had guessed one of the key things of the story, which irritated me a bit.

I wonder if I could rate the books I read according to the number of quotes I note down. I guess on this scale of stars, it wouldn’t grant a high rating to this book. No quote at all. The style is good though despite a wild use of punctuation. Sometimes I was tired of exclamation marks, constant insertion of text in brackets or – and so on. It has a musicality but it didn’t move me. Honestly, that’s me, not the book. Caroline loved it; I perfectly understand and it’s worth reading her review as it covers parts I didn’t mention. What she writes is absolutely true but didn’t have the same effect on me. I recommend reading it in one to three reading sessions (It’s short) to have the time to enter the book and hear the music of Widmer’s words. Something else may have prevented me from fully enjoying it: I’m a zero in classical music and I didn’t get the references included in the book. For someone better informed, it can be more enjoyable. So, to sum it up, it didn’t work for me but it’s a good book, very well-written.

They walked back to the village, a volcano in their heart

May 17, 2011 15 comments

Aline by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. 1905. 144 pages. Not translated into English, sorry, sorry, sorry…

 Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947) is a French-speaking Swiss writer. Aline is his second novel, written in 1905. Born in Lausanne, Ramuz spent 14 years in Paris and came back to Switzerland in 1914, before the war started. His work is centred on country life in the Canton de Vaud.  

Aline is a short tale about a tragic love story in rural Switzerland. Julien, only son of the richest man of the village, is infatuated with Aline, a seventeen year old peasant. She lives alone with her ageing mother Henriette. It is summer, the heat is almost unbearable. Julien and Aline meet on a trail as they go back home from work in the fields. Julien flirts and persuades her to meet at night, when her mother is asleep. She accepts and they start dating secretly in the woods. Their affair lasts several months and their love follows opposite paths. While Julien progressively falls out of love with Aline, Aline’s love grows to passion. Julien is a young womaniser and for him, she’s nothing more than a summer romance. It was true love for her. The ingredients of a tragedy are all there.  

Aline reminded me of Félicité (A Simple Heart by Flaubert) and of Emma Bovary. Like Félicité, she’s good and loving. She’s a simple heart, ill-prepared to face life and inconstant boys. Like Emma, she gives herself away, as Flaubert said. She’s overwhelmed by her feelings. I don’t think Julien can be compared to Rodolphe though; he just grew tired of Aline and didn’t realize she was so deeply in love with him.  

Ramuz writes with simplicity about peasant life. Aline’s heart is pure and simple and Ramuz’s language is as pure as a mountain spring. His style comforts our image of Aline, an adolescent experiencing feelings she fails to understand and tame.

Et elle était devenue bien jolie ; ses joues étaient plus roses, ses lèvres plus rouges, ses yeux plus bleus. C’est la jeunesse qui vous sort du cœur, parce que le cœur est content, et elle est devant vous comme le matin des prés. And she had become really pretty; her cheeks were pinker, her lips redder, her eyes bluer. It’s youth pouring out of your heart, because the heart is contented and it lays in front of you like a morning on the fields.

Ramuz brings to life the village, the people, their way of life, the gossips. He points out the difference between boys and girls: when the affair is known, everybody blames Aline and Julien remains unscathed. A girl can’t fall in love but a boy can seduce whomever he wants, it’s sport.  

I didn’t know Ramuz had influenced Giono but I truly heard Giono when I read Aline. And also Pagnol. I could feel the summer heat, smell the scent of wet grass after the rain, imagine the blue sky, the fields and the bushes.  

Avril avait paru, poussant devant lui ses petits nuages comme des poules blanches dans un champ de bleuets. April had shown up, pushing before him his small clouds like white hens in a cornflower field.

It’s evocative. His description of nature reminded me of paintings by Van Gogh (Wheatfield with Crows or The Sower) or Monet (Poppies Blooming). Simple words and forceful images. It’s set in Switzerland but it could be in France. I thought of the innocence of life before the horrors of the trenches and lives untimely ended by war, throwing everyday life off balance in towns and villages.

I’m not usually fond of bucolic novels. I couldn’t finish La Gloire de mon Père by Marcel Pagnol, I thought it was mushy. However, I liked Regain by Jean Giono (Harvest) and Aline reminded me of this book. It is fresh and lovely and I’m sorry it isn’t translated into English. For readers who can/could read French or would like to speak French again, it’s easy to read and short. For other readers I recommend Regain by Giono, it has the same flavour.

PS : The perfect soundtrack for this book is La Chasse aux papillons by Georges Brassens. I borrowed a line for the title of this post.

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