1 August 2015

Jules Vallès: L'Enfant | The Child (1879)

Jules Vallès's L'Enfant (1879), translated as The Child, is the first book in a trilogy followed by Le Bachelier (1881) and the posthumously published L'Insurgé (1886), all of which are autobiographical but all in which the central character is Jacques Vingtras.

Vallès (1832–85) shows a remarkably modern approach to the novel in L'Enfant and it's difficult to believe that it was written in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, many criticisms of modern French literature – and many within France itself – accuse writers of nombrilisme (or navel-gazing), and yet this classic work of the novel is an example of autofiction and therefore related to a number of other works such as Jules Renard's Poil de carotte (Carotte Top) (1894) or Hervé Bazin's Vipère au poing (1948). These are autofictions which are avant la lettre – before Serge Doubrovsky coined the term in 1977 in his book Fils – but the link with later works by, say, Marguerite Duras, Christine Angot, Camille Laurens, Chloé Delaume, Annie Ernaux, Guillaume Dustan, etc, is undeniable.

The harm that parents do in many modern autofictions is often intense, as it certainly is in L'Enfant. And if the expression autofiction hasn't travelled across the English Channel at all well, that quintessentially English poet Philip Larkin nevertheless famously summed up the problem in a wonderfully laconic manner: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.'

Right from the first page maternal violence is described in graphic, onomatopoeic terms: 'Vlin ! Vlan ! Zon ! Zon !', all to convey the flogging of Jacques, named 'le petit Chose',* a phrase which inevitably recalls Alphonse Daudet's eponymous autofiction of the same name, published in 1868.

Jacques's mother normally does the beating, although his father does some too later in the book, which describes the movement of the family from Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne to Saint-Étienne, then (via train to Orléans and then by boat, staying overnight in Tours) to Nantes. At all three places, Jacques's father works as a teacher, although he comes across as a rather pathetic figure not only to his son but also to the students and his colleagues.

But Jacques's mother is even more pathetic: of peasant stock, Mme Vingtras now shuns her background and desperately tries to fit into her new environment. She indoctrinates Jacques with her perceptions of 'polite' manners within that class, although the trouble is she is invariably wrong about, for example, table manners within that class, and she not only makes a fool of herself but of Jacques too, as he of course behaves as she has taught him. Her meanness is also a source of painful embarrassment: to give just one example of many, when Jacques is forced to flee from Nantes to Paris after a romantic entanglement, his mother is delighted when she thinks – in spite of her husband's increase of wealth – that she's obtained her son's education in Paris on the cheap by pleading poverty.

L'Enfant, then, is to some extent a social satire, as the dedication makes clear: it is for all those who have been bored to death at school, those who have been tyrannised by their parents or teachers. Jacques would rather live the life of a peasant, and identifies with the outsider, with black people he envies. Jacques is a revolutionary in the making.

* The word 'chose' – which is normally a feminine noun – is used as a masculine one here to indicate the reification of Jacques Vingtras.

30 July 2015

The Shakespeare Window, Central Library, Manchester UK

Rosa Grindon donated the Shakespeare window, which stands at the main entrance to the Central Library in Manchester, in memory of her husband the botanist Leo Grindon. It was designed by Robert Anning Bell. My blog post on the couple is here.

The famous quotation below the representation of Shakespeare is from Act 4, Scene I of The Tempest:

'The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'


The library itself is Grade II* listed.

 
 


28 July 2015

Zora Neale Hurston: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)

This Virago edition of Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine has an Afterword by Holley Eley dated 1987, in which it states that hitherto Hurston's first novel had been 'inexplicably ignored'. Now, copies can be found in abondance online. And it's well worth reading.

Whereas Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around the strong female character Janie Starks, the main character here is John Pearson, whom we follow from his mid-teens until his untimely death in, perhaps, his early fifties. Despite the image on the book cover, John is half-white and called a 'yaller nigger' by some. After a fight with his step-father Ned, John leaves to work for the sympathetic Alf Pearson, who gives him his name and there are perhaps subtle suggestions that Pearson may even be his father.

The early section of the book in Alabama is largely taken up by his partly chaperoned relationship with Lucy, who is several years younger and marries him a few years later. But following a violent attack on his brother-in-law over a minor debt, he is forced to flee and goes to Florida, where Lucy and their baby join him later.

Lucy, although a force behind John's highly successful profession as a preacher, is nevertheless content to have several children by him and almost turn a blind eye to his infidelities: Alf Pearson had much earlier called the tall, well-built and very handsome John 'a walking orgasm' and this was a strongly prophetic statement because John finds women as irresistible as they do him.

John – now State Monitor as well as the most powerful preacher in Florida – has problems with the church leaders over growing rumors about his relationship with a woman called Hattie. Things come to a head when Lucy dies and John marries Hattie just three months afterwards, and he loses his State Monitor status.

And the knives are still out, within the church and within John's home: the marriage is failing and Hattie – incidentally a great believer in voodoo – is (
with a church official) plotting a divorce on the grounds of adultery, plus John's professional demise. John doesn't exactly put up a fight and walks out of the church to recommence working as a carpenter, although his name is mud and he fails miserably to reassert himself professionally.

Until, that is, he moves to another town and meets the rich widow Sally who has admired him for years, so they marry and she buys him a Cadillac, in which he pays a short visit to his former town. On the way back the greying John takes a young gold digger – who's unsuccessful on this occasion – to a hotel room: old habits die hard.

The first time John saw a train he was frightened, although when he escaped from Alabama and took one for the first time – into Sanford, FL – he was mightily impressed by the monster. As he finally drives home toward Sally he meets another train, only this time it crashes into the Cadillac and kills him. Florida mourns.


My other posts on Zora Neale Hurston:

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Zora Neale Hurston in Fort Pierce, FL
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy (2007)

On the twentieth anniversary of the death of James Baldwin (1924–87), Alain Mabanckou writes the fascinating Letter to Jimmy to his idol, with whom he has more than a few things in common: Baldwin was black, born in America, and exiled himself in France, whereas Mabanckou was born in Africa, lived in France, and now lives in the United States.

Mabanckou uses a framing device to his narrative: a tramp on Santa Monica beach who looks as if he might be a character out of a Baldwin story who appears in the Avant-Lettre and the Après-Lettre and to whom he wants to dedicate the 170-page 'letter', which is throughout addressed to Baldwin using the familiar 'tu' form.

The book is in part a short life story of Baldwin, the story of an outsider: black, a bastard who never knew his father, born into a poor working-class environment, and who was a homosexual. His paranoid step-father hated himself and Baldwin left home at an early age and then at the age of twenty-four left the prejudice of the racist US for France, where his literary hero Richard Wright had gone a short time before.

Wright had been impressed by Baldwin's early writings, but the younger man had to break free from the influence of his literary father: unfortunately, in doing so he created a rift which would never heal. Baldwin was constructing an aesthetic which saw the 'protest novel' as superficial and harmful to the black cause and his essay 'Everyone's Protest Novel' started out as an attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) but became more of an attack on Wright's Native Son (1940).

In 1970 Baldwin moved to Saint-Paul de Vence in Provence, where he died from cancer seventeen years later. He was buried in Hartsdale, New York state, and is remembered not only as a great writer but as a strong fighter for civil rights.

Mabanckou seems to be haunted by Baldwin, and mentions the photo he has of him both at the end and the beginning. He bought the photo from one of the bouquinistes at the side of the Seine, a famous photo in which he's wearing a white shirt, holding a cigarette and looking upwards with a half smile and wrinkled forehead. Mabanckou asks: 'What's the weather like in paradise, Jimmy?'

The final sentence in the book is left to Baldwin, a quotation from The Fire Next Time: Mabanckou says 'Jimmy' based his dream on the redemption of 'human nature' – a fuzzy concept that Sartre (a man Mabanckou calls Baldwin's 'friend') incidentally went out of his way to deny the existence of – the recapturing of what we lost a long time ago: the beauty of life. He finds this sentence a great inspiration:

'Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have.'


My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:

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Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass
Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine

27 July 2015

Vincent Borel: Pyromanes: un fable (2006)

This is a remarkable piece of work, and not only the first book by Vincent Borel that I've read but also the first time I've read a Sabine Wespieser publication. It won't be my last of either. It came as no surprise to discover that Borel is very interested in Jean Giono, although I was for several reasons also reminded of Niall Griffiths's Sheepshagger (2001) in particular, but also his first novel Grits (2000).

A group of hyperactive young kids from the Lyon area are in a holiday colony in Durbon in the Hautes-Alpes. History student Guillaume Farel is in charge of them, and he's very interested in, as it were, killing two birds with one stone by tracing the footsteps of his (real) namesake, Guillaume Farel (1489–1565) the religious reformer, who was born in Gap (as was Vincent Borel). With Farel the reformer in mind, Farel the monitor hopes to cool some of the kids down by a long walk to Champforan at the back of Mount Garnesier. But it's tough going and most go back, leaving Guillaume, Mehdi, Sergio and François to carry on.

And then there's Paule who's unknown to anyone in the area. She's one of the emerging names in destroy art and sent her first works – various images of her menstrual blood on Communion wafers, etc – to the webzine Weekly Pollution. She's now commissioned to send more bad taste images to an art gallery owner, and as a hater of nature thinks nothing of pissing on ants' nests or butchering badgers if she can get good photos.

But one person in the area does spot her, and is alarmed by her behaviour: Martial Blancart. He's a young boy no one at all knows of because he's been forgotten. He's had a rough time of things: his father throws his dead mother to the pigs, when the police arrive his father kills two of them, is arrested and kills himself, as does his advanced alcoholic grandfather, so Martial burns the family house down and takes to living in the woods. His grandfather has at least told him how to fend for himself, and he does remarkably well under the circumstances, even if his first love affair is with a tree.

Finally, there's a group of mainly middle-class drop-outs who live for loud rock music but above all hallucinogenic drugs, and they're making their way towards Garnesier for the magic mushrooms on the slopes. Paule will be there too, and Martial will be lurking unseen.

Also there is the main 'character' in the book: Nature, furious that humans are destroying the planet with an unbelievable ignorance and arrogance. Several people are struck dead by lightning, among them Sergio and François who are killed outright. Paule is struck too, and remains motionless and is carried away by Martial, unseen in the turmoil. Guillaume is struck deaf and dumb and Mehdi goes blind, and the two of them are taken to the hospital in Gap.

But this is only the beginning of the weirdness. Martial takes Paule back to his cave and looks after her as she slowly comes round and not only accepts her new situation but she begins to love nature, views Martial if she's always known him, and he teaches her to respect the natural world, such as only to take a certain number of eggs from a nest.

Nature, in fact, is teaching people a lesson.

In hospital Guillaume and Mehdi also undergo a transformation, to such an extent that they become inseparable: Guillaume becomes Mehdi's eyes, and Mehdi Guillaume's voice. And Guillaume hasn't exactly lost his sense of hearing, he simply can't hear people, although he can hear ants crawling and butterflies sucking nectar, and so on. Things come to a head when Guillaume and Mehdi go to court over the monitor's supposed negligence of his duty by taking the boys for a mountain walk and not consulting the weather first. In a scene that the narrator says is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, birds flock to the courtroom windows in droves, and suddenly Guillaume briefly finds his voice and warns of an impending apocalypse: it's as though he's a prophet.

The world is then struck with avian flu, diarrhoea reaches epidemic proportions, volcanoes erupt all over the place, power cuts are everywhere, communication breaks down, even the rich can't escape the chaos, it seems as though the world is coming to an end. Well, it's not, but although things will not be as they were again with humanity exploiting the planet at breakneck pace, things in future will have to be ruled by nature. Or else.

24 July 2015

Nathalie Sarraute: Enfance (1983)

Enfance by Nathalie Sarraute (1900–99) (translated as Childhood) is an autobiography of the author's childhood, written when she was 83, and is one among her last books. It's also one of her most popular, no doubt largely because of its greater accessibility.

But the book is by no means conventionally autobiographical: it consists of a series of recollections, with Sarraute often having a dialogue with herself – or her 'double', as the back cover of this edition puts it – about the accuracy of her memories.

Sarraute was born Nathalie Tcherniak in Ivanovo near Moscow and her parents separated two years after her birth. Her childhood is at first largely spent between Russia and France, although from the age of nine she lives with her father, her step-mother Véra and her half-sister Hélène (nicknamed Lili) in central Paris, with summer in Meudon-sur-Seine. Her biological mother is represented as cold and distant, and she can't bring herself to call Véra – also cold and distant – 'mother'.

Nathalie has few friends of her own age, and she is obviously a gifted young student and almost always the top at her primary school in central Paris. Words and the effect they have are of central importance, although not many writers are actually mentioned: of those who are, René Boylesve and André Theuriet are noted among her probable readings of the time, perhaps Pierre Loti, and certainly Ponson du Terrail, whom her father detests.

The book ends shortly before Nathalie begins at the lycée Fénelon.

21 July 2015

The Windmill, Fiskerton, Nottinghamshire

To me it looks like a scene from a holiday brochure, and certainly it's difficult to imagine this idyllic setting in this country, let alone at the back of anyone's home in Nottinghamshire. It doesn't seem that long, but it's over twenty years since I visited this private property: at the time I recorded in my Windmills of Nottinghamshire (West Bridgford: Nottinghamshire County Council Planning and Economic Development Heritage Team, 1995) that the post mill roundhouse had a 'gaping hole in the brickwork', lacked a roof and was home to a colony of bats.

When the windmill artist Karl Salsbury Wood came along with his bicycle to make a watercolour of in 1932 it was in a rather forlorn state, having been out of use for well over forty years.

The only known photograph of the windmill in anything like its original state is this above shot dating from about 1890,  showing its spring sails with shutters missing: the mill had ceased to work some time in the last quarter of the 19th century and the last recorded miller was William Bailey in 1875. The photo was created from an ambrotype, an image on  glass with (in this case) a black japan lacquer backing. I'm very grateful to Geoff Pogson for giving me this superb photograph.

And again, how the outside of the mill remains look today. The pool was made in 2001, the ground floor houses the pool plant with toilet and showers, and upstairs is a treadmill and pool table:  I seem to remember it was used as a tool shed when I first visited. Unfortunately I was only able to see the outside this time, although I look forward to re-visiting and seeing more in the near future.

20 July 2015

Zachariah Green in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

The Zachariah Green monument in Titchfield Park, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.


'ERECTED
BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION
IN MEMORY OF
ZACHARIAH GREEN,
A NATIVE OF THIS TOWN
WHO WAS GIFTED IN THE ART OF HEALING
AND SPENT HIS LIFE IN ALLEVIATING THE
SUFFERINGS OF HIS FELLOW MEN.
BORN MAY 5TH 1817
DIED JANUARY 22ND 1897'

The grave of Zachariah Green in St Mary Magdalene parish church, Hucknall.

19 July 2015

Mollie Morris (aka Katharine Morris), Bleasby, Nottinghamshire

'IN MEMORY OF
KATHARINE,
DEARLY BELOVED WIFE OF
ROBERT ERNEST MORRIS,
DIED JULY 27TH 1952.
ALSO HER BELOVED HUSBAND
ROBERT ERNEST MORRIS,
DIED OCT. 27TH 1958.
ALSO IN REMEMBRANCE OF THEIR SON
ROBERT VARLEY MORRIS,
KILLED IN ITALY 1944.'

'IN LOVING MEMORY OF THEIR DAUGHTER
KATHARINE (MOLLIE) MORRIS
NOVELIST POET AND FRIEND
BORN 22ND MAY 1910, DIED 22ND AUGUST 1999.
RESIDENT IN BLEASBY FOR 80 YEARS.'

My other Mollie / Katharine Morris post, which details the link with Lionel Britton:

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Mollie Morris (aka Katharine Morris) and Lionel Britton

18 July 2015

Eugène Dabit: L'Hôtel du Nord (1929)

Marcel Carné's film Hôtel du Nord (1938) is a story of a bungled suicide pact by two lovers in financial difficulty set against the backcloth of the characters living in or using the rather seedy hotel. It is bungled because the man – Pierre – shoots his lover Renée but fails to go through with killing himself. But Renée recovers and is offered a job as a maid at the hotel, which she accepts and enjoys, although Pierre – now in prison for wounding her – is ashamed of his cowardly actions and refuses to acknowledge Renée, who still loves him.

In her emotional confusion, Renée wants to leave the country for a new life with Monsieur Edmond, who has been living at the hotel with Mme Raymonde, a prostitute he abandons after falling for Renée's charms. Finally, Renée changes her mind and goes back to the now released Pierre, and the defeated Monsieur Edmond accepts death at the hands of one of two men seeking revenge for an action performed by Edmond some time before the start of the film.

Eugène Dabit's parents owned the hotel represented in his book Hôtel du Nord (1929) when he was a child, although the film and the book are very different. Dabit's novel is more of a series of episodes that occur at the hotel, the suicidal pair are absent, and 'Monsieur Edmond' here is called Pierre Trimault and his lover Renée: she becomes a prostitute after Pierre leaves her on learning that she is pregnant by him.

People come and go at the hotel, and proprietor Louise Lecouvreur in particular has a much stronger role in the book, looking after the women from predatory men, and ever wary that the hotel doesn't get a reputation for being a brothel. One of the few characters who is occasionally present throughout most of the book is Mimar, who doesn't exist in the film but whose main interests are playing the card game manille and bedding women, both activities at which he is highly skilled. Until he realises that it is time to settle down and marry, which he does, only his wife Lucie dies not long after the marriage.

Of particular interest is an early representation of homosexuality: Adrien is a very fastidious guest and Louise is pleased that he cares so much about the cleanliness of his room, and shows no concern when he has men friends up with him, even when they stay the night. But then she has no idea what is going on, and is merely bemused when Adrien dresses up in drag in preparation for the bal de Magic-City.

In the book then there is nothing of the high drama of the film, which begins with the suicidal lovers crossing the Saint-Martin canal towards the hotel, and ends with them crossing the canal in the opposite direction towards a new future. But the book ends with the demolition of the hotel.

17 July 2015

Southern Cemetery #11: Eric Thompson


'CHERISHED MEMORIES
OF
ERIC (Sketchbook) THOMPSON,
THE DEAREST DARLING HUSBAND
OF MARJORIE,
WHO LOST HIS LIFE IN THE MUNICH AIRCRAFT DISASTER
6th. FEBRUARY 1958, AGED 48 YEARS.
SPORTS JOURNALIST, 27 YEARS WITH THE
DAILY MAIL, MANCHESTER.
"Rest in Peace my darling."'

My other posts on Southern Cemetery graves:

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The Manchester Sound
L. S. Lowry
Maria Pawlikowska–Jasnorzewska
David Martin
George Ghita Ionescu
John and Enriqueta Rylands
John Cassidy
Jerome Caminada
George Freemantle
Leo Grindon and Rosa Grindon

Southern Cemetery #10: Leo Grindon and Rosa Grindon


'THE SHRINE OF BELOVED
LEO. H. GRINDON.
MOST GENTLE AND WINSOME,
TEACHER OF NATURE'S WAYS.
HE JOINED THE
COMMUNION OF SAINTS ON THE
SABBATH EVENING OF NOV. 20, 1904.
IN HIS 87TH YEAR.
THERE WERE ANGELS HOVERING ROUND
TO CARRY THE TIDINGS HOME.
ALSO OF
ROSA ELVERSON GRINDON,
WHO FELL ASLEEP MAY 6TH, 1923,
AGED 75 YEARS.'

Leopold Hartley Grindon (1818–1904) was a self-educated botanist and teacher who wrote many books, including Country Rambles and Manchester Walks and Wild Flowers (Manchester: Palmer and Howe, 1882); The Lesson of a Lovely Life: Glimpses of the Character of the Late Mrs. Wainwright, of Finchwood (Manchester: Palmer and Howe, 1888); The Shakespeare Flora: A Guide to All the Principal Passages in Which Mention Is Made of Trees, Plants, Flowers and Vegetable Productions (Manchester: Palmer and Howe, 1883); and his A History of Lancashire, written in 1882, was edited by Dawn Robinson-Walsh and published by Aurora in about 1995.

His feminist wife Rosa – President of the Manchester Ladies' Literary and Scientific Club – was also a writer: In Praise of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor : An Essay in Exposition and Appreciation (Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, 1902); In Praise of Shakespeare's Henry VIII: An Essay in Exposition and Appreciation (Manchester : Sherratt and Hughes, 1902); and Shakespeare and His Plays from a Woman's Point of View (Manchester: Policy-Holder Journal Co., 1930).

In memory of her husband, Rosa Grindon gave the Shakespeare window in the entrance hall of Manchester's Central Library: it was designed by Robert Anning Bell and depicts a portrait of Shakespeare with some scenes from his plays. A link to my blog post on the window is here.

My other posts on Southern Cemetery graves:

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The Manchester Sound
L. S. Lowry
Maria Pawlikowska–Jasnorzewska
David Martin
George Ghita Ionescu
John and Enriqueta Rylands
John Cassidy
Jerome Caminada
George Freemantle
Eric Thompson

16 July 2015

Southern Cemetery #9: George Freemantle

'IN LOVING MEMORY OF
GEORGE FREEMANTLE,
who died May 21st. 1864 aged 61 years.'
 
 
'This memorial was erected by his
friends of the Brasenose Club.'

George Freemantle (1833–64) was an influential music critic on the Manchester Guardian from 1867 to 1894, and was particularly noted for his enthusiastic support of Charles Hallé's aim to bring the best orchestral music to Manchester.

My other posts on Southern Cemetery graves:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
The Manchester Sound
L. S. Lowry
Maria Pawlikowska–Jasnorzewska
David Martin
George Ghita Ionescu
John and Enriqueta Rylands
John Cassidy
Jerome Caminada
Leo Grindon and Rosa Grindon
Eric Thompson

15 July 2015

Patrick Modiano: Rue des Boutiques Obscures | Missing Person (1978)

Last May I made a blog post about Patrick Modiano's L'Horizon, which was very favorable. Modiano's Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978) (translated as Missing Person) won the prix Goncourt that year, and although this is certainly not the second Modiano novel I've read it's the only one I've concentrated on bearing in mind the author's Nobel prize win last October. Was it deserved? Personally, I've not decided but shall continue to read Modiano books until I have.

Rue des Boutiques Obscures is – as might be expected of a Modiano novel – an existential detective story, and a rather complex one. Here we have private detective Guy Roland made unemployed by his boss Hutte, who has decided to retire to Nice. Roland's name was that on the passport Hutte gave him, as Roland – employed by Hutte for eight years – forgot his own name some time before, along with everything that happened in his past.

What follows is a detective story in which Roland chases his own past, initially leading him into all kinds of situations with those who were largely indirectly part of that past. Roland's search takes him to many places in Paris and later beyond, but there is a great deal of hard slog through telephone directories ancient and modern, as well as pretending to be who he is not, before he is led to people he doesn't recognise but who recognise him, and before he can at least begin to realise who he once was. But, of course, we're all made of scraps of this and scraps of that, eventually coming together as a recognisable jigsaw puzzle. Probably much like Modiano's work as a whole.

My other Patrick Modiano post:

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Patrick Modiano: L'Horizon

14 July 2015

Henri Calet: De ma lucarne: chroniques: (1945-55 (various articles); repr. PBP 2000)

Henri Calet (1904—1956) is perhaps most noted for his autobiographical novel La Belle Lurette (1935), although this collection of a large number of his articles – under the heading De ma lucarne after the first published article here – also contains autobiographical information, although often indirectly.

The articles in De ma lucarne (lit. 'From My Skylight') were published between 1945 and 1955 in a number of papers such as Combat, Le Figaro littéraire, Carrefour, and a few have never been previously published. They are not in chronological order and cover a wide variety of subjects but with the focus on Paris, where Calet lived in the 14e: 26 rue de la Sablière.

As Calet wanders or rides through Paris what strikes the reader is the writer's lack of imposition of authority, his humbleness, his concern for the marginals, the poor, those who have little say in the running of the country. In fact he sometimes writes as if he's an outsider not just to others but to himself, and Jean-Pierre Martinet's interest in Calet makes sense because he can be so unassuming as to be almost invisible: in a parenthesis in 'Un rendez-vous manqué' ('A Missed Meeting') he says 'to tell you the truth I don't feel completely at home anywhere'.

Because the articles aren't in any evident date order, we have the hardships of the immediate post-war experience, the queues, the increases in prices, the rationing, etc, come after many chronologically later events. It's particularly the series of articles that Calet writes about his fascination for tiny, obscure museums that I find of great interest: the musée de la Préfecture de police, the musée postal de la France, the musée de l'Assistance Publique, the musée de la Légion d'honneur, the musée des Travaux publiques (Public Works), the musée de l'Asperge (Asparagus Museum) in Argenteuil, the musée du Montparnasse, and so on. In these museums, it's certainly the exhibits that fascinate Calet, but just as much it's the behaviour of the attendants and the (often scarce) fellow clientele. Perhaps the best illustration of this is not so much a museum visit but a guide to 'Historical Paris' that he tags on to like a lost sheep: he's far less interested in a story about a late eighteenth century killing than he is in counting the number of beauty spots a woman at the side of him has.

In 'Tout se rouillait peu à peu' ('Everything Was Turning to Rust Bit by Bit') Calet remembers going with his father to the canal Saint-Martin and his father in turn remembers being beaten and imprisoned for several days for trying to dodge paying for a restaurant meal with a friend in his youth, and despises the injustice of it. But as they look for a métro station and his father is still thinking of his beating forty years before, Calet is thinking of the working-class writer Eugène Dabit*, who used to live in his parents' Hôtel du Nord next to a bar where he and his father have just had a drink. Dabit wrote a book called Hôtel du Nord (1923) that Marcel Carné turned into a film in 1938, which the avid cinema-goer Calet must have seen. He must also have been aware that the end of the film contains an off-screen murder that's concealed by the noise of the 14 July celebrations taking place outside the hotel, and particularly concealed by the fact that kids are letting off bangers. Calet was oddly preoccupied by 14 July, and even odder is that he died (of natural causes) on that very day.

*Dabit (1898–1936) had also written a very favourable review of La Belle Lurette in the La Nouvelle Revue Française.

11 July 2015

Edward Leedskalnin: Magnetic Current (written 1945, published 2011)

I didn't notice this little publication in the bookshop at Coral Castle, Homestead, Florida earlier this March, so I was delighted today to find this copy of Magnetic Current by Edward Leedskalnin (the creator of Coral Castle) in an Oxfam bookshop in Glossop, UK, just within the Derbyshire border.

Not that, as a scientifically illiterate person, I can understand any of it. But it was well worth £1.49 just for the cover, which shows a representation of a rather young-looking Leedskalnin (1887–1951) fiddling with, er, something scientific. As for the text, well, I was lost at the first line: 'This writing is lined up so when you read it you look East': I'm sure he knew what he was talking about even if I don't. And I can see that his writings must have been deeply idiosyncratic when he tells us that this essay – just nineteen pages, or rather sheets the left-hand pages are blank – stems from two years' research with magnets at 'Rock Gate. [...] Between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Latitude and Eightieth and Eighty-first Longitude West'.

The final two sentences of the penultimate paragraph are addressed to 'the rocket people': 'Make the rocket's head strong North Pole magnet, and the tail end strong South Pole magnet, and then shut to on the moon's North end, then you will have better success.' I've no idea if any 'rocket people' have heeded Edward Leedskalnin's advice and been grateful for it, and although I understand almost nothing of it I'm sure he knew what he was on with.

Magnetic Current is published by Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre [sic], CT.
 

My other Edward Leedskalnin post:

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The Outsider Art of Edward Leedskalnin

9 July 2015

Frédéric Beigbeder: L'Amour dure trois ans | Love Lasts Three Years (1997)

Frédéric Beigbeder's L'Amour dure trois ans (translated word for word as Love Lasts Three Years and his third novel), is evidently partly autobiographical, but perhaps more humorous than anything else. The narrator is the protagonist Marc Marronnier, who morphs into Frédéric Beigbeder at the end. Marc has been married to Anne, but they divorce after three years because, well, love only lasts that long, but Anne has also found a photo of Marc's lover Alice in his bag just before they're due to go to Rio: this spells the end.

The break-up also serves to underline the title, which Marc repeats a number of times and even invents a rule:

'The first year you say: "If you leave me I'll KILL myself."

The second year you say: "If you leave me I'll suffer but I'll get over it."

The third year you say: "If you leave me I'll crack open the champagne."'

Much of L'Amour dure trois ans is filled with little sayings such as the above, writing off the shock of being spurned, the horror of loneliness: 'Marriage is caviar with every meal: an indigestion you adore until it sickens you', 'marriage is criminal because it kills mystery', and he remembers a joke a friend tells that the difference between love and herpes is that herpes is forever.

But all this is of course just sour grapes: Anne has dumped him, and Alice can't seem to make up her mind about staying with her husband Antoine and having surreptitious sex with Marc in hotels, leaving her husband for him definitively, or just dumping Marc as Anne has. And Marc, now convinced that Alice is his real true love (well, for three years anyway) suffers deeply, and the self-derision so characteristic of Beigbeder's work continues.

Not, though, that the narrator reserves all the brickbats for himself and his women. There is a wonderful stab at the rich:

'There it is, the spectacle of our society: even the rich no longer make us envious. They are fat, ugly and vulgar, their wives have had facelifts, they go to prison, their children take drugs, they have the culture of hicks, they pose for Gala'. (This is a royalist celebrity magazine of the kind that you find at supermarket checkouts.)

Alice does leave Antoine for Marc, and the brief second part of the novel is set in Formentera three years later, when Marc is writing an autobiographical novel: the sections of this part count down the last days to the supposed three-year limit.

This is a big improvement on his first novel.


My other Beigbeder posts:

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Frédéric Beigbeder: Mémoires d'un Jeune Homme Dérangé
Frédéric Beigbeder: 99 Francs
Frédéric Beigbeder: Un roman français
Frédéric Beigbeder: Premier bilan après l'apocalypse

7 July 2015

Jean-Jacques Schuhl: Rose poussière (1972)

Jean-Jacques Schuhl has only published four books in 43 years, of which Rose poussiére is the first. Now a cult book, its experimental nature resists easy interpretation: there is no 'story' as such but a series of observations, with a number of sections, some with lists, some containing or including two columns, several sentences containing a blank where a word should be, there is the music score of the Rolling Stones' song 'Complicated', etc.

The words 'Rose poussiére' refer to a kind of make-up, and although brand names are prominent in this book so are allusions to death, and the dust in the title is also a reference to the impermanence of life. In no particular order, I would list the following as some of the book's central themes:

death, the interchangeability of people, artificiality/falseness, emptiness, regimentation/uniformity, war, advertising, fame, robotic actions/mechanical repetition, impersonality, fashion, religion, etc.

The dust jacket is an integral part of the book (which is in Gallimard's Le Chemin series, and the front cover includes five black and white photos which are explained on the front flap with indications of the pages they appear in in the book:

1. A still of Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg's film Shanghai Express (1932), in which she dresses in black with a transparent veil.

2. A toad vomiter 'dressed by Schiaparetti': the narrator later describes Mick Jagger as vomiting toads when he sings, although I'm unclear if it's Jagger's partly-obscured face that appears in the photo here, which is possibly a montage.

3. The face of the dead Bérénice Maranhao, buried in an earthquake in Brazil.

4. Brian Jones saying 'take the Iso Griffa (or Rivolta) and go and look for Miss Anita [Pallenberg] in West Berlin'.

5. The shop window display of Délicata Frères Orthopédie, 84 boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris.

(On the rear cover there is also a photo of 'Frankenstein-le-Dandy'.)

There is a wealth of juxtapositions, of which these are just a few:

The guards' boots at the beginning of the book looking like those in Délicata Frères Orthopédie.

The word dernier linking fashion and death because it can mean both 'latest' and 'last'.

'Faux cil' (false eyelash) in the title of one section being homophonous with 'faucille' (sickle as in 'hammer and ....').

The way the advent of sound to the cinema changed the way millions of people act, as did the advent of rock culture.

Fashion and religion.

The dead Lenin with make-up, like the rock stars and their fans.

The 'artificial' John A. B. C. Smith in Poe's 'The Man That Was Used Up' compared with Frankenstein.

Young girl fans at the Roundhouse, Chalk farm, making up their eyes with a coal product in this former railway environment.

Brian Jones's handcuffs and jewellery.

To a certain extent Rose poussiére is also a study of 'cool'*, which is vacuous: Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express calmly telling the police superintendent that the purpose of her visit is to buy a new hat; or the girls in Chelsea or South Kensington with deathly white skin and black round the eyes, staring into the void as they walk mechanically (but having slight imperfections such as an oil or mud stain on their clothes): the narrator then begins the first comparison with the spot-the-difference puzzles in France-Soir!)

The narrator is obviously fascinated by what he describes, although he also seems to be horrified. This is a book to be savoured, to take time over and interpreted as you may because the book is truly            : leaving white spaces in place of words can become infectious.
 
* 'Cool' is a word Schuhl never mentions but is evidentally talking about, just as he refers to the colour black of make-up (and also of course death), but never – despite several Rolling Stones' songs cropping up – mentions the (all too obvious?) 'Paint It Black'.

4 July 2015

Victor Margueritte: La Garçonne | The Bachelor Girl (1922; repr. by PBP 2013)

Victor Margueritte's La Garçonne – translated perhaps a little inaccurately as The Bachelor Girl – is a fascinating and intelligent novel as well as a kind of historical document. It was published in 1922, shortly after the First World War had radically reduced the population of males, inevitably creating a surplus of nubile females. As a result, in the 1920s not only was abortion in France strongly outlawed but any advertising of contraception was forbidden, and maternity leave was introduced, along with a mother's day: the family ruled.

Margueritte was a feminist and recognised as such by women feminists, but La Garçonne was viewed by many as an attack on the mores of the haute bourgeoisie of the time: which it certainly was, although it wasn't a roman à clef representing living (or dead) people under pseudonyms. But for his 'social crime', Margueritte was stripped of his Légion d'honneur title: a first in its history.

Margueritte had published Les Prostituées in 1907 without exactly the same reactions: he was writing about marginals, not women from 'respectable' society. And it is the hypocrisy and self-interest of this society that the author is attacking.

Monique Lerbier comes from a wealthy family in Paris and is engaged to Lucien Vigneret, whom she loves, although Monique will discover that he doesn't love her and that Lucien and her father see the marriage more as a business arrangement. She is anonymously warned – it transpires by a later lover – that Lucien is being unfaithful to her and is seeing a woman named Cléo every day, but Monique burns the letter in disbelief. It is only during the new year celebrations that she sees the truth of these allegations, has sex with an unknown man out of spite, and begins the process of liberating herself from the tyranny of her parents and her class.

But liberation comes at a price. The new Monique, the garçonne of the title, cuts her hair and establishes herself as a play set designer, experiments with various lovers, including women, and part of her new home becomes an opium den. She sees politicians as peddlars of poison, too frightened due to commercial exigencies to ban alcohol but ever-ready to ban 'la neige' (snow, or cocaine). She nevertheless despises what she has become, while at the same time shes is obviously unable to forsake her new knowledge of the age-old sexual double stardards and of how gender is conventionally perceived.

Monique starts to settle down and disbands the opium den when she thinks that she has found happiness with the novelist Régis Bousselot. Unfortunately he turns out to be consumed by almost psychotic jealousy and possessiveness: Monique feels like a prisoner, that Régis wants to own her. She escapes from him and goes to join her friend Mme Ambrat, but while she is at her friend's house Régis appears with a gun: Georges Blanchet, the philosophy teacher and writer is there at the time and acts as a human shield to defend her, and the shot injures both of them. Fortunately Blanchet is not seriously wounded and Monique only grazed: it is by the same bullet, which unites them.

La Garçonne is a fascinating post-First World War novel about female emancipation, bourgeois hypocrisy and gender statement. If its conclusion seems a little prosaic, artificial and predictable, it nonetheless makes some very bold statements considering it is almost one hundred years old.

2 July 2015

Patrick Besson: Assessible à certaine melancolie (2000)

I needed something lighter after reading Ascendant Sagittaire, and Accessible à certaine melancolie certainly met that description. What can I say? It's very readable, you can get through it in a few hours, but you don't really feel satisfied after you've finished it. At under sixty, Besson has published well over seventy books, sometimes several in one year. That's an awful lot of writing.
 
The truth is, this book doesn't say much. At all. It's about egotistical war correspondent Milan who's forty-five, getting tired of his second wife and having many affairs. The trouble is that he can't find the right woman to save him: he needs a very rare and divine creature.
 
Towards the end of the book Milan goes to Vorchelia – a pseudonym for Serbia – and he gets together with Anna, one of his Vorchelian lovers, when Anna 2 (a surgeon he's having an affair with and whom he met through his eighteen-year-old lover Rose having a nose job) bangs on  his hotel door: she's left her handicapped husband for him. Exit Anna 1, although she later shoots him in the chest but Anna 2's surgery saves him: she decides to stay on and help in the war while the love-war-wounded Milan goes back to France.
 
So, will he go back to his cancer-stricken wife Brigitte, go back to Rose or find someone else? Does any reader care? Well, he discovers that Anna 2 is returning to France minus a hand, but on knocking at her door finds her aggressive wheelchair-bound husband there and they fight. Milan pushes the man down the stairs, kills him, and has time to kiss Anna 2's stump and make love to her before the police come.
 
Nine years later when Milan leaves prison Anna 2 is waiting for him to come and live with him. A fitting end to the story: maybe he's found his goddess. La Belle-Soeur was better than this, but I probably won't be reading any more of Patrick Besson's novels in the near future: I wondered what the point of this one was, but I don't think there is a point.

My other Patrick Besson post:

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Patrick Besson: Belle-soeur

1 July 2015

Gérard Guégan: Ascendant Sagittaire: une histoire subjective des années soixante-dix (2001)

The title Ascendant Sagittaire: une histoire subjective des années soixante-dix contains two plays on words: 'Sagittaire ascendant' (lit. 'Sagittarius in the ascendant') refers here to the relaunch of the French publishing company Sagittaire in the second half of the 1970s; and the word 'subjective' applied to the 1970s refers not only to the subjectivity of the author Gérard Guégan's take on this period but also to Sagittaire's magazine Subjecif, which Guégan saw as a writing 'laboratory' for the book company.

Sagittaire was a well-known and well-respected publisher that had produced (particularly surrealist) books from 1919 to 1951. Publishers Grasset and Fasquelle approached Guégan in the 1970s to mastermind a relaunch of the company, which was unfortunately an experiment that lasted only four years – 1975–79. Guégan worked with a small team: Raphaël Sorin, Olivier Cohen, Alain le Saux, and later Philippe Delaroche. One of their mottos – 'en 1924 le surréalisme EN 1977 LE PUNK' didn't exactly sum up their ethos, and Guégan's boast that Sagittaire published the books that no one else would publish isn't quite true, but Sagittaire was a very bold enterprise that published some startling books. It was also just about as revolutionary as the post-May '68 generation could get while still having to depend on the mainstream for financial survival.

Ascendant Sagittaire is certainly subjective, maybe sometimes too much so: do we really need to have stories of Guégan's love/sex life sandwiched in between the often chaotic nature of this story, which frequently shifts from pre-relaunch days, during relaunch days, and post-launch days? Probably not, but then would we have as much insight into the complex mind of Guégan without them? No, so, er, stet.

This is a far from easy book to read due to the multitude of names, the assumptions the author makes, the politics of a former day, the politics of the publishing industry, the kangaroo nature of the chapters and sections, etc. But it's a book of wonders, a treasure trove of obscure and fascinating books, some of which – infuriatingly – are not only out of print but sometimes completely unavailable. Nevertheless there are a number of copies of Sagittaire's seventy published books available – not just reissued by other publishers, but sometimes in the original copy. Ascendant Sagittaire is also fascinating in that its margins – somewhat on the lines of the 'underground' magazines of the late sixties and early seventies – are frequently filled with photos of the authors and books mentioned, fragments of letters, even – gasp! – the shot of Germaine Greer lifting her legs and showing her vulva to the world in Suck magazine. Below I list just a few of the things that struck me as of particular interest or amusement:

––– BHL's 'real' father seen as Jean-Edern Hallier and his surrogate mother Françoise Verny. (On Googling Verny I discovered that Daniel Pennac represents her as 'la reine Zabo' in his novel La Fée carabine, and that she is also represented in several novels by Jack-Alain Léger).

––– The once forgotten Henri Calet is mentioned a few times, and Guégan states that all the merit in the revival of interest in him is due to Jean-Pierre Martinet. Martinet himself is mentioned several times, particularly towards the end of this book as his monumental (and monumentally neglected) Jérôme (August 1978), his second novel, was one of the last books to be published by Sagittaire: Guégan looked upon him as a successor to Dostoevsky.

––– Alexandre Astruc attributes his failure to win the Interallié prize for his novel Ciel de cendres (Sagittaire, 1975) to the sex scenes in it, which were 'directly inspired' by Victor Margueritte's La Garçonne (1922), of which more in a later post.

––– In 1967 Jean-Jacques Abrahams – whose work interested a number of famous thinkers such as Sartre, Deleuze and Guattari – recorded an interview with his psychiatrist Jean-Louis Van Nypelseer: the interest is that the patient is in control here, and the psychiatrist frightened. Sagittaire published Abraham's L'Homme au magnétophone ('The Man with the Tape Recorder') in 1976. Some of this conversation – more of a monologue – can be heard online.

––– Pascal Bruckner's Monsieur Tac is, according to Guégan (who was the only team member to enthuse about the book), 'the journey of a child in the jungle of a dictionary': the reprint of part of a page in the margins shows how strange this experiment was.

––– The (then of course young) journalist Jérôme Garcin initially couldn't understand what the extreme left-wing staff were doing publishing such books as Le Purgatoire by the royalist Paul Boutang or
Un jeune homme chic by the dandy Alain Pacadis, but he had to admit, on noting the Martinet and Frédéric Falmer books, that Sagittaire was in fact a publisher of an extraordinary mixture of genres.

––– President Giscard d'Estaing published Démocracie française (1976), to which Sagittaire responded with Tout fout le camp ('Everything's Going to Pot') by 'Hasard d'Estin' (Bertrand Poirot-Delpech). Sagittaire's backers were unhappy about that one.


––– Sagittaire published Jean-Pierre Énard's Le Dernier dimanche de Sartre ('Sartre's Last Sunday') two years before the great man died. (And I note that Énard – nine years after Sagittaire closed – published L'art de la fessée ('The Art of Spanking'): reading a few pages on Amazon.fr and readers' comments, it sounds very interesting!)

––– And how about this for a title, almost the last book published by Sagittaire in February 1979: Jean-François Grunfeld's 'J'emporterais pas ma coquille d'escargot à la pointe de mes souliers ('I won't be wearing my snail shell on the tip of my shoes').

This is a chaotic book which many people would probably feel daunted by – especially as it contains 427 large pages – but no one should allow themselves to be put off tackling this monster gem: in parts it is very funny, but most of the time it is extremely informative, recording as it does a crazy period in publishing history the like of which will no doubt never be repeated. A delight.

28 June 2015

Anne Hébert in the 5th arrondissement, Paris

'ICI VÉCUT
DE 1980 À 1997
ANNE HÉBERT
POÉTESSE ET ROMANCIÈRE
NÉE AU QUÉBEC'

Anne Hébert (1916–2000) also died in the Canadian province in which she was born. She moved to Paris after the death of her mother in 1965. Hébert lived at 24 rue Pontoise, close to the Seine and close to the eastern end of boulevard Saint-Germain, from 1980. In 1998 she moved back to Québec after thirty-two years in France.
 
Link to my other Anne Hébert posts:

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Anne Hébert in Québec city
Anne Hébert: Les Fous de Bassan

27 June 2015

Juliana Horatia Ewing in Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire


'here lived
1877–1878
JULIANA H.
EWING
author'
 
Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841–1885) was a writer of children's stories who was born in Ecclesfield, Sheffield. Over eighty years before Alison Uttley lived in the street Higher Downs (at number 13), Ewing briefly lived next door at number 14. Her work was appreciated by Kipling and Edith Nesbit, and her story 'The Brownies' is thought by some sources to have given the Baden-Powells the name for the junior Girl Guides.

26 June 2015

Alison Uttley in Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire


Alison Uttley (1884–1976) was born near Cromford in Derbyshire and in 1906 received a BA in Physics from the University of Manchester: she was at the time only the second woman there to graduate with honours. The house above is 13 Higher Downs, Bowdon, Cheshire, where – as the plaque states – she lived from 1924 to 1938. Following her husband's suicide in 1930 she began writing to support herself and her son, and although perhaps best known for her animal creations for children she also wrote for adults. The Country Child (1931) is a fictionalised autobiography.

Uttley's diaries – written between 1932 and 1971 – were edited by her biographer Professor Denis Judd and published in 2009. Part of the headline of a review of the book in the Guardian by Alison Flood calls her a 'jealous, contemptuous woman with a particular loathing for "the Blyton"'. A link to the article is here.

My shot of the Uttley plaque at Manchester University:

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University of Manchester plaques #1: Alison Uttley

23 June 2015

Marie Vieux-Chauvet: Amour, Colère et Folie | Love, Anger, and Madness (1968; repr. Zulma 2015)

Marie Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy Amour, colère et folie (translated as Love, Anger, and Madness) is a major work of Haitian literature, although for many years it was virtually unavailable to readers in Haiti. First published by Gallimard in Paris in 1968 and strongly (but tacitly) criticising François Duvalier's violent régime policed by his dreaded tontons macoutes, Amour, Colère et folie swiftly incurred the wrath of 'Papa Doc' who threatened the author and her family with their lives. Vieux-Chauvet (1916–73) was in New York (where she died) at the time of publication, and her husband in Paris, although on his return he bought up copies already distributed and destroyed them.

This new edition of Amour, Colère et folie by Zulma contains an Afterword by Dany Laferrière, the newest member of the Académie française, who recalls finding a pristine copy of the trilogy under some sheets in an old wardrobe of his mother's: the suggestion is that this was forty years ago.

Amour begins the trilogy and is the longest of the three. Central to the story are three sisters. The 39-year-old Claire Clarmont, an 'old maid' brought up by bourgeois, puritanical (even violent) parents who has never been allowed – or more correctly never allowed herself through timidity and lack of self-confidence (she's the only black member of the family) – to love a man, although her sexual frustration and her jealousy are crippling her. Middle sister Félicia is eight years younger and married to the Frenchman Jean Luze, who has had a sexual liaison with sister Annette, who at eight years younger than Félicia is the 'baby' of the family at 22.

Annette is sexually liberated, as opposed to her sister Claire, who is nevertheless the rebel of the family. Claire dreams of sex, and of being with Jean Luze. Towards the end – after Annette has found sexual contentment and appears to be happily married – Claire plans to kill Félicia and practises the crime by stabbing a cat. All of the above events, though, ignore the political backcloth which all the while threatens to engulf the personal. Power is now in the hands of the ignorant and the heartless.

Previously, Claire has said:

'In the horror of my solitude I've found out that society isn't worth a shit. It hides behind a wall of imbecilities. It is the principal thing that cripples freedom. To be born, to suffer, to grow old and to die resignedly, such is our lot as long as we don't rock the boat.'

In Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy, even people who don't rock the boat are summarily assassinated at the whim of 'le commandant' and his men. Or, like Claire's friend Dora are perhaps raped and mutilated to 'encourager les autres'. Or else they are driven mad like Claire, who envisages stabbing Félicia so she can have Jean Luze to herself, although she hits the wrong target – which is actually the right target, but that's another issue.

Colère leads us further into the nightmare that was Duvalier's Haiti. Men in black (the Tontons, of course) begin the novel by showing that freedom is now dead by driving stakes around the house of the Normils, in so doing effectively preventing them from gaining access to their lands, effectively robbing them of their lands. The house and lands are the grandfather Claude's birthright, and his son Louis goes to a solicitor (with his daughter Rose*) in an attempt to reclaim the land. But Rose is of course intentionally there as bargaining power, and despite taking a huge amount of money, despite Rose being continually brutally raped by one man in black, the family will never get back its lands and some will be killed. All those who don't support the mindless, murderous régime are at risk.

Folie reduces things to basics: one at a time, four very hungry poets come together in a room lived in by René the narrator. They are afraid to venture outside for fear of being shot dead, there is no food and only white rum to drink. They go mad and are executed in the end.

To varying degrees, all three stories contain strong elements in the main title: love, anger and madness. The raw power of this book is unforgettable.

*In his Afterword, the Académicien says Rose is 'sacrifiée sur l'hôtel de sa virginité' ('sacrificed on the hotel of her virginity' (my italics)). I can find no play on words here, so must assume that Dany Laferrière made a schoolboy howler and opted for an unfortunate homophone instead of the correct 'autel' ('altar'). I'm surprised this wasn't spotted before publishing.

17 June 2015

Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions... (2011)

Published by the Bordeaux company Finitude, Capharnaüm has since it began in 2010 usually been a yearly journal. The 2011 issue is devoted entirely to Jean-Pierre Martinet, containing many of his frequently long letters to his friend the publisher Alfred Eibel, whom he refers to throughout as 'Fred'. The letters begin in April 1979, when Martinet had returned from Paris to his family home in Libourne and was looking for a place to establish a bookshop-cum-newsagent's; the letters end in September 1988, four and a half years before his death at the age of 49.

Eibel writes the Introduction to the series of letters, in which among other things he speaks of the strong criticism Martinet has both for himself and people he knows or has known, although at the same time he recognises the merits of the same people. This is particularly true, I noticed, of his attitude towards Gérard Guégan who relaunched the publishing house Le Sagittaire and published Jérôme, Martinet's second novel; and of Michel Marmin's the 'Nouvelle Droite' ('New Right') organisation GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d'études pour la civilisation européenne).

Not that this should suggest that Martinet was left-wing: although he shows throughout a great sympathy for the repressed, the dispossessed and the outsider in general, his letters clearly show a strong disdain for political parties:

'I didn't vote last time and I'm not going to vote this. I'm probably a very bad citizen but the future of this country full of bastards is a matter of complete indifference to me! In any case, universal suffrage is no more than an imposture serving to keep the upper middle class (right or left) in business: I think Marx wasn't mistaken there.' (My translation.)

Martinet is waiting for a moderate sum of money to come from the sale of inherited property on his mother's side, but this becomes a fiasco and in the end he moves house in March or April 1980 to Tours, to a tiny newsagent's with a tiny flat and high hopes of extending the business by selling books. Newspapers sell, although his main profits are made through magazines: book sales are very infrequent, and of the Barbara Cartland, San Antonio, and SAS (Gérard de Villiers) type. His only day off is Sunday, which he sometimes uses up by visiting Eibel in Paris, usually at the Coco de Mer restaurant on the boulevard Saint-Marcel near the Gare d'Austerlitz: the restaurant is noted for its seafood from the Seychelles, although all Martinet ever mentions in his letters is enjoying a good wine.

It's evident that Martinet is only just managing to keep his head above water financially, although when he left Tours is uncertain: there's a gap in the correspondence after September 1983 which an editorial paragraph suggests is partly due to Martinet meeting Eibel in Paris on a monthly basis, partly due to letters that have gone astray. But by October 1986 he's back with his mother in Libourne.

It's in Libourne that he starts writing again, and La Table Ronde – which also pays him a little money as a reader – publishes his third novel, L'Ombre des forêts, which attracts a few good reviews but doesn't exactly set the country alight with enthusiasm. There is no mention of sales figures so we don't know if it did any better than his first two novels: La Somnolence sold less than 500 and Jérôme a little more than 600. I didn't realise that he was working on a fourth novel, which was an extension of Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large*, although he was having problems with the length, and joked that it didn't need secateurs so much as a chain saw. He was particularly pleased with the fact that he was becoming more comfortable with writing dialogue.

This is a gem of a read, providing great insights into the mind of Jean-Pierre Martinet. He writes with a great deal of enthusiam about films (usually old ones) that he watches on television, and I thought it significant that he calls the sparseness of his dialogue in L'Ombre des forêts 'too Bressonian' in places.

*And Maman – see the appropriate post below – doesn't manage to pull the trigger.


My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:

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Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large

15 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large (1986; repr. 2008)

Jean-Pierre Martinet can be a very disconcerting writer, and Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large (I suggest 'Those Who Live on the Edge') begins very disconcertingly. This is my translation of its apparently gender-confused first sentence: 'Mum looked at the sky but, from up there, no one was looking at him, Mum, he knew only too well.' OK, I should have read the front flap first: Maman (meaning 'Mum' in French) is the surname of the main character, Georges Maman.

Originally I'd been thinking that in several ways Martinet reminds me of the New Zealand writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson, and certainly some aspects of their lives are similar: the huge amount of drinking, the obscurity of their work (especially when they were living), living with their mother, their early deaths, etc. The works of both of these writers are a weird mixture of the dark and the humorous, although Martinet lays on the dark with a far thicker brush. But it is particularly Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large which reminds me of another writer: Amélie Nothomb for the dialogue and the situation, the two characters caught in a hellish kind of huis clos, hating each other yet at the same time bound in a trap from which there seems to be no escape.

Maman is of course a loser: a once promising actor, he's now on his uppers, and he's only had a few walk-on parts the whole year. He's been reduced to doing porn, although he even failed at that because he was incapable of getting an erection. With his last fifty franc note, he shambles into the nearest bar and cracks five hard-boiled eggs while impatiently waiting to get served. But he doesn't eat them as he can't stand eggs – they remind him too much of the catastrophe of birth, perhaps? – and gets rebuked by an old guy at the counter for wasting food and mentions the starving in Ethiopia. Mamam, theatrically, says he doesn't give a shit about Ethiopia, and looks round for positive responses to his performance: no one has noticed anything.

The waiter of course doesn't even notice the great Georges Mamam – if he'd been Depardieu or Belmondo, all right, but Maman? Who he? It's as if he never existed, apart from the fact that the waiter's annoyed about all the egg shells on the counter. Maman orders a beer and requests the waiter to go easy on the froth. He swiftly drinks three more and naturally wants to go to the café toilet, but all four cubicles seem to be permanently engaged. So he pisses in the phone box, and while he's at it tries to phone Marie Beretta, the woman he used to live with some years ago, and is still obsessed with.

It's then that he runs into Dagonard the assistant film director, who's also a loser but with more money, and has been working on a Jim Thompson adaptation for ten years but hasn't been successful because of Yasujiro, a cancer he's named after the Japanese film director Ozu: Dagonard's cancer is imaginary, but that's the kind of man he is. And he's an insufferable bore, forever banging on for hours about film plots, and Maman particularly dislikes him because he insists on punning on his name and addressing him as a woman. Maman thinks the only reason people tolerate Dagonard is because he's always got money on him and in fact seems to buy conversation with it. Consequently, Maman decides to tolerate Dagonard's tedious non-stop talking as he's looking for a meal ticket and maybe the permanent loan of several hundred francs if he's lucky.

He gets the meal, but Dagonard lies and says he's a little short of money so they eat at a place where the food is pretty crappy, although to compensate this is washed down by copious supplies of beaujolais, the effects of which partly numb Dagonard's prattle. But Dagonard is self-aware and knows that Maman is only with him to try and wheedle money out of him. He also knows that he still loves Marie Beretta and can use this knowledge as a psychological weapon, speaking of how famous she now is, and of the magazines he has with photos of her husband and child. He gives Maman a 500 franc note, whereupon Maman leaves and takes a taxi home.

In the middle of the night, and still under the effects of the three Rohypnol tablets he's taken, Maman awakes to find Dagonard shaking him: Maman, in his drunkenness, left the key in the lock. Dagonard says he saw Maman going into the chemist's before taking a taxi home, and feared that he was going to kill himself. And so the mental torture continues, with Dagonard getter drunker and drunker on Maman's dirt cheap 1.5 litre Margnat wine in plastic bottles, and even eating his Canigou dog food in the fridge: Maman has no dog.

Eventually the dead drunk Dagonard is bundled into a cab, but not before he's told Maman that he's left a present in the fridge. Maman steels himself to open it, and finds a pistol with 'M BERETTA' in a circle on the handle. He puts it to his temple. But we don't know if he pulls the trigger.


My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:

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Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...