18 January 2018

Marie Nimier: La Girafe | The Giraffe (1963) trans. Mary Feeney

This book I remember buying for a few cents at The Strand bookstore in New York some years ago, before I developed my acute allergy to books in translation, especially translations from the French, which I can read as well as I can English. But as it was sitting there on one of my bookcases and I'd not seen a copy of Marie Nimier's book in the original, I thought I'd give it a go. I shall no doubt end up reading the original anyway, as this is very intriguing, weird (well, it's French), and absorbing.

It is entirely by chance that, in the wake of Catherine Deneuve's objectionable denunciation of #balancetonporc (and by extension #metoo), I began the book on the same day that Catherine Millet (author of La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001)) was making even more objectionable comments, much to the disgust of feminists. Millet was actually saying that she felt sympathy for the métro frotteurs, men who get off on rubbing against women of public transport; she was saying how unfortunate it is that these men's sexual satisfaction is reduced to such pathetic measures. This ignores the indisputable fact that many of these men are probably in permanent relationships anyway, and that their behaviour is akin to that of a schoolboy taking risks by seeing how much he can get away with, or famous or highly esteemed personalities in some position of power taking great risks for the same reason. Frotteurs are not worthy of any sympathy, they are not guilty of harassment: sexual assault is the name of the game, and it is a serious offence. Shame on Millet.

Joseph, the protagonist (and anti-hero) of La Girafe often dares to masturbate in a quiet public place, thrilled by the possibility of being caught, and although he's no frotteur he at one time used an umbrella as an extension of his body to surreptitiously touch women's legs on public transport.

But this book isn't exactly about weird sex: there's not really any sex in it, unless you count a male giraffe mounting a female giraffe, and the zoo director secretly visiting the cashier for a quick one. It's more of an unusual love story of a young man (Joseph) and his obsession for the giraffe (Hedwige in the French version, Solange in the English) that he's in care of at the zoo where he works in Paris. Of African ancestry, Joseph is already an outsider, but he's also seriously sexually and psychologically disturbed.

Joseph really loses control at times of what are for him sexual trauma: he poisons the ostrich after it receives Hedwige's attentions, and even Hedwige herself must die after she loses her virginity to the zoo's lothario. No one suspects Joseph of anything. Finally, when Colin B. (a man) begins sexually assaulting Joseph, Joseph strangles him: well, self defence, yeah?

Often, the book is suffused with oneiric, fantasy writing, the real merging with the imaginary. A very strange second novel from Marie Nimier.

16 January 2018

Hattersley, Hyde, Tameside, Greater Manchester towards the end of the second decade

'Young Andrew Sole jumps for joy!' it says on the imprint page of this 96-page book. It is called Fresh Hope Fresh Air: Starting a New Life in Hattersley, was published in 2008 by Mancunian Reunion Project, and was written by Rachel Gee, Sharron Power, and Dick Richardson. The photo is taken from Werneth Low in the 1960s, with the new builds of Hattersley (an extension of Hyde) in the background.

The new property in Hattersley was a council estate, one of the overspills designed to rehouse those in dwellings in central Manchester classed as 'unfit for human habitation'. The move began in 1963, with most of the tenants coming from the east of Manchester. The book is a largely pictorial guide from the cramped streets of Manchester to Hattersley, with locals providing memories of its schools, its celebrations, its pubs and clubs, etc.

What the book omits is what happened to Hattersley between its creation and its rebirth. It is not too easy to find results by Googling "Hattersley" and "right to buy" because the name of Roy Hattersley (an opponent) inevitably gets in the way, but Margaret Thatcher successfully introduced her 'Right to Buy' bill in 1979, meaning that those living in council houses (today usually called 'social housing') could fulfill their dream: to buy the house they lived in. This was but one of Thatcher's (or rather her advisors') privatisation schemes – such as the right to buy shares in newly privatised gas and electricity – whose 'divide and rule' policies split the working classes down the middle, thus allowing her to remain in power for so many years.

Meanwhile, Hattersley became a 'sink estate', riddled with drugs and crime in general. Its name became synonymous with exclusion from mainstream society. In a few pages at the end of Fresh Hope Fresh Air, trumpeting the re-rebirth of Hattersley, John Armitage, of Hattersley, says:

'On the positive side, crime is down, modernisation of the houses is almost on schedule [...] [e]xcept for a few people with long memories, Hattersley has outlived its previous disreputable stigma, and has a brighter future.'

These seem fine, confident words. However, the reality is very different: the tower blocks have all gone, new houses and flats have gone up and look very pretty perhaps, but Barratt, who as far as I know have built all the houses on the new estate in Hattersley, have handed the management on to Residential Management Group (RMG), who have no interest in property management at all, and are in fact no more than a Mafia-type syndicate created (via a legal loophole) to in effect steal and extort as much money as possible from their unsuspecting leaseholders or 'freeholders' (who aren't in reality free at all).

How about this devastating reaction by 'tenant' Emma Winterbottom, whose full email to Jonathan Reynolds MP (Stalybridge and Hyde (Lab/Co-op)), sent 8 January 2018, I post below with her permission:

'Dear Jonathan Reynolds

I am writing this email to you regarding my concerns and worries regarding RMG who manages the block of apartments where I live on Ashby Gardens in Hyde.

When I first moved into my apartment which will be 5 years in May I was only paying £70 a month. Last year I have been paying £130 a month which is astronomical, that’s almost doubled in the time I have been here. This greatly concerns me financially especially with me living alone. Over the years I have enquired to what exactly I am paying for each month. To which they list jobs that are very rarely carried out if at all. The cleaning is of a very poor standard the doors aren’t even wiped down. They are suppose to look after the car park area which as far as I can see is very irregular. Once the weeds were that bad that they were pushing up the paving in the car park. This did eventually get seen to but after me complaining several times.

It seems to me that I have to phone to complain about something before anything is done which is what I am paying a large amount of money for each month anyway.

The problems I have previously had with regards to the gates for the car park which seems not to have been a problem recently but previously when I hadn’t been here that long they were constantly stuck open. This infuriated me that nothing kept getting done about it despite my numerous calls and calls my neighbours had made regarding this problem, as my car insurance would have been affected if anything had happened to my car as my car is covered as being kept in a private gated car park overnight.

Previously I have also had problems with shoddy workmanship in the apartment. I understand that this isn’t RMG’s fault but this falls with Barratt’s. But what I am about to tell you was daylight robbery on RMG’s part.

I came in from work one evening to find a water leak in the communal hallway downstairs. I went to check my bathroom as this was above and there was a leak coming from the cistern which is the poor workmanship I’m talking about. I had only lived here at that time just over 2 years so Barratts weren’t liable for anything as it had just gone over the 2 years cover with them. I turned off the water and didn’t know what to do. My neighbour upstairs phoned RMG and I tried to contact a plumber which I couldn’t do. An hour or so later a workman from RMG turned up came in and said there was nothing he could do and that it was poor workmanship. He was here no more than ten minutes and was unable to do anything. I then had to get someone in myself the next day to sort out the problem. About 6 months later I received a final demand letter from RMG for £300 which was what they were charging me for the call out. Not only is this an obscene amount of money for absolutely nothing but this letter stated final demand when I had not received any other correspondence previously to this regarding this £300. Living on my own and not earning thousands of pounds a year I was extremely worried and upset as the letter unsettled me as it was quite threatening with regards to taking action if this was not paid as soon as possible. I haven’t got that kind of money lying around. I paid the money with great difficulty but was worried what the further action would be. I had a meeting with the new site manager which I think was early last year I was told there was little he could do about it.

Any correspondence I do receive from RMG is never clear and very confusing. They just pluck large amounts of money out of thin air and demand to be paid.

I recently misplaced my car park fob and phoned up to order another one. I knew there would be a charge for this and with it being my fault for misplacing it there was little I could say but nevertheless was shocked to find out this would be £58. I needed it so I paid for it. A few days later I found the lost fob and contacted them that same day which was a Friday. I was told this could be cancelled and refunded but would have to ring back on Monday. I phoned back on the Monday and was told that this couldn’t be done that the fob had been already been posted and sent out recorded delivery. A week went by and the fob still hadn’t arrived. I didn’t need it as I had found the old one but I had paid £58 for this new one and I wanted it. I then contacted the site manager directly. He said that it had been processed and sent but on this occasion he would refund me the £58. A week later this refund still hadn’t been sent so I had to contact him again. I had to do this numerous times till eventually I did get the refund but the key fob never turned up so they clearly never sent it.

I phoned them early December regarding the monthly charges as I was concerned they were going to go up even further. He informed me they will now be £100 a month instead of £130 due to him agreeing better contracts with other companies. I will believe this when I see it.

I spoke to the neighbours opposite who also own their property and they had received correspondence from RMG with regards to decorating the communal areas and internal repairs. At this point I had not received anything of the sort. I got 2 letters from them between Christmas and new year. These letters are very confusing and misleading. With a final date we all have to speak up about it by the 13th January 2018. Why I got one letter for the properties across the road I have no idea but this seems to state that their repairs will be covered with what they already pay from what I can make out. But speaking to the neighbours facing their correspondence looks like they are wanting over £600 per apartment.

The letter regarding my apartment and the others in the block states they will need approximately £80 each apartment for them to carry out unnecessary work. I pay them enough each month without added extras as well as my yearly ground rent.

I dread getting correspondence from them as I know it is going to cost me. Living alone I have barely any disposable income a month as it is. It is making me ill the constant worries about charges. £80 might not seem a lot of money to most but I won’t get anything for it when already paying £130 a month which I get absolutely nothing for.

My anxiety is through the roof, I’m having many a sleepless night as I can’t afford to pay these ever increasing charges, they just decide what they feel like. What will happen if I simply can’t afford to pay it and keep up with their payment demands? Will I lose my property? I have a very low income as it is hard enough working out the money outgoing without extras like this unnecessarily popping up and I find it very unlikely it will be only £80 there are some very large figures on the paperwork I recently received.

What I find most interesting when I had the meeting with the site manager and I expressed my concerns about the cleaning and marked walls and I asked if decorating was included and was told any decorating is carried out only every ten years. So why is this being carried out now after I have only been here less than 5 years.

I just really hope something can be done about all this as I’m at my wits end.

Please find attached photos of the 2 letters I recently received for my apartment block and the one facing.

I look forward to hearing from you

Emma Winterbottom'

On 21 December 2017 Jonathan Reynolds, in a debate on leasehold and commonhold reform in Westminster Hall, said before reading from an email he had received from a constituent in Ashby Gardens, Hattersley:

'I am genuinely shocked by the stories I hear in my constituency and that we have heard in this debate. I am not a man prone to hyperbole, but I would go so far as to say that the only fair description of some of the practices we have heard about in this debate is legalised extortion. There is simply no relationship between the services being rendered and the costs charged for them.'

He mentioned another constituent, and added:

'Colleagues who know a little bit about Greater Manchester might know that Hattersley is one of the most successful urban regeneration housing schemes in the country. It took a huge amount of resources under the last Labour Government, and was originally one of the overspill estates from Manchester City Council. It is a fabulous story of urban regeneration and success, and activities such as this are frankly blighting that very successful legacy, which is extremely distressing to hear.'

Speaking in general about such legalised criminals as RMG of Hoddesdon, Jonathan Reynolds concluded:

'The time is clearly ripe for action, and there is clearly a consensus for strong action. My only plea to the Minister would be this: for many constituents, this matter is urgent. It is blighting their lives and affecting their quality of life. It is clearly affecting the liquidity of the housing market, and whether people can make reasonable decisions about their households going forward. We need the action to be as swift as possible. Clearly, it is not straightforward and there are issues to resolve, but I cannot believe that anyone who has listened to today’s debate, or others that have taken place, would not agree that there is consensus for political action. Please, Minister—let us get on with that as soon as possible.'

11 January 2018

Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (2017)

This is an almost unbelievable story, although true. Christopher Smart, aged twenty, decided one day in 1986 to live in the woods in the North Pond area of Maine. And he stayed there for twenty-seven years until his discovery in 2013. His family were quite reclusive and never registered his disappearance to the police. He lived by burgling the summer residences nearby for food and other essentials. He made about 1000 such raids, before he was discovered. He didn't look like anyone might expect a hermit to look: he bathed with a sponge in cold water, buried his food packings, shaved and cut his hair. In winter he had great problems coping with sub-zero temperatures.

Slowly, Michael Finkel managed to communicate with him, first writing, then meeting him in prison and collecting information on Smart's startling activities. However, he spends pages talking about autism, Asperger's syndrome, schizoid behaviour, and people's ability to survive such situations without human contact.

But Smart also stole books and read a great deal: reading, after all, is communication, as Smart himself observed but Finkel doesn't pick up on the fact that an author is actually talking to a reader.  Smart's comment that Henry David Thoreau was a dilettante is quite perceptive, and although he may not be a literary expert – his comment on Joyce's Ulysses being highly overrated by pseudo-intellectuals is more than a little gauche – it is obvious that he has a keen intelligence.

That's the problem with this book, which at two hundred pages is read in a couple of hours with no struggle at all, there are no great insights: very simple words and apparently designed for young adults, or people who just don't read very much. When Finkel starts talking about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I was dumbfound. Christopher Smart is indeed an intelligent person, and he deserves far better than Michael Finkel to write about him.

6 January 2018

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts (1988)

No work by Bernard-Marie Koltès is a comfortable read. Here we have a sixty-three page play, or short 'story' (a questionable term in this case) which is in effect a monologue by an unnamed narrator to an unnamed and unknown person. There is just one sentence, punctuated by commas, dashes, and occasionally parentheses.

A man, possibly drunk or sobering up, possibly maddened by loneliness or fear or any other emotion, waylays another person (called by the familiar 'tu') and tries to prevent him passing by his breathless talking. The reader can have few ideas of the man's age, even of his background, although he speaks in slang, and often speaks of events in the past, recent or distant.

We can perhaps surmise that the place is Paris as the man speaks of the métro and of many bridges. He is out of work, has very little money now because he has just been robbed on the métro, helpless to shout for help because (this piece was written in 1977) his attackers have called him a 'queer'.

But he tells his listener that he's not 'a queer', that's not his reason for stopping him, he wants to sober up, or spend some time talking. And he talks of prostitutes, of women he's known (and a particular one he's had sex with on a bridge), of wanting to buy the other person a coffee: anything to shrug off the fear, the despair, the agony of being for a short time. Comforting read, no, but quite fascinating, outsider writing par excellence.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
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Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

5 January 2018

Jocelyne François: Joue-nous « España » (1980)

Another vintage gem from Jocelyne François, found in one of my favourite Paris bookshops for all of one euro. The back cover says Joue-nous « España » (lit. 'Play Us 'Spain'') is an autobiographical account of a woman from Lorraine, concerning her childhood and adolescence. Yes, this has some very vivid descriptions of the area of Nancy where François was born, including her visits to both of her grandparents in nearby Rosière-aux-Salines and Combasle-sur-Meurthe. The reader is treated to a lyrical description of the flowers*, orchards, and vines of the region, including some expressions of the area, such as mettre à parer, meaning to spread grapes on a rack until they ripen. And then World War II spreads its poison over France.

The real interest is when after the war the narrator is sent to a religious school in Mattaincourt, where she physically and mentally develops for seven years. The narrator expresses her love for Marie-Claire, or Sarah as she also calls her, a love which is extremely strong and physically expressed; when she tells a religious man she believes is sympathetic, he tells her to forget such matters: for him, there is no such thing as homosexual love, which is against nature.

The narrator's mother is of a similar opinion as the religious man, only she believes that the narrator would have been better as a sexually promiscuous woman, even as a prostitute. The title takes on a symbolic significance, and in the final paragraph the narrator rejects both her father and her mother: they used to enjoy her playing 'España' on the piano, although she didn't, but when she says 'Non, mon père, non, ma mère, je ne jouerai jamais España' on the piano they gave her, she means that she will never play the game, never play the heterosexual farce (again). She did play the game initially by marrying and had three children, and her lover 'Sarah' (in reality Marie-Claire Pichaud) had an affair with a married man. But truth (as opposed to pretense, or hypocrisy) won in the end, and the couple lived together in Provence (Saumane-de-Vaucluse) for twenty-five years before moving to Paris due to poor health.

*One flower mentioned several times is the nielle, or corn cockle, which is virtually extinct in England.

My other Jocelyne François post:
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Jocelyne François: Les Bonheurs

4 January 2018

Celia Robertson: Who Was Sophie?: My Grandmother, Poet and Stranger (2008)

This is really the story of two lives in one person: first Joan Adeney Easdale, who was a promising poet in her youth; and the second Sophie (or Sophia) Curly, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent many of her years in Nottingham, UK, where she died. The book is written by Celia Robertson, Joan's granddaughter, who tries to work out the secret of what happened to her.

I read somewhere that a doctor (probably a psychiatrist) was pleased that this book is not yet another criticism of psychiatry, and yet to me it reads as just that, it's hugely Laingian. Joan moved from southern England to Australia with her husband and family, and was told by a psychiatrist to forget writing, be a good wife and get on with the housework (OK I'm exaggerating, but to prove an important point), and take up painting as a hobby.

We will never know how much the ill health of Joan's father had an effect on her, how many of her later problems were due to genetic factors, how many to psychological ones. But there are many of Joan's writings here, and it is evident that her writing was a kind of therapy, and that forgetting it would probably do as much harm as the barbaric electro-convulsive therapy she was subjected to in England for seven years from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s. (And I know what I'm saying: I once worked as a psychiatric nurse for many months, helping to administer ECT in its 'modified' form (using muscle relaxant drugs): it's not the kind of experience you forget quickly.)

And so Joan moved back to England, being financially taken advantage of by an unintelligent man called Curly, lived for a few years with him before leaving him for Nottingham and a new life as Sophie Curly. Here she lived off national assistance, in a council house (later flat), becoming 'almost' a prostitute, getting outrageously drunk frequently in the local pubs, where she descended further into (often controlled) madness, and where no one knew of her past budding career as a poet.

Joan Easdale lived from 1913 to 1998, and three books of her poetry were published by Hogarth Press. The cover shows her as a young woman at Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Monks House, Rodmell. Her publications are A Collection of Poems (1931), Clemence and Clare (1932), and Amber Innocent (1939), the last of which is published in full at the end of the biography.

3 January 2018

Tahar Djaout: Les Chercheurs d'os (1984)

Tahar Djaout (1954–93) died at the age of thirty-nine, one of the first victims of Algeria's 'Decade of Terrorism'. Les Chercheurs d'or is the second of his seven novels, and often features as a set book in schools as well as universities. Its subject is in so many respects the Algerian war of independence, but which is nevertheless notable by its absence in the novel: we only have before and after.

Les Chercheurs d'or is divided into three parts: firstly, the leaving of the East Atlas mountains by the adolescent narrator with his relative Rabah Ouali to bring back the bones of his brother killed in the war; secondly, there's a long flashback to the boy's memories of his brother; and finally, there is the journey back to the village with the brother's remains.

The experience transforms the unnamed boy. Are these actually his brother's bones, why has he made this mission ostensibly for his brother who hated the village, and aren't the members of the village merely trying to bury their own ghosts?

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest (1985)

Although the place is unnamed, Bernard-Marie Koltès bases the setting and the architecture on a large disused shed (destroyed in the early 1980s because of the crime associated with it) which he spent some time in in New York in 1982, a place of tramps, gays, criminals, social rejects. Here we have Maurice Koch, 60, who arrives in the shed in his car with Monique, 42. There's also a family: the husband Rodolfe, 58, his wife Cécile, 60, and their children Charles, 28, and Claire, 14. Also present are Fak, 22. And Abad who can speak but never does.

It's impossible not to see Beckett as an influence here, although the play (Koltès's first published) also mentions quotes from the Bible, Victor Hugo, Jack London and Burning Spear (Winston Rodney): an eclectic mixture to match the characters.

Sometimes Koltès's work seems like a kind of dance around dealing of some sort, exchanges of possessions, with menace, or at least uncertainty, ever present. Koltès says he's not interested in reasons, not the 'Why?' but the 'How?'. Also of interest is the meeting of two people, who might have come from two different periods of his life: in his childhood Koch, the bourgeois, military, provincial, French; as opposed to Abad in his youth, who is none of these.

Koch, who has lost his money but doesn't know why, wants to kill himself but we don't know why and of course it doesn't matter. He at first throws himself in the (Hudson) River by the shed, only to be fished out by Charles. At the end he dies offstage, and it's not clear if he dies by his own hand or as a result of Abad killing him.

Cécile also dies, after speaking in Spanish and Quechuan, which are only translated into French in the Annex to the book. Also of interest is Fak teasingly trying to entice Claire into the shed using language which is obviously sexual, although there is no specific mention of anything of a sexual nature: again, it's a kind of dance around the unspoken, which Koltès excels at. But 'meaning', symbolism? Don't even think about it: that's a world Koltès doesn't inhabit.


My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
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Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

24 December 2017

Ferdinand Oyono: Une vie de boy (1956)

Une vie de boy (1956) by Ferdinand Oyono (1929–2010) is the first part of a trilogy (also including Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille (1956) and Chemin d'Europe (1960), the only three novels that Oyono ever wrote, all a time leading up to the independence of Cameroon (Republic of Cameroon).

This novel toggles between the two aspects of Cameroon, the soon-to-be 'free' country and the colony at the time. Toundi is a representation of the split between the two countries, and the novel is very much his notes on what happens. He has a violent father he flees from, and from then is 'adopted' by Father Gilbert, who names him Joseph and teaches him the French language.

On the death of Father Gilbert Joseph becomes the 'boy' (servant) of a white colonial 'master', whose wife is (as is the norm) unfaithful to her husband and Toundi has to act as go-between. Until, that is, he is accused of a crime of which he is innocent, and, well... I can understand why Oyono is an important Cameroon writer.

19 December 2017

Bertrand Beyern: Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres (2008)

Wow. Although Bascoulard: dessinateur virtuose, clochard magnifique, femme inventée (2014) has (by a very long shot) to be the most interesting book I've bought this year, Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres is also by a very long shot the second most interesting. (For the record, Louis Wolfson's Ma mère, musicienne... comes third, and Albert Cohen's Belle du seigneur fourth.) This is a 377-page book of the graves of people – the French are a bit weird with gender, mainly because of the way the language is constructed –  throughout the country, divided by order of départements, and within those by alphabetical order of villages or towns. No messing, no nonsense, pages divided into two columns with a limited number of unobtrusive photos: a taphophile's paradise.

Paris is obviously well represented, and there are maps with numbered graves of the cemeteries in Père-Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmartre and Passy: the four most well-known Parisian places. But beyond this there are many other cemeteries within the périphérique, divided into the twenty arrondissements.

Although we visit Paris every September for the full month, we know that from the point of view of literature – France greatly treasures its literary heritage, as England only vaguely does – even Paris, let alone the country in general – is inexhaustible. Although there are the inevitable additions to be made of people already dead and those who will die, this book is a real treasure, one we will continue to consult during our regular three or four months in France every year.

I've found omissions here, but maybe the main one is tramp-painter Marcel Bascoulard, who perhaps wasn't as well known at the time of publication as he is now. I'm sure I'll find more blanks as I plough into the book, but there's no doubt that I've found a true gem here.

17 December 2017

François-Marie Banier: Balthazar, fils de famille (1985)

Today, any mention of François-Marie Banier is perhaps inevitably greeted with a smile or a laugh, in remembrance of his recent antics in the court case over Liliane Bettancourt, for which he was imprisoned for financially abusing a very rich woman deprived of her mental faculties. The humour was caused by his literary pretensions, his histrionics.

So what was I expecting to find in Balthazar, fils de famille, which I scooped up for the grand sum of nothing in the giraffe in Marseilles?  Not a great deal I must admit, and yet.

And yet this is not only a quick read but, in its way, a fascinating one. Written over thirty years ago, when Banier was in his late twenties, Balthazar, fils de famille is autobiographical: Balthazar, like Banier, has a father of Hungarian origin who physically abused him, used to live in the centre of rue Victor Hugo in the 16e, went to the lycée Janson-de-Sailly, and sold his own paintings in the street.

How much of his alienation as an adolescent, his search for substitute parents, his love for a girl met during holiday, and his attempted suicide are true I don't know, but this is a very surprisingly, and surprisingly well done, novel. Yes, very readable, and quite possibly more autobiographical than I at first thought.

13 December 2017

Céline Minard: Le Grand Jeu (2016)

Céline Minard is generally considered as one of the strangest, most individual writers in French today. This, the latest that she has published at the time of writing, is the first work of hers that I've read. It concerns survival, both physical and existential.

The unnamed female narrator has had a high-tech home built into a mountainside in an attempt to discover how to live. She spends a great deal of time climbing the mountain, descends to the bottom, grows her own food, and even tries building a much more primitive second home, where she feels more in tune with her primitive ancestors.

Solitude is evidently one of the problems she has to learn to cope with, although this is to a certain extent compensated for by the existence of the wildlife community: a curious jay, the isards (or Pyrrenean chamois), and a troublesome marmoset in what initially appears to be a deserted cabin are just some of the encounters she makes.

The narrator has set herself a test, or rather a number of tests, although the greatest test of all comes when she is faced with a female hermit, almost toothless and anarchically shunning any socially accepted formalities in the conventional world. The narrator cannot not accept the woman into her existence and is soon getting drunk with Dongbin. Reading passing remarks in the novel, it's not only alcoholic or primitive alternative states of mind that are of interest, but also the effects of cannabis and LSD. Um, yes this novel is quite a trip.

11 December 2017

Yvan Audouard: Lettres de mon pigeonnier (1991)

The parents of Yvan Audouard (1914–2004) were born in Provence, although he was born in Saigon (his father being a lieutenant) but spent much of his childhood in Arles and Nîmes. After World War II Yvan worked in Paris for Le Canard enchaîné for about thirty years. He wrote over eighty books, dating from 1946 to 2007, many of which were simply for amusement. Provence was always in his heart, particularly in Alphonse Daudet's Fontvieille, and of course the title (lit. 'Letters from My Dovecote') is a play on Daudet's very well-known Lettres de mon moulin (1869) (Letters from My Windmill), which even receives a mention in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.

The writer narrator spends half of each year In Fontvieille, and this is a celebration of Provence and its secrets. It's also a celebration of mystery, of the supernatural, and here he lives with his family, including his female cat Madelon and his pet magpire Gina.

Very strange things happen here, such as the steeple cock on the dovecote speaking and  moving to greet other steeple cocks. Then there are the santons of Grambois (north of Pertuis), the statues speaking, the dove Magali turning into stone, and the narrator's cat Madelon and pet magpie Gina (very troublesome creatures) helping and talking to the narrator so much, as if they were human. 

Even stones speak in this book, although meals never seem to be vegetarian: surely something wrong with the logic here?

Ivan Audouard lies in Fontvieille cemetery:


9 December 2017

Louis Wolfson: Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984; revised 2012 )

This book – by an American – is one of the most amazing ever written in any language. I've mentioned it before, so I'll be brief with the general background here, which is in a little more detail in the link at the bottom. Louis Wolfson's previous Le Schizo et ses langues (1970) contained a Preface by Gilles Deleuze and received an enthusiastic welcome by Raymond Queneau and J. B. Pontalis. Michel Foucault, J. M. G. Le Clézio and Paul Auster have also expressed their fascination for the man. This is Wolfson's 2012 update of his Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984): on the surface, simply about the death of his mother.

I've already stated that, after being sent to a psychiatric hospital in his adolescence, diagnosed as a schizophrenic and subjected to EST (or ECT 'therapy' in English), Wolfson emerged into the outside world hating English, his 'mother' tongue, the language of the mother who subjected him to psychiatric abuse. So, teaching himself French, German, Hebrew and Russian, he devised an extremely complex way to by-pass English by automatically mentally converting sounds and meanings into equivalent sounds and meanings in those other languages. His constant use of his cassette player and his headphones also helped to drown out his intrusive mother tongue.

When I wrote the previous post I hadn't read Ma mère, musicienne, ..., I'd only read reviews of Wolfson's books and articles about him. I'd imagined that this three-hundred page book, dressed in black and where Wolfson sort of makes his peace with his sort of aggressor, would be rather bleak and daunting. How wrong can you be? This reads very much like an accomplished novel, the writer knows how to lead the reader into the story and it's actually surprisingly humorous in many parts.

In fact, although in places Wolfson's obsessions show through, it's nevertheless really surprising how, er, 'normal' he seems, and the book in parts reads as though the apparently sane aren't so 'normal': in other words he's turning madness on its head: how about his brilliant reference (for once in English) to 'Harry Pot o' Shit'? Could any comedian do a better put-down of J. K. Rowling?

Yes, Ma mère, musicienne, ... is about Louis Wolfson's mother's death, and is punctuated throughout with Rose Wolfson's diary notes of her illness (ovarian cancer), the times she sees the doctor, the medication she's given, etc. But in the first half of the book Rose plays second fiddle to the horses Wolfson obsessively backs, and the reader is treated to betting odds, scrupulous details of how he made his way to the stadia, his arguments with a black bus driver (often called a 'nigger': Wolfson has his prejudices), his preoccupation with the cost of things, and so on. In the second half of the book, 'les canassons' ('the nags') give way to Wolfson reading up on cancer.

Wolfson, who lived for a while in Montréal, can certainly write French, although inevitably he has his eccentricities: he uses the archaic 'vivoir' for 'salon', for instance, and the word 'couple' is adopted for a couple of anything; several times, we read 'piastres' instead of 'dollars', and 'liard' is used a few times; he appears to have a healthy hatred for television, and frequently follows it with 'cancérigène ?' in brackets. He also uses the expresssion 'peu ou prou' ('more or less') and the word 'nonobstant' ('notwithstanding') a great deal. He is convinced, as he frequently mentions, that his paranoia is iatrogenic.

These little quirks, tics of language, call them what you will, might sound irritating, but they are all part of the framework of Wolfson's personality, and they very much add to the reader's knowledge of the man as a whole: there's nothing artificial there, we have to conclude – this is Louis Wolfson. And this is a hell of a book.

Link to my previous post on Louis Wolfson:
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Louis Wolfson and Schizophrenic Languages

6 December 2017

Christian Signol: Au cœur des forêts (2010)

After reading a book of interviews, and novel and a play by Bernard-Marie Koltès, Christian Signol (a very popular, but not in the same way as, say, Marc Levy or Guillaume Musso) pulled me back to earth with such a jolt that I'm still wondering 'What happened?'. Signol was born in Quercy (Quatre-Routes-du-Lot) in 1947, and has since 1984 published at least one book a year. And they're not short, as this one is over three hundred pages.

I question how much revision Signol subjects his books to, as in the beginning of this book at least there are a number of repetitions, although this novel taught me a number of things about trees, such as oaks take far longer to mature than spruces, and so on. But trees are very much the main characters in this novel, in which the ageing first person narrator Bastien owns a reasonably sized plantation: he knows that trees have to breathe, can feel pain.

Essentially this is the story of Bastien's life among the trees, of his memories, and of the present, in which his grand-daughter Charlotte comes to stay with him several times, and is very interested in family history, particularly in the disappearance long ago of Bastien's sister Justine, but of course Charlotte is technologically clued up and can research things on the internet that Bastien has no idea of.

So, hovering around Bastien's business with trees is an unsolved mystery that has haunted him for decades. So too is his memory of his father's concerns for a seriously wounded German soldier in World War II: most French people would have left him to die or have finished him off, especially members of the Resistance, people such as Bastien's father. But no, his father had a heart.

The story of the German soldier fascinates Charlotte as much as the fate of Justine, and she Googles for some time, finally resolving the mystery: the dying soldier passed on his address to Justine who told him she'd visit his family after the war to tell them how he died, which she does and ends up marrying the German's brother, and her daughter Magda (the result of the marriage) Charlotte tracks down so she (Magda) can visit Bastien to tell him the story, and of how Justine lost her life in a car crash in the 1960s, never daring to tell her whereabouts to her family, especially to her mother who'd lost her brother in a Nazi atrocity in the village.

Yeah, I know. Highly readable, but I won't jump at the chance to read too many of the novels Christian Signol churns out.

4 December 2017

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger (1995)

Commissioned to write this in 1977 by Bruno Boëglin, Sallinger (with a double 'l') is Bernard-Marie Koltès's first written play, although it was not published until 1995, several years after his death. As the title suggests, it is heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger, and there are many similarities between this and Salinger's Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye: Zooey, and Leslie in Sallinger, are both actors; some of the characteristics of Ma in Sallinger echo the mother in Franny and Zooey; the telephone call at the end of Sallinger recalls the dead brother of Franny and Zooey; more generally, there is the theme of the family; and of course the various problems of young people on the edge of adulthood, etc.

Violence is again a strong feature of Sallinger, such as Leslie's window smashing scene, and of course the suicide of Le Rouquin and later Henry killing himself by jumping from the bridge. War is of course not only in the background but also very much in the foreground, and old soldier Al (the father) gives an encouraging welcome to the Vietnam war, although the general drift of the play is well away from the perceived glory of combat and emphasises war's wastefulness, its mindless tearing apart of people's lives.

Perhaps needless to say, the themes of alienation, deracination, solitude, and lack of communication (particularly among younger people), and madness (on the part of Le Rouquin and Leslie's sister Anna) are to the fore here.

Sallinger is nowhere near as well known as the plays Quai Ouest, Dans la solitude des champs de coton, or the monoloque La Nuit juste avant les forêts, although the indications of what was to come are quite clearly in place.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
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Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville (1984)

La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville (lit. 'The Flight on Horseback Far into the Town') is Bernard-Marie Koltès's only novel: novels don't have the constraints that Koltès finds so productively useful, and he says in an interview in Une part de ma vie that it would probably take him ten years to write one. (Koltès was obviously unaware that at the time of speaking he only had six more years to live.) The novel was written in 1977, seven years before it was published in 1984, and was in fact Koltès's first published book. All of his books are published by Minuit.

Although obviously not too proud of this first published work, Koltès nevertheless doesn't 'disown' it, and the novel (formally unusual in its narrative that sometimes resembles a play, sometimes a film scenario) bears many of the marks of his later work.

The back cover – presumably written by the author himself – describes the four main characters, the young sisters Barba and Félice and the two young men Cassius and Chabanne (young people are a strong feature in Koltès's plays) as 'fragile heroes of a kind of mythology for our time' who are 'metaphors of everyday day life' playing out the 'cruel, silent ballet of impossible loves'.

Koltès finds love banal and false and seeks out truth. As might be expected, his characters are mainly rootless, alienated, and often violent in a menacing, violent and dark world. Félice is from a psychiatric hospital and spends some time with a knife 'haunting' a cemetery where there are threatening cats; Cassius is a constant sponger who can only live by cadging from people, and who kills a cat who just happens in on a bedroom scene, and then guts it; Chabanne is an Arab who knows his way around cars and is disliked by the police; and Barba, Chabanne's mistress, worked at the Griffe Rouge ('Red Claw') until she got the sack.

Or was some of that above a dream? The whole novel is suffused with a hallucinatory, surreal atmosphere in which reality sometimes seems just a bit player in a twilight world of psychotropic drugs, which, being no doubt so much a part of the story, are barely mentioned.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
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Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

3 December 2017

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie : entretiens (1983-1989) (1999)

Une part de ma vie is a fascinating, if often intangible, insight into the playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès's work, being a collection of interviews taken from just before the publication of his first work (his only novel La Fuite à cheval, in 1983) until the date of his death from AIDS in 1989.

Koltès often appears to side-step questions, denying what might appear to be obvious, such as the alienation, the lack of hope, the deracination. Nothing to do with his homosexuality, though, as he says he can't use that as a prop. Well, no, as all these interpretations of his work deal with universals.

At one point in an early interview he makes an interesting point about his interest in the theatre in particular: he likes the constraints, how you can't describe a character directly as in a novel, never speak about the situation, because you have to make it exist. It's what's behind the words being said that is of importance: you can't, for instance, have a character say 'Je suis triste' ('I'm sad'), he has to say something like 'Je vais faire un tour' ('I'm going for a walk'). Yes, but the way it is said is surely vital?

Koltès says that he goes to the cinema a great deal, but to the theatre very little, as, for example, he doesn't like the people who go to the theatre, and I can understand that very well. His literary influences are 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Latin American', and mentions Melville, London, Conrad and Vargas Llosa, although he dodges the inevitable probe that these are writers of exile, elsewhere, travel, by saying that they have an extraordinary sense of metaphor. A similar avoidance of being pinned down to particular themes in his work comes when he doesn't deny that his work deals with deracination, but simply states that no story doesn't take this into account.

But travel is very important to him, and he finds it impossible to write in Paris, his ideas always come when travelling, and he wrote Combat de nègre et de chiens in a small Guatemalan village. The way people speak languages which are not their native tongues is also important to him.

Later, he says that he's never written anything that's intended to be serious, which surely must be an odd kind of joke, itself not to be taken seriously?

Translation though (one of my own pet hates) is certainly to be taken seriously, and he says that he'd like to see his plays performed in London, but suspects that translation is a problem. Certainly he came to see Germany (a nation among his greatest readership) as mis-translating his work in the broadest sense: he saw the theatrical interpretation of one of his plays as appalling.

Interestingly, when asked about his depiction of marginals, Koltès replies that the whole world consists of marginals. In Quai Ouest he took New York and Barbès (in Paris) as his models, places where eighty per cent of the population were (and probably still are) immigrants: ordinary people are marginals – the real crazies, the real weirdos – are the bourgeoisie in the provinces.

Clearly, Koltès was a truly original talent cut down in his prime.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
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Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

1 December 2017

Albert Cohen: Belle du seigneur (1968)

Of Jewish origin, Albert Cohen (1895–1981) was of Swiss nationality, born in Corfu. Winner of the Grand Prix de l'Académie FrançaiseBelle du seigneur (1968) is generally considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest Francophone books of the twentieth century. It is  the third part of a tetralogy: first came Solal (1930), then Mangeclous (1938), and the original Belle du seigneur, at 1300 pages, was too long for Gallimard, so Cohen excised a large part and with it made the final volume: Les Valeureux (1969).

Brilliant Belle du seigneur certainly is, although it is no easy read, and not just because of its dense 845 pages. It is written in different styles, and there are a number of chapters or sections filled with unparagraphed, unpunctuated stream of consciousness. I wouldn't  hesitate to put this tome among a group of other 'unreadable' door-stoppers such as Josuah Cohen's Witz, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, and Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.

Albert Cohen's novel is a book of strong satire on the various diplomatic positions within the Société des Nations, the preening and posturing, the fawning and the frivolity of it all. It can be very funny, pitiless to the pathetic, filled with representations of sexual passion, but death always lurks behind the scenes, or is even a major player at the heights of apparent life.

Essentially, though, this is a love story doomed to failure. Here, the rakish big shot at the SDN, the Jew Solal, falls in love with Ariane, the bored wife of the unbearably sycophantic m'as-tu vu Adrien Teume, promotes him and runs off with his wife. Adrien tries to kill himself, fails and continues working. Meanwhile, Solal has lost his nationality, and therefore his job and entire status, but carries on regardless living in a sexual fantasy land with Ariane at an expensive hotel in the south of France. But you can't escape your own consciousness, nor the fact that love is evanescent, and the dangerous games that Solal and Ariane are playing will lead inevitably to mutual suicide. You might say that Romeo and and Juliette are hoist with their own petards, but this is much more Joycean and Proustian than Shakespearean.

In this mammoth novel Albert Cohen is often funny when talking about death, from the 'joyeux futurs cadavres' ('joyful future corpses') to Solal and Ariane being 'enterrés vivants dans leur amour' ('buried alive in their love'); he sees the insanity of tourism: whyever should they go to Venice only to see themselves?; he is acutely aware of the malice behind the social smile; the madness of being jealous about a dead affair; the vacuousness of having nothing to do in your home but use a spirit level on items of your furniture, just to check; or the despair that leads you to kiss your own hand in order to give yourself the appearance of companionship.

Belle du seigneur may be tedious to the point of being unspeakably boring at times, but isn't that true of life itself? Albert Cohen has drawn a true picture of life, and this work should be recognised as the vital literary work of art that it is.

My other Albert Cohen post:
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Albert Cohen: Mangeclous | Naileater

24 November 2017

Andrée Chedid: Les Quatre Morts de Jean de Dieu (2010)

Andrée Chedid (1920–2011) was born in Cairo to a Syrian mother and a Lebanese father. Les Quatres Morts de Jean de Dieu is about the life (and death) at the age of seventy-seven of Jean de Dieu, born in Spain into a solidly bourgeois Catholic Spanish family. This novel (not her last published) was published shortly before her death at the age of ninety.

Jean's first 'death' was that of his Catholic faith: his friend Miguel's father José introduced him to the readings of thinkers such as the Russian anarchist Kropotkin. At a very young age, both Jean and Miguel were forced to flee from Spain with the coming of the fascist Franco, and emigrated permanently to France.

Jean married Isabelita in France, and was for years a man of communist persuasion, although even on the fall of the Berlin wall, Isabelita wonders if his second death, his lack of belief in communism, didn't come some time before, such as on the death of Stalin and Khrushchev's denunciation of him in 1956.
The third death of Jean came on his illnesses, his cardiovascular problems and more, but essentially his onset of Alzheimer's disease.

The final death of Jean is in carrying out his final wishes, to have his ashes scattered from a high point in Cerbère (Pyrénées-Orientales), where Miguel and family members used to go to view the Catalonia that they remembered, but where Isabella stumbles.

Andrée Chedid is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse. The quotation at the front of the book is by Chrétien de Troyes, and engraved on the tomb: 'Lil cors s'an vet, il cuers séjourne': 'The body leaves, the heart remains':

Nathacha Appanah: Tropique de la violence (2016)

Nathacha Appanah's Tropique de la violence is a kind of (fictional) thriller which at the same time highlights one of the major problems in Mayotte, an island in the Atlantic which is also a department of France, although it vastly differs from the European mother country. The novel addresses one of the country's biggest problems: the plight of illegal immigrants, mainly from the Comoros, but also those from other nearby countries.

Tropique de la violence is narrated by several people, two of whom – Marie and Bruce – are dead. Marie was a white nurse in Mayotte whose husband had left her and she refused to divorce him until a teenaged woman, who has braved the hazardous journey on a kwassa from the Comoros, leaves her baby with Marie at the hospital.

The general idea of children or adolescents being left (or leaving themselves) in Mayotte is that they'll have a much better life in a French country. The reality, though, is that many paperless young people are living in a bidonville called Gaza, drinking, taking drugs and living by stealing from or conning others.

Marie 'adopts' the child (whom she calls Moïse) as her own with her husband's consent and an official certificate in exchange for a divorce. And then, when Moïse is still fourteen, she falls down dead in the kitchen. Not knowing what to do, Moïse leaves the house and eventually falls into the hands of Bruce, the 'king' of Gaza, and a very violent character who runs a Mafia-style gang.

But Moïse shoots Bruce dead, and the novel is much concerned with the events leading up to the killing, with a big surprise at the end. A superlative book that forced me to read on.

22 November 2017

Grégoire Delacourt: Les Quatre Saisons de l'été (2015)

Grégoire Delacourt's Les Quatre Saisons de l'été is a novel, but also four short stories linked by the same theme: all take place on the 14 July 1999 holiday period, and all at Le Touquet seaside resort (formerly called Paris Plage) in Normandy. And the stories are all named after flowers: 'Pimprenelle' (burnet), 'Eugénie Guinoisseau' (a variety of rose), 'Jacinthe' (hyacinth) and 'Rose'. Francis Cabrel's song 'Hors Saison' (lit. 'Out of Season') is also the sound of all four (summer) seasons here. This is much more of a novel than, say, the wonderful Marie NDiaye's rather disappointing Trois femmes puissantes,* as there are far more interlinks in the stories, far more sightings of the various people involved.

The stories go from youth to age, with 'Pimprenelle' being a tale of fifteen-year-old Louis's love for the thirteen-year-old Victoire being the essential element. Alas, when she has her first period they must part, although she didn't love Louis anyway, and rather made a fool of herself in her attentions to Louis's much older neighbour Gabriel.

The thirty-five-year-old Isabelle of 'Eugénie Guinoisseau' is a loser in the love stakes, although she slightly prolongs the life of an anonymous old man, nicknamed 'Monsieur Rose', whose last uttered word was 'Rose', the name of the elderly woman who was his wife.

'Jacinthe' is a story of successful seduction, of the fifty-five-year-old Monique being reborn as Louise, partner of the reborn Robert.

And 'Rose' brings us back to the septuagenarian couple Rose and Pierre, who observe many of the activities in the other stories in Le Touquet, but who have decided that they shall end their lives by walking into the sea together.

Grégoire Delacourt is more interesting than I at first thought.

*Rosie Carpe, for example, is far superior to Trois femmes puissantes, and don't be misled by anyone suggesting otherwise.

My other Grégoire Delacourt post:
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Grégoire Delacourt: La Liste de mes envies | The Wish List

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: L'Appareil Photo | Camera (1988)

In Pierre Lepape's review of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel L'Appareil Photo (translated into English as Camera) on 9 January 1989, he describes the anonymous narrator/protagonist as a hypersensitive person 'trying to live less in order to live less badly', which makes a lot of sense.

Deciding to take driving lessons, the 'hero' is bogged down by bureaucracy, and can't cope with everything he's asked for at once, particularly four photos of himself. He brings out an envelope of photos of him as a child with his father, of his sister in his mother's arms, his parents with his sister at the swimming pool, etc, but knows that they're inappropriate. He'll have to work on it.

One thing he says, and in fact repeats and seems to echo Lepape's words, is that his 'jeu d'approche' (the way he goes about things) is to try to 'fatiguer la réalité' (exhaust the reality) of difficulties he stumbles up against, much as he works on an olive on his plate, leaving marks of it with his fork, trying to crush it to make it suitable for him to stab and put into his mouth. Er, yes, that's quite an analogy.

So this is the story of a man who starts taking driving lessons, becomes at first vaguely involved with one of the women (Pascale!) who work there, goes with her in one of the dual controlled cars when she needs a primagaz refill, although the car breaks down and has to be left at the nearest garage. Then for some reason they end up in London for the night and become lovers, the 'hero' appears to have gone to the wedding mentioned in the second sentence of the book, misses the last train home and walks towards Orléans, resting in a telephone booth and concentrating on the fugitive moment, on immobility.

There are obviously a number of similarities between the protagonist in La Salle de bain and the one in L'Appareil Photo, although this one seems (relatively) far saner and has far less malice towards others: he even worries deeply over stealing (meaning not handing in) a presumably very cheap instamatic camera he finds wedged between two cushions in the self-service café on the boat going back home.

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:
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Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Salle de bain | The Bathroom
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie

21 November 2017

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Salle de bain | The Bathroom (1985)

That is, not 'bathroom' in the American sense. La Salle de bain was Jean-Philippe's first novel, which seems to be about a madman, although – with the exception of one particular instance – it is really funny for much of the time, if funny in both senses of the word. Post-modern this certainly is, and Oulipian too in that the constraint is a huge lack of information about the psychology of the first person narrator, a historical researcher who does no professional research here.

In fact he is obviously undergoing some kind of crisis, and the Pythagorian theorem about the square of the hypotenuse is a kind of illustration of the form of the book: the first and last sections are called 'Paris', the middle one 'L'Hypoténuse'. 'L'Hypoténuse' mainly takes place not in Austria where the narrator has been asked to go to, but Venice (water, bathroom, of course) where he flees to under some kind of psychologically-driven panic.

Not that he does anything much there, apart from watch football on television, or 'talk' in one of the only ways possible that he can to someone (the hotel barman) whose language he doesn't share: by exchanging names of esteemed footballers and racing drivers. He also shows interest in tennis, although it's far easier to throw darts at a circle chalked on a wardrobe panel.

Until, that is, he entices his girlfriend Edmondsson (who works in an art gallery) over to join him, and with great force he (for no reason that we're aware of) hurls a dart with great force into her forehead and (after a short time in a Venetian hospital) she returns to Paris. His reaction to his behaviour perhaps brings on another crisis: a doctor in Venice tells him he has to be treated for sinusitis, which causes him to stay for a few nights at the hospital in preparation for the treatment he never has: he simply takes the plane back to Paris.

At the beginning of the novel he has spent a great deal of time in his bathroom, and it appears that he may do the same again on his return. He also spends long moments in bed, in non-activity. Contrary to Edmondsson, he loves Mondrian, whom he sees as a painter of immobility, contrary to most paintings, which he sees as highly mobile. Staring at a crack in his bathroom wall in Paris he sees no movement. Similarly, (although it's sinking at the rate of thirty centimeters per century) Venice, even if the narrator and Edmundsson tread heavily on the streets, their effect on the sinking of the place will be like water off a duck's back, as it is only sinking at the rate of 0.0000001 of a millimetre per second.

Before the narrator's violent attack on his girlfriend, he (and occasionally his girlfriend too) used to enjoy doing a few slightly malicious things, such as having really long (especially long-distance) conversations on the phone while Edmondsson's employer wasn't there; the narrator also enjoys holding people up by asking them complicated directions, and goes out of his way to find anyone in a hurry; he visits the hotel kitchen with a view to stealing a chicken leg; having enjoyed an evening meal and afternoon drink with his hospitable doctor and his wife, the narrator walks right out of their lives saying he has to return to his hotel and his wife. Come again? No, no.

A very weird book that only the French (OK, I mean the French-speaking: Toussaint is Belgian) do really well.

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:
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Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: L'Appareil Photo | Camera
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie