16 September 2020

Auguste Rodin's Les bourgeois de Calais, Pas-de-Calais (62)

This statue, Les Bourgeois de Calais in front of the mairie in Calais, was sculpted by Auguste Rodin in bronze in 1895, and it is the first of twelve originals. The figures are Eustache de Saint Pierre, Jacques and Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes, Andrieu d'Andres and Jean d'Aire, the six city leaders who in 1347 surrendered to the English king, Edward III, in return for him saving the city during the Hundred Years' War. A very powerful creation.

Sand sculptures in Calais, Pas-de-Calais (62)

Definitely time that I finished the blog posts from our last visit to France (July to August) as I've been spending too much time looking into Marie NDiaye, Samuel Beckett and Éric Chevillard. So here goes with Calais, working back in time in general. Sand sculptor Franck De Conynck was commissioned to make sand sculptures of Calais's principal features. Barriers weren't initially put up to protect them, although they were later, and when the artist returned to complete another sculpture he'd correct the damage that the weather had done. I missed the sculpture of Les Bourgeois (the real bronze sculpture of which I'll make a post of next), and we weren't in time to see Conynck's last sculpture near the dragon.

L'Église de Notre-Dame in front of the mairie.

L'Hôtel de Ville in the Place Marechal Foch in front of le Parc Richelieu.

And the Théâtre de Calais near the Tour du guet, with the sculpture of De Gaulle with his wife Yvonne, who was born in Calais in 1900.

9 September 2020

Various: Une nuit à l'hôtel (2019)

This is a collection of eleven short stories, all written by prominent authors, and all having a night in a hotel as the theme. We need books like this, which give us not only an idea of what authorial talent is around, but also perhaps a hint of who we'd like to read more of, or not at all. I particularly appreciated the stories by Cécile Coulon, Nina Bouraoui, Adeline Dieudonné, Franck Bouysse and Négar Djavani.

The stories:

Cécile Coulon, 'Madame Andrée' –  A woman goes to a hotel to have a lesson on playing the flute from her former teacher, although everything is in her mind.

Serge Joncour, 'Une nuit, presque à l'hôtel'  – A man sleeps in a deckchair by the hotel swimming pool because, well, he can't stand duvets: he's an eiderdown salesman.

Nina Bouraoui, 'Une nuit à Timinoun– A woman with homosexual sympathies admires a young female guest in a hotel after fleeing from her husband, children, and the asphyxiating normality.

Silvain Prudhomme, 'La Femme au couteau– A guy remembers his university back-backing days, particularly staying in a bug-ridden hotel and being greeted by a woman with a knife.

Adeline Dieudonné, 'Alika– The hell of a child minder from the Philippines come to France to what amounts to slavery.

Franck Bouysse, 'Ma Lumière– A clever young boy lives in hotels with his mother who perhaps works as a cleaner, but also as a prostitute.

Négar Djavani, 'Le Dernier– After twenty-two years a cop tracks down a serial killer who has set up a new life in Buenos Aires.

Caryl Férey, 'Juste pour un jour– The punk era by the Berlin wall, the title of course being a translation from David Bowie's 'Heroes'.

Ingrid Astier, 'Fil de soie– A man, dumped by his girlfriend, arrives at a hotel where there's a 'telepathic' barman.

Régis Jauffret, '¡Alzheimer! ¡Que buéno! Y Macrón! ¡También!'  – An insane rant from a hotel (or psychiatric hospital?) in which virtually every sentence ends in an exclamation mark!

Valérie Zénatti, 'Le Miroir de Cirta– A young French woman traces her mother's and her grandmother's Algeria, before they were forced to emigrate to France.

6 September 2020

Jean Echenoz: Envoyée spéciale (2016)

In Lac (1999) Jean Echenoz wrote a kind of parody of the espionage novel, and after some time dabbling with biographical novels returned to espionage here, although with a difference, as it doesn't read as if it's a parody, and much more is involved here: the spy story just seems a starting point for Echenoz to weave a very complicated web in which the 'story' becomes a number of interrelated stories in which there are occasional digressions made gratuitously by the narrator, who is sometimes 'I', or 'we' or 'you', etc.

It's pretty impossible to sum this novel up without writing a great deal, and in any case that wouldn't make a great deal of sense because of its complex nature: there are a large number of character studies here, although that's the wrong expression because we only see parts of a person. Let's say we just see certain facets of the characters' personalities.

The novel begins with the ageing General Bourgeaud of some kind of secret police telling his much younger worker Paul Objat (later named Victor for anonymity) that he needs a woman, and Paul saying he does too, but that's being facetious because Bourgeaud's reasons are professional and Paul's are sexual. Yes, Bourgeaud needs a woman to spy, but a woman who knows nothing about spying. Paul thinks he knows the woman (although he's never spoken to her) and she (the paradoxically-named Constance) is kidnapped outside the Cimetière de Passy near Trocadéro – the first part is a second nature for those familiar with Paris – where the novel will end in a kind of circle via Creuse (the second least populated département in France) and Pyongyang.

Creuse is where we have the development of both Stockholm syndrome and its opposite Lima syndrome, where the abducted (Constance) sides with her abductors (Jean-Pierre, Christian and Victor), and vice versa. And things are in part played out in South Korea, where Gang is ready to defect, but.

There is a whole, er, gang of other characters here, killings, social bondings, eccentricities and so on, but I'll leave it at that or it might risk becoming too complicated. This is a gripping book, full of twists and turns, and has to be read in a short space of time or you might lose the thread(s).

Éric Chevillard: Sans l'orang-outan (2007)

Éric Chevillard's Sans l'orang-outan has been said to be his most political novel, and that is perfectly understandable: it depicts a world – very sadly probably not that far from us in time – when the orangutan will no longer exist, when it will be as dead as a dodo, or a glyptodon.

Sans l'orang-outan is in three parts, in the first of which the narrator Albert Moindre (a favourite character for Chevillard, and his surname – 'moindre', meaning 'slightest' or 'least', is a favourite word) – learns that the last two orangutans, Bagus and Mina, have died of a virus. Moindre works in the zoo and everyone is devastated by the news. 

The second part goes crazy, and the narrator is plunged into a barren, meaningless, hellish violent world in which almost any hope of humanity, any hope at all in fact, is virtually non-existent. All because the orangutan has gone. This part is very similar in theme and tone to Chevillard's next novel, Choir (2010), and could very easily be viewed as a precursor to it.

The third part, as well as reminding us of the disappearing forests causing the orangutans to lose their habit for the increasing use of palm oil,  plunges us into surrealism: Bagus and Mina have been stuffed, and as a reminder of what has been lost Albert Moindre has their remains displayed in a glass case for all to see. There are also very odd remarks that he makes about his sexual attraction to them, which reminds me of Joseph's behaviour in Marie Nimier's La Girafe (1987).

Sans l'orang-outan can be seen as a symbol of impending ecological catastrophe or by extension of humanity's insensitivity to anything other than profit. It is a genuine horror story.

31 August 2020

Jean-Philippe Rameau in Dijon, (Côte-d'Or (21))

Description de cette image, également commentée ci-après

On Boulevard Georges Clemenceau, a statue of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), who was a composer and music theorist born in Dijon. He is thought of as one of the greatest musicians and is particularly noted for his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes (1735).

Éric Chevillard: Choir (2010)

Choir, literally meaning 'Falling' (possibly in a (mock-)religious sense), is almost undoubtedly one of Éric Chevillard's bleakest books, with suggestions of (waiting for) Godot, Endgame and a little Lautréamont.

The inhabitants of the island of the same name all want to leave the hell they're in: a place that can be freezing, where food (such as it is, and often they rely on root crops, animals they catch, or even eating themselves – at one time when people had died, or there's a suggestion of parents eating their young). The land is covered in guano or infertile sand, sometimes quicksand in which they're buried alive. Not only is the land itself hostile, but they're prey to savage animals or even themselves as there's frequent infighting.

This is not a timeless environment because planes often arrive there: forced to land for whatever reason, the planes crash, are forced by necessity to land on Choir, or are drawn to the island as if by some kind of magnetism – there's a suggestion of a kind of Bermuda triangle. Whatever the reason, any survivors are unable to make contact with any outside civilisation and must join with the others in fruitlessly wanting to leave. Inevitably, this seems (as in Beckett) to be a description of the human condition.

Contradictions abound, the hunters become the hunted, sleep is avoided for fear of dreaming of Choir only to wake up to the living nightmare, misfortunes are counted off as if prayers on a rosary, and sex is generally avoided because it can only result in producing more despairing life. And yet one game consists in causing the opponent as much harm as possible without killing him, as if misery must paradoxically be prolonged.

But there's hope of a kind. In the centre of the island is a statue to the one person who has succeeded in escaping from the island – Ilinuk, who built a machine from the wreckage of the planes: he is worshipped as a god, and the main essential thread in this story is the aged Yoakam's tales of his relationship with Ilinuk and of how he awaits his promised return, like a saviour coming back to free his people from their servitude. Or could he be rambling, is Ilinuk dead or did he in fact exist? Chevillard piles on the misery, emphasizing one of his obsessive themes: the impossibility of survival.

30 August 2020

Alexis Piron in Dijon, (Côte-d'Or (21))

1689 - 1773'

Also in the Jardin de l'Arquebuse in Dijon is Piron's bust. He was a playwright as well as a poet  and a man of undoubted brillance and quick wit, although his first published work, an erotic poem written about the age of twenty – Ode à Priape (1710) – was to dog him throughout his life and prevent him from being elected to the Académie française. His self-composed, self-denigrating epitaph is rather harsh:

'Ci-gît Piron
qui ne fut rien,
Pas même académicien'.

Champagne in Mardeuil, Marne (51), Épernay (51)

At a roundabout at the entrance to Mardeuil, one of a number of Champagne-producing villages near Épernay, this attractive representation of a Champagne cork and cage.

Boite à lire, Bar-sur-Seine (10), Aube (10),

If nothing else, a reasonable excuse to avoid the bypass and drive through a rather odd but very interesting old village.

27 August 2020

Aloysius Bertrand in Dijon, (Côte-d'Or (21))

Louis Jacques Napoléon Bertrand, or Aloysius Bertrand (1807-41) was a poet, playwright and journalist considered as the inventor of the prose poem. He is most noted as the author of Gaspard de la nuit (1842). He spent much of his life in Dijon, although he died in Paris and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse. His bust in Le Jardin de l'Arquebuse in Dijon contains a quotation from Gaspard: 'J'étais un jour assis a l'écart dans le jardin de l'Arquebuse'.

Éric Chevillard: Monotobio (2020)

OK, Monotobio as opposed to 'Mon autobio', with four rounded sounds and no drag on the tongue. Éric Chevillard has spoken of himself before, in fact in all his books (although usually indirectly of course), particularly perhaps in Le Désordre azerty (2014). But this is the real thing, or as near as real to autobiography as probably Chevillard will get: almost everything in this book is about his life, although I'm well aware that there may be an unreliable narrator in place at times.

There's a catch of course, but then what do you expect from a Minuit writer, especially of Chevillard's nature? Chevillard hates narrative conventions, hates writing that follows on, so this is not the story of the novelist's life, or rather not a conventional story. Here we have memories, floods of them, apparently totally insignificant incidents such as (accidentally) scalding an earwig, drowning an ant, deliberately truncating a lizard's tail to watch the cut part wriggle for a few seconds but slowly grow back on the reptile again as a (surely misconceived?) lesson to his daughters; but then Chevillard, who bizarrely sees himself as a variety of vegetarian (is that a joke?), in spite of his obvious love of the animal kingdom, in spite of his sympathy for the exotic spider who briefly shares his room, loves eating animals. But I digress.

Monotobio is a book in which we learn by installments, in no obvious chronological order, of Chevillard's life as if through stream of consciousness or internal monologue, although of course there are many omissions he chooses to make, although you'll no doubt never know which. But you will learn of his marriage to Cécile, of his daughters Agathe (first) and then (around the same time of his father Bernard's death) of the birth of Suzie, his siblings and his friends. His parents have/had a holiday home on L'Île d'Yeu just off the Vendée coast, where the family go every summer, and here we learn of lot of the island.

We are told of course of many of Chevillard's books being published or in preparation, and it's in the cemetery of Port-Joinville that we learn that the imaginary character Dino Egger of the book of the same name was born from the real people Dina Egger et Nino Egger, whose names Chevillard found on a gravestone. He later received a letter from a person who had known Dina Egger, who had died tragically: from fiction, reality.

For someone who seems asocial (can't drive, doesn't have a mobile phone and turns down many invitations) Chevillard seems to get about a great deal, has visited many places and appears to be more 'normal' than one might imagine, has had couscous with Marie NDiaye and her partner Jean-Yves Cendrey in Berlin, etc. He sends his daughters up the Tour Eiffel (but backs out himself as he's scared of heights) and goes on a bateau-mouche (the horror of many French people!) with them, and even states that tourist features are comforting, like a local form of universal gravitation!

Warning: Monotobio is full of delights, far too many to mention. Enjoy this fascinating book, but don't expect anything sequential, logical or even much which on the surface makes a great deal of sense: this is a book for those already converted by Chevillard's absurdities, and for those who will recognise things already mentioned in previous books. This is Chevillard at his best (not that there's ever a worst), but if you aren't already acquainted with him there is very little for you, apart perhaps from almost total incomprehension.

20 August 2020

Le Dragon de Calais in Calais, Pas-de-Calais (62)

François Delarozière was born in Marseille in 1963, is the artistic director of the company La Machine, and is particularly known for Machines de l'île de Nantes, part of a re-generation project. He has also worked on Les animaux de la place in Roche-sur-Yon, a temporary project involving two giant 'spiders' in Liverpool in 2008 (when the city was named at the European capital of culture), plus a number of other things. One of those is Le Dragon de Calais, which at the time of my visit wasn't in operation, although it made photography better as I strive not to include people in my photos.

A juvenile seagull, no doubt on the lookout for tourist crumbs, waits patiently (but fruitlessly: a wise sign signals that it is forbidden to feed them).

18 August 2020

Nicolas Appert in Châlons-en-Champagne, Marne (51)

Nicolas Appert was born in s-en-Champagne in 1749 and became a confectioner in Paris in 1784. From 1794 he became involved in the process of conserving foods for a long period by heating them in hermetically sealed containers to eradicate bacteria from them. The process bacame known as appertisation.

Continuing his experiments he from 1815 became the initiator of techniques for conserving wines and milk, later perfected by fermentation by Louis Pasteur. Several times Appert was acknowledged by the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie nationale, although his techniques were advanced by English developers of his technique without any compensation/recognition for Appert and he was buried in an ossuary in 1841.

This monument was erected in 2009.

André Dhôtel in Provins, Seine-et-Marne (77)

The author André Dhôtel (1900-91), born in Attigny (Ardennes), most famed for his novel Le Pays où l'on n'arrive jamais (1955), which was awarded the Prix Femina, is buried with his wife Suzanne (née Laurent), whom he married in 1932, in Le Cimetière Ville Basse in Provins.

17 August 2020

Albert Camus in Villeblevin, Yonne (89)

Camus celebrated the New Year of 1960 in his house in Lourmarin (Vaucluse) with his family and friends Janine and Michel Gallimard and their daughter Anne. Camus's wife Francine and their two children left by train for Paris, whereas Camus chose (or was strongly invited) to join the Gallimards in their (faulty?) Facel Vega (FV3B), and after stopping off for the night at a hotel in Thoissey (Ain) the car (travelling at 180 km per hour (!)) hit a few plane trees near Villeblevin and the débris from the car was scattered over a wide area. Camus died instantly, Michel died six days later, but the women in the back only suffered minor injuries.

Camus's monument stands very close to the Mairie in Villeblevin.

Marie-Angélique le Blanc in Songy, Marne (51)

Marie-Angélique Memmie le Blanc (c. 1712-75) was born in what is now Wisconsin (USA), an American Indian famous for being an 'enfant sauvage' like Victor (made famous by Truffaut in the film L'Enfant sauvage) and Kaspar Hauser (also made famous by Hertzog in the film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. There's a difference though: the Marie-Angélique story seems to have been based on truth, but the others probably not. In L'énigme des enfants-loups : une certitude biologique mais un déni des archives, 1304-1954 (2007), Serges Aroles (an expert on feral children) argues strongly in favour of the truth of the story.

Marie-Angélique (sent to France in 1720) escaped from the plague in Provence and survived for ten years on leaves and roots before being captured in the woods in Songy in 1731. Following her capture she learned to read and write, was welcomed by royalty, and oh the story is too long to go into here but she died far from being penniless.

The plaque by the statue in Songy states that it was erected in 2009, and that Marie-Angélique was baptised in 1732 at L'Église Saint-Sulpice in Châlons-en-Champagne.

15 August 2020

Wilfred Owen, Ors, Nord (62)

La Maison forestière was created in 2011, being the work of British artist Simon Patterson helped by the architect Jean-Christophe Denise. It is dedicated to the work of the poet Wilfred Owen, and inside the house (closed at the year of our visit) are Owen's poems on the walls. The cellar, where he wrote his last letter to his mother, has been kept intact. Owen spent his last night here.

Owen was killed on 4 November 1918 while trying to cross the Sambre canal which goes through Ors: his parents learned of his death on 11 November, after armistice had been declared. An interpretation panel here says that Owen's work in general can be seen as an 'Anthem to Doomed Youth'.

Very, very weirdly, the Bureau de Tourisme Cambresis says Owen, although unknown in France, is the most researched poet in the UK after Shakespeare. Yeah, keep taking the tablets.

Wilfred Owen is buried in Ors Communal Cemetery.

On the way to Ors British Cemetery we found a herd of cows, clustering together as if for protection. None of them seemed particularly happy, and I thought of them somehow knowing what their fate will be, just like the innocent soldiers going to war knew what their fate would be. Working-class soldiers reared to be slaughtered, cattle too, what's the difference? No point in arguing that animals don't produce poetry: these creatures are poetry.