19 October 2020

In Memory of Samuel Paty, Teacher

Following the tragic assassination by beheading in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Yvelines) of the teacher Samuel Paty, who had been threatened for several days for showing a few satirical cartoons from Charlie Hebdo in a lesson about freedom of speech, a French female Protestant pastor, Sandrine Maurot, has called on people of ALL beliefs to publish satirical portraits of their belief. I really like this one, an imagined assault on a (real) religious paper by an atheist maniac, screaming 'God doesn't exist!!', 'You're insulting my beliefs!', 'I want everyone to believe that they must not believe!!!'. 'Gloire à queuedalle!!!' (a distortion of 'Gloire à que dalle!!!', meaning 'Glory to bugger all!!!') is a hopeless misunderstanding of atheism, but then this is satire, and in any case we live in a very imperfect world. France is determined to make the name of Samuel Paty live forever, and the world should support that.

17 October 2020

Samuel Beckett: Breath (1972; repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Beckett's Breath, lasting about forty seconds and with no plot, no words and no characters, is theatrical minimalism virtually at its most minimalist, and was written as a contribution to Kenneth Tynan's Oh! Calcutta!* 'circus' (as Beckett described it). It consists of a pile of unidentified rubbish with a faint brief cry, then an intake of breath with light slowly increasing. This is followed by expiration and slowly decreasing light, ending in another brief cry. It was first performed in 1969 and first published in 1972.

As James Knowlson says, Beckett's intention was that this was an ironic comment on what followed, although someone had added 'with naked people' in the rubbish, and Beckett was very far from happy. The sequence was withdrawn from the London production of Oh! Calcutta!.

Breath is generally seen as a blurring of the difference between theatre and other art forms.

*This is a pun on Clovis Trouille's 'Oh quel cul t'as' ('Oh, what an arse you've got').

Samuel Beckett: Krapp's Last Tape (1959; repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Krapps' Last Tape was first published in Evergreen Review in 1958, but not as part of a book until the following year. Here we have a 69-year-old man at the end of his life, making his last annual tape and listening to one he made thirty years before, when he was a person he hardly now recognises.

Light and darkness (the colours black and white), youth and age, reality and fantasy, all play a part here, but certainly the most important are light and darkness. Krapp (what a name!) has 'rusty brown' trousers and waistcoat, but a 'grimy white shirt' and a white face; the stage is in darkness apart from the lit desk; the thirty-five-year-old Krapp lived with Bianca in Kedar (Hebrew for 'black') street; the younger Krapp remembers seeing a woman, 'all white and starch' with a 'black hooded' pram; the white dog has a black ball, and so it goes on, with the light and the dark sometimes blended, as with the younger Krapp shielding his woman from the the sun.

The eyes of women are a theme too: Bianca's are 'incomparable'; the woman with the pram has eyes 'like chrysolite' (recalling a word used in Othello); the eyes of the woman Krapp shields were 'just slits' in front of the glare of the sun, although they opened in shadow; Krapp's last tape records 'The eyes she had!'. In such a short play there are a number of characters, but all come from only one man.

This is a book of memory, therefore time, and we can feel it in the movement not only of the tape spool revealing the past but also, in its unwinding, Krapp's delight in saying 'Spooool', his joy of words in themselves, another example being him forgetting the meaning of 'viduery', searching in the dictionary, finding the word and also the name of the 'vidua' bird, the sound  of which he relishes.

8 October 2020

Charles-Emmanuel Borjon de Scellery, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Charles-Emmanuel Borjon de Scellery (1633-91) was born in Pont-de-Vaux and became a lawyer who wrote a number of books on law, although he is perhaps better known for his interest in music, particularly for his Noels Bressands pour Pontdevaux et les paroisses circonvoisines. (Painting from the Musée Antoine Chintreuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

Benoît Textor, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Benoît Textor (approx. 1520-56) was born in Pont-de-Vaux and was a doctor, naturalist and ornithologist and the author of several works on the plague and the canker. He was a friend of Calvin and Pierre Viret. (This is a painting from the Musée Antoine Chinteuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

L'Abbé Pierre-Philibert Guichelet, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Pierre-Philibert Guichelet (1736-1830) was a priest and writer of fables who was born in Pont-de-Vaux. Originally expected to work in business, his parents agreed to him entering the church. Two fables he wrote are 'L'araignée et le ver a soie' ('The Spider and the Silk Worm') and 'Le Singe et les deux chiens' ('The Monkey and the Two Dogs'), which the bishop Jean-Irénée Depéry (1796-1861) mentions in his Biographie des hommes célèbres du département de l'Ain (1835), where several pages are devoted to Guichelet. (Painting from the Musée Antoine Chinteuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

7 October 2020

Silver-Washed Fritillary Butterfly, Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire (71)

Memories of summer. Will we be allowed to have one in another country in 2021? There is a buddleia bush in the shadow of the Château Pontus de Tyard, Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire, teeming this July with scarce swallowtail (flambés in French) butterflies, and also silver-washed fritillary butterflies (tabacs d'Espagne in French), so easily confused with pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies.

Michel Déon: Un taxi mauve (1973)

Michel Déon's Un taxi mauve is a strange, and strangely haunting, novel. Set in his beloved Ireland, where Déon died, we have a motley group of characters, many of whom seem traumatised in some way. The American Kean siblings, from a very wealthy family, and who have Irish ancestry, are prominent, although only the young Jerry Kean lives there, albeit apparently only temporarily. He carries the guilt of his Iranian girlfriend being accidentally killed during an opium-smoking session in the States, and seeks something by moving to Ireland. His sister Sharon has married into the German aristocracy and is a princess, although many of her tastes are down to earth, and when she briefly visits Ireland she stays with Jerry in his primitive cottage without electricity, while her servant Li stays in a plush hotel. Jerry's other sister, Moïra, is a Hollywood film star and also makes an appearance. The final member of the Kean clan, Terence, is an astronaut who's only seen via the television.

We don't know the name of the narrator, although he had a son who's dead, and he has come to Ireland to live in peace, shoot game, read and listen to music. The presence of Sharon will disturb him, and she soon develops a liking for him, although the novel has nothing like the strong sexual hints of Yves Boisset's nevertheless well directed film with Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Noiret, Peter Ustinov, Fred Astaire, etc.

The strongest character in the book, which would be much diluted without him, is Taubelman, a huge guy who's a bit like, as the front flap of this France Loisirs (picked up in Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire) suggests, a mixture of Rabelais and Tartarin: he eats and drinks enormous amounts, and his stories are wildly exaggerated if not outright lies. He lives with his daughter Anne (who may or may not be his daughter), and (with the help of her) cheats at poker and wins a large amount of money from the players. Jerry, of course, is bound to fall in love with her.

All this is played out against an Irish backdrop, with the social centre being the pub with its rustic locals (plus a gay couple|), and the narrator's friend the supposedly retired Dr Scully, who drives the mauve taxi and views the natives affectionately and philosophically. An unexpected delight.

Samuel Beckett: More Pricks than Kicks (1931; repr. with Preface by Cassandra Nelson, 2010)

More Pricks than Kicks was, after his idiosyncratic booklet Proust (1930), Samuel Beckett's first published book, being a collection of ten short stories but without the additional 'Echo's Bones', which Chatto & Windus editor Charles Prentice had initially welcomed as the eleventh story, and over which Beckett spent some time and effort, but which Prentice had to reject as a 'nightmare' that gave him the 'jim-jams' and would certainly cause Beckett to lose a number of readers. As it happened the book only sold 550 over a few years, so the unsold books were pulped. Only after Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 was there renewed interest in More Kicks than Pricks, much to Beckett's displeasure because he now saw the book as a part of his juvenilia.

In itself More Pricks than Kicks is what Beckett called 'self-plagiarism', the best kind of plagiarism to him: much of the material came from his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which Prentice (among others) had previously rejected and was only published in 1992, several years after Beckett's death: the title is in part a play on Tennyson's A Dream of Fair Women, and with the colloquial (working-class?) expression 'fair to middling' included, is perhaps an indication of the poly-linguistic nature of the work, which ranges from foreign, esoteric, learned, slang, and taboo expressions (included in later editions, but left as in the original 1934 edition here): 'arse' is left as 'B. T. M.' and 'Flitter the fucker' as 'Flitter the --', for instance.

The protagonist Belacqua Shaua is taken from Dante's fourth canto of Purgatorio, which is the second part of his La Divina Commedia (written from 1308 to 1320). The name is (coincidentally?) a reversal of Beckett's own initials, and Dante's Belacqua was a lute-maker, lazy like Beckett himself at the time of publication, and the name indicates 'beautiful water', but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Intertextual references abound in all of the stories in the book, often to Dante, the Bible, but also to many other books Beckett was reading at the time: there's a surviving manuscript (usually just called 'Dream') in which he noted any interesting expressions of sentences he met, along with autobiographical notes. More Pricks than Kicks is in many ways an autobiographical work.

'Dante and the Lobster' is the first story, set in 8 December 1926, in which Belacqua has three obligations, although not necessarily in the order given (this is Beckett, let's remember, and narrative sequence is of minor value): there's lunch, the lobster, and the Italian lesson. Lunch is a 'nice affair', with 'nice' meaning 'subtle' or 'exacting' rather than 'pleasant', so he locks the door so no one can 'come at him'. The most interesting thing here is that the bread is personified, it '[i]s spongy and warm, alive', and even has a 'face' which he'll soon remove. Why 8 december 1926? Well, the morning after Henry McCabe (mentioned several times in this story) was hanged then for the murder of the McDonnell family and servants (six in all) in their home in Malahide, Dublin. Beckett, who was far from sure of McCabe's guilt, was in any way against the death penalty. The destruction of the food in some way feeds into the story, and this is followed by the boiling of a living lobster. Beautiful water

'Fingal' is the second story, which Mary Power calls a 'Modern contribution to the duinschenchas tradition of place in Irish literature' (Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1981-82), pp. 151-156 (151). Belacqua walks in Fingal with Winnie Coates: the name is one of Beckett's jokes, as Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst. They are near where what was then called the lunatic asylum at Portrane, where Winifred knows the psychiatrist Dr Sholto, whom she meets. Belacqua then steals a bicycle and goes back to Dublin, where he happily goes to the pub.

'Ding-Dong' is the third story, in which Belacqua 'enlivened the last phase of his solipsism, before he toed the line and began to relish the world, with the belief that the last thing he had to do was to move constantly from place to place'. His movements are confined to going from pub to pub and in the end is conned into buying seats in heaven by a woman in a pub.

'A Wet Night' is the fourth story, and like Joyce's 'The Dead' has a festive Christmas setting with a number of people involved, although of course Beckett (like Belacqua) hated social gatherings. Of note are some of the characters, such as Caleken Frica, who represents Mary Manning (Howe), Beckett's friend who he helped with her play 'Youth's the Season'; the Alba, who represents Ethna MacCarthy, an unusually liberated woman Beckett met at Trinity College, and with whom he was obsessed; the Syra-Cusa represents James's Joyce's highly disturbed daughter Lucia, who was infatuated with Beckett although he did his best to avoid her; and 'Chas': Jean du Chas was Beckett's fictitious poet born on the same day as him, and with whom he took pleasure in introducing in a lecture to the Trinity Modern Languages Society. The party represented here (in a very distorted way) really existed, and was given by Susan Manning, Mary's daughter.

'Love and Lethe' is the fifth story, which concerns Belacqua picking up Ruby Tough from her home at her parents and driving off to a mountain where they have made a suicide pact, either by bullet or poison. Ruby accidentally fires the gun which doesn't find a target and as she has tempted him they have sex: love and death are much the same, aren't they? Dante's Purgatorio is an obvious reference, although there are biblical references, such as to Perugino's Pietà, as well to the temptation of Christ, with Ruby seen as Mary Magdelene, for instance: we have woman seen as both the sacred and the profane. More obscure references as to Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy’s fairy tale princesses Florine and Truitonne in L'Oiseau bleu, and Knowlson has also discovered an allusion to Tasso's Aminta.

'Walking Out' is the sixth story, the title referring to an expression of courtship, and sees Belacqua riding horseback in the countryside with his fiancée Lucy, only when Lucy discovers that her fiancé has gone there to spy on a German couple having sex (voyeurism isn't uncommon among Beckettian heroes) she leaves quickly, gets hit by a car driven by a drunken lord and spends the rest of her time in a wheelchair (again, a means of transport not unkown in the Beckett canon). Meanwhile Belacqua, unaware of the accident, is caught by 'the Tanzherr' (the male spied on) and beaten severely. Belacqua marries Lucy. 

'What a Misfortune' is the seventh story, referring to Voltaire's eunuch's comment on Cunégonde's beauty in Candide: 'O che sciagura d’essere senza coglioni ! (Oh quel malheur d'être sans couilles !)': both the Italian and the French are given in Voltaire, meaning 'What a misfortune not to have balls'. This story is a satire on the bourgeois Irish Protestant family. Two years after his marriage to Lucy, she dies. The narrative very much concerns Belacqua's and his wedding (plus reception) to Thelma bboggs [sic], who's the daughter of Otto (in, ahem, toiletries) and Bridie, who's been sexually serviced by Walter Draffin, with the full approval of Otto, who doesn't have to bother with the chore: so Walter (as the cicisbeo) receives a wedding invitation, which he accepts. The friendless Belacqua co-opts 'Hairy', or Capper Quin, into being best man. We learn in the final chapter that Thelma dies on the honeymoon night.

'The Smeraldina's Billet-Doux' is the eighth story, and is based on a love letter that a cousin of Beckett's, Peggy Sinclair, written to him. She had left with her family for Germany when young and had an affair later with Beckett, who several times visited her in Germany, although she died in 1931, when Beckett was in hospital in Dublin. Peggy's parents were angry with Beckett's mention of her letter to him, in which he parodies Peggy's poor English.

'Yellow' is the ninth story, which sees Belacqua in hospital for operations on his neck and toe (like Beckett). His reference to being frightened of 'wet[ting] the bed' is probably an allusion to Jules Renard's writing, which was a great source of pleasure to Beckett. Beckett too had been in hospital, although unlike Belacqua he survived: Belacqua's anaesthetic was too strong.

'Draff', which refers to dregs, is the tenth and final story, and concerns the Smeraldina (Belacqua's third wife) handling his funeral. The unnamed groundsman drinking his Guinness will becaome Doyle in 'Echo's Bone's'. There's a suggestion that the Smermaldina and Capper 'Hairy' Quin will become a couple, and as Hairy drives to Belacqua's former house the gardener has set it on fire: another reference to the Malahide murders.

Much ink has been spent on More Pricks than Kicks and no doubt will continue to do so, as stories in it seem endlessly re-interpretable.

29 September 2020

Laurent Mauvignier: Histoires de la nuit (2020)

Laurent Mauvignier's Histoires de la nuit was published earlier this month and isn't among the fifteen novels long-listed for the Prix Goncourt, although that rather surprises me. And although this is a psychological thriller, it bears the mark of Mauvignier's other books in many ways: pointilliste writing, trauma and the unspoken at the fore, and the psychology of the characters foregrounded to the actions. All the same, there is much action here, but even that is crammed into less than forty-eight hours in a 635-page novel, so this is Mauvignier's longest by far.

The hamlet La Bassée has come up as a name a few times before in Mauvignier's work, and here virtually all the action takes place in it. Patrice Bergogne, whose two brothers have left the farm after his father's death, has decided to continue the family business and lives in the hamlet with his wife Marion (found on the internet, much to his delight) and ten-year-old daughter Ida. Marion is six years younger than him, has studied printing and works for a printing company in the small (pop.  3000) town nearby and will shortly be celebrating her fortieth birthday.

There's an empty property for sale in the hamlet which the Bergognes are selling, although so far only a few Dutch and English have shown any interest, but eventually backed out. La Bassée really is almost in the middle of nowhere, which is why it has appealed to Christine, a Parisian artist of 67 who likes the anonymity of the place, and who is often driven into town by 'Bergogne' as she calls him, whom she sees almost as a son. The story – and there very certainly is one, although it is deliciously, tantalisingly drawn out in the minutest of detail – begins with a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin in which Bergogne once more has taken Christine to the police station to lodge a complaint about an anonymous threatening letter she's received, which (like the former ones) is increasingly menacing. But that's more or less all we hear of the letters, although they remain in the background for some time.

And then Marion's past revisits her, in the terrifying shape of a trio of brothers: by age downwards, Denis, Christophe and Bègue. In dribbles, we learn of Marion's past in a place 500 kilometres away, of the life she ran away from, of her sexual promiscuity, the drugs she took, her life with the violent Denis, her being an accomplice with him in a killing but escaping imprisonment, of her escape (pregnant with Ida) to another life while he spent ten years behind bars. Daddy Denis has come back for revenge.

As I said in the first paragraph, trauma is one of Mauvignier's preoccupations: Marion has had a miserable childhood, and her penniless, alcoholic mother slashed her wrists in the bathroom of a hotel she couldn't afford; Bergogne has been taught by his parents to be completely selfless, only to care for the interests of others, and after two rather fruitless relationships he marries a woman who wants to flee from her past and doesn't believe in love; Bègue has a history of psychiatric illness and is used by his brothers; Christine is escaping from the cultureless idiots in Paris who would rather talk about the quality of the champagne at her exhibitions than her paintings, etc.

And then there's the unspoken, which is so deafening in Mauvignier's work: Bergogne's sexless marriage and his resort to prostitutes; Marion's silence about her past; Christine's blanking out of previous married lovers to the police, which may have provided them with motives for the poison pen letters; Ida's silence to anyone because who would believe a ten-year-old?, etc.

The title Histoires de la nuit relates to the bedtimes stories Marion tells her daughter, also of course to the stories the reader learns on the night of Marion's blood-drenched birthday, and to the histories of the protagonists. This is a masterly performance by Mauvignier, although perhaps slightly overdone: the ending is full of violent horror, the baddies get their just deserts, on the plus side we're not too sure about the ultimate survival of Christine and Marion, but Ida as deus ex machina is surely a little clichéd? I loved it, but as it's so packed with suspense and blood I can't help thinking that Mauvignier is going for the money.

24 September 2020

François Bégaudeau: Dans la diagonale (2005)

Dans la diagonale is written by the writer of the novel Entre les murs (The Class), which was published the year after this novel (2006) and adapted to the cinema, for which it won director Laurent Cantet the best film award of Cannes in 2008. The film Entre les murs is even well known in England, which is relatively rare for a French film. The book Dans la diagonale, on the other hand, is little known to any French people. And after wading though it, I can quite understand why.

Dans la diagonale is written in a truncated, telegraphic fashion with verbs usually omitted, sometimes with many pages with no sentence or paragraph breaks, just strings of phrases making very little sense. In a word, it's a mess, and the lack of reviews of the novel are surely testimony to its almost total failure to engage the reader.

The story, such as it is: the narrator, who only uses the first person in the opening section to reply to a few questions, and his name appears to be Teddy. To the narrator's horror, he is hailed in the street by an old schoolmate Jacques, who invites him to a party he's having with his wife Anabelle. The narrator feels obliged to go and hitches there, subjecting the reader to the comments of the various drivers made on his way.

When the narrator arrives the scene seems to be something out of a Buñuel film, with gluttony, heavy drinking and sexual lust coming to the fore: so could this be a satire on the bourgeoisie, with added criticisms of the way people from the south of France speak in extra syllables, or others denote expressions in 'speech marks' at the side of their ears, etc? If so the joke wears thin after a while and the reader gets sick of the constant repetition. This is all played out against a backdrop of TV footage of the war on Iraq and music from Alain Bashung, The Strokes and Green Day but not (as one guest would have liked), Édith Piaf.

And the party develops into some kind of orgy and the narrator is accused of raping Annabelle, to which he won't admit. I could go on but let's just say that François Bégaudeau is very far from being James Joyce. Not a disaster novel but a disastrous one. 'Je m'en lave les mains'.*

*Alain Bashung, 'La nuit je mens'.

22 September 2020

Greater White-Fronted Goose, Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire (UK)

 And a greater white-fronted goose, also in Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire.

Ancona Duck, Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire (UK)

A solitary ancona duck spotted in Manor Park, Glossop, Derbyshire among the many Canada geese, mallards and winter-plumaged black-headed gulls. We'd normally be in France in September, but...

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.