13 October 2019

Robert Sabatier: La Souris verte (1990)

Marc is a student in Paris living at his father's flat in the 16e, whereas his father is in the provinces living with his second wife Daniéla, who is present at the flat when Marc's life begins to change dramatically, when a girl named Maria comes in with a female partner to give him news of his uncle in Germany.

This is Nazi-occupied Paris, the girl is a German who lives on the Germano-French border, speaks fluent French and is working in Paris as a translator for the Nazis. And gradually the two come to love each other, which of course poses many difficulties: Maria has to keep this from anyone she knows and works with, as does Marc, especially as he is occasionally working with his father in the Resistance.

Suspicion arises on the part of the Nazis, the lovers have to tighten up on their movements, and all the time discovery seems to be creeping closer to them until for no apparent reason Maria is called back to Germany. Heartbreak on Marc's part of course, but soon he's working full time for the maquis under a different, younger name before the Nazis catch up with him. He lives in the hope that peace will soon come and he will be able to join Maria.

Peace of course comes although Maria was killed a year previously in an air raid and Marc is left to the grief of his first aborted true love. A moving story which called to mind André de Richard's La Douleur .

12 October 2019

Gauvain Sers's Les Oubliés (2018)

Gauvin Sers's second album, Les Oubliés, lives up to the expectations suggested in his first album Pourvu. Unusually (for an album or book, etc, surely?) Sers introduces this with a kind of explanation, saying how a second album is notoriously difficult: if he reproduces the same as the first people will just say he's going round in circles, if he branches out into something different they'll say he's lost his way, and so on? So how does this fair?

There's a similar concern with lists: the conditions and/or objects in 'Pourvu' and 'Dans mes poches' in the last album give way to the number of past treasures stored in 'La Boîte à chaussures', and his drawer in 'Le Tiroir' includes a photo booth picture that recalls the many Photmaton moments in the film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain referenced in the first album, which also played a part of course in the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet making clips of Sers's songs.

And that old photo from the machine is of his drunk mates posing together. Friendship is high on the list of importance in this album, as in 'L'Épaule d'un copain', where a mate's shoulder is of primary concern. However, Sers (while singing in the first person) is intending to be understood in the third person in 'Changement de programme' when he unkindly mentions his 'p'tite femme' whom he ignores one evening: originally intending a drink or two with his male friends to last a short time, the session lasts well into the early morning, and the narrator knows that this is far from the final time, no matter what he says. In fact this sounds like a regular (or potential) drunkard speaking.

This macho swagger is far removed from the sensual thrust of 'Ton jean bleu' or (far more) from 'Excuse moi mon amour', where he empathises with his partner, shows strong contempt for the sexist world in which she lives, in which a young woman has to show every care about how she dresses in a world full of male vultures.

As in the album Pourvu, there isn't just one track where Sers uses the first person for a third person voice: there's also 'Tu sais mon grand' where he imagines the voice of his grandfather, or the voice of a student prostituting herself in order to survive financially in 'L'Étudiante'. Even in his duo with the 85-year-old Anne Sylvestre, 'Y'a pas de retraite pour les artistes' he's singing in her voice, as if he were her.

Overwhelmingly, I've of course saved the most important bit to the end. This album is called Les Oubliés, which of course isn't a reference to Sers's beloved cinema (Buñuel's Los Olvidados), but to the closure of village schools: there are several clips of Sers's work at a primary school in Ponthoile (Somme), and several photos from the school are in the CD booklet. Perhaps this is an indication (as 'Hénin-Beaumont' and 'Mon fils est parti au jihad' suggested in Pourvu) that Gauvain Sers's voice should speak of social issues or evils. Certainly a new track (not found on either album): 'Y'a plus de saisons', which concerns global warming, might indicate this. I wish him a long and successful future.

Natacha Appanah: Le Ciel par-dessus le toit (2019)

Natacha Appanah's Le Ciel par-dessus le toit is a title inspired by a poem of Verleine's which he wrote in prison for wounding Rimbaud in the wrist, and aptly this novel is a book about the different prisons people build for us (either physically or mentally) or which we build for ourselves. The characters here are shut in on themselves, they are wounded people.

Oddly (on first impressions, that is) I was reminded of The Minipops, a 1980s English television programme which was a huge mistake on the part of those who allowed it to be shown: a paedophile's wet dream, it showed young children mimicking the pop songs of the day, the girls' faces heavily made up and the children dancing around amidst adult lyrics and tried-on adult (i.e. sexy) gestures. Mercifully, this potentially deeply destructive exercise was eventually stopped, although I'm very sorry to say that many Minipop clips on YouTube have been reposted, with comments from a number of women finding the pulling of the programme incomprehensible and 'politically correct'. As if anti-paedophilia were some kind of disease. Dis-ease this certainly makes me feel.

Where is this leading? To the fictional Éliette, the pre-pubescent girl whose parents paint her in make-up, create a singing doll, delight in her singing in front of audiences, until she cracks. She cracks particularly because she's waiting in the wings to go on and sing when a work colleague of her father's smudges her lipstick and puts his tongue in her mouth, smelling of tobacco, sweat and mint. She is eleven years old. And she goes on stage and screams. Psychotherapy doesn't help, and she lives in the unspoken trauma, experienced as conflagration of the self, and she burns her parents' house down at the age of sixteen.

Éliette mentally dies then, and she re-names herself as Phénix, risen from the ashes of her childhood. She goes on to independently rear two children by two fathers, children she will not interfere with as her parents interfered with her. The first is a girl she calls Paloma, and seven years later she produces Loup, a boy who doesn't have any of the ferocity of his wolf name, but is in fact usually very calm and collected. All three, though, live together until Paloma leaves in her twenties and promises to return to the then seven-year-old Loup. But Phénix doesn't even open Paloma's letters and ten years later Loup is left in ignorance, until (without a driving licence) he takes his mother's car in an attempt to find his sister and ends up driving down a motorway bretelle the wrong way, having a slight accident with another vehicle, ending up in a short-term prison cell with the sky above him, through the roof. Rather like Éliette years before him, he voices his protest in court not in a yell, but in an unpunctuated howl.

This is a highly accomplished novel by by a highly accomplished writer.

6 October 2019

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Clé USB (2019)

The Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint writes for Minuit so automatically, without even knowing anything about the book or even the author, the reader knows that this won't be a 'normal' read, not of course that that has any meaning. Let meaning take a back seat and enjoy the ride.

The narrator works for the Commission européenne with an interest in futures and blockchain technology, particularly bitcoins. So when he's approached by an unknown person with a view to meeting a guy in China with a view to learning more about bitcoins he's interested, but very suspicious because he doesn't in any way want to compromise his job in Brussels.

It's uncertain why he agrees to go to China to talk to a manufacturer of bitcoins, even uncertain about why he's been chosen to go there, but he makes sure everything he does won't come back in his face, that he won't in the future be accused of any corruption, so he won't accept any expenses paid to him.

But on discovering a USB key that his contact had inadvertently dropped (or on purpose?), and on finding out from the key's contents (which suggest embezzlement) he just has to go to China to find out what he can, but without telling his bosses anything about it.

Why he doesn't say anything is a mystery, as is his meeting with the Chinese contact, as is his trying to discover anything about the technological 'backdoor', or indeed why he receives an award in China, or even why his computer is stolen from him in a toilet in China by a mysterious hand groping under his cubicle door.

But that means the talk in Japan he's going to give will be aborted, in spite of his desperate efforts to re-write it without his computer notes, and anyhow he has to return home where his father is in his final hours. So? So what does the future mean when his father doesn't have one, what does the narrator's future matter?

I felt a sniff of Kafka in this novel (possibly inverted, circumvented, oblique, subverted or whatever way), a dreamlike universe where things take on amnesiac forms, where nightmares become the norm but are soon dissipated, but then maybe this is just Toussaint throwing uncertainties not to the wind but in our face. As ever, he's nothing short of interesting, intriguing, fascinating, infuriating. And the USB key? Maybe a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, just designed to carry the plot through without a great deal of (if any) meaning in itself.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #13: Michel Serrault

Michel Serrault (1928-2007) is described here as one of France's greatest comedians and actors. He was born in Brunoy (Essonne) and died in Honfleur-Vasouy (Calavados) and came to live in Vasouy, Honfleur, with his wife in 2000. He had a particular love for the town. The events he especially liked in Honfleur were the Festival Alphonse Allais and the Saint-Germain in Vasouy. His career in cabaret, theatre and the cinema was very big.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #12: Françoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan (1935-2004) was born in Cajarc (Lot) and died in Equemauville (Calvados), and was always faithful to the Honfleur area, moving into her Manoir de Breuil in Barneville-la-Bertran in 1959. The plaque here says that it was common to see her in the streets of Honfleur, at a café terrasse or at the wheel of her car, and that she loved the area's authenticity, its calm, and its colours. In 1998 she wrote her own epitaph: 'SAGAN Françoise first appeared in 1954 with her slim novel Bonjour Tristesse, which was a scandal throughout the world. Her death, after a life and a work as pleasant as it was botched, was only a scandal to herself.'

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #11: Erik Satie

Erik Satie (1866-1925), born in Honfleur, said that painters had taught him much more about music that musicians had. And his music is also hard to classify, being seen as a precursor to such movements as surrealism, minimalism and the theatre of the absurd. He died in poverty in Paris, hating to ask friends or family for money, and never allowing anyone into his studio. On his death his studio was found to contain two untuned pianos tied together, full of unopened letters which he had partly replied to. In a cupboard was a collection of umbrellas and false collars, and in his wardrobe identical grey suits which he always wore.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #10: Lucie Delarue-Mardrus

Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (1874-1945) was a poet, novelist, and sculptor who was born in Honfleur and died in Château-Gontier. She married the orientalist Dr Joseph-Charles Mardrus, with whom she visited many mainly eastern countries, and later divorced and had affairs with such women as Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks and Germaine de Castro. After dividing her life between Paris and Honfleur she moved to Château-Gontier in 1938. Probably the most famous of her many novels is L'Ex-Voto (1922), concerning the fishing community in Honfleur, which was adapted into a film by 1928 par Marcel l'Herbier called Le Diable au cœur.

4 October 2019

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #9: Alphonse Allais

I mentioned Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) in a post about his house and museum. The plaque here calls him a writer and comedian who initially, following in his father's footsteps by studying pharmacy, but gave this up definitively in 1879 to devote himself to journalism. He gained some fame from 1883, when he wrote for the cabaret paper Le Chat Noir, then moved to Le Journal in 1892. He became editor-in-chief of Le Sourire in 1894, where he remained until his sudden death in Paris. He is called here a master of the hoax and the pun whose humour has a remarkable modernity. The cartoon is by Cappiello.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #8: Albert Sorel

Albert Sorel (1842-1906), the writer and historian born in Honfleur was also professor at the École des sciences politiques. He has been mentioned before in a previous post.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #7: Claude Monet

Claude Monet (1840-1926), a great impressionist, was advised on painting by both Boudin and Jongkind. He was with Boudin when he created his first landscape near Le Havre in 1858, and from then until 1872 he stayed several times in Honfleur, painting the streets and harbour entrances, etc. He was faithful to Normandy and the Seine all his life. Also below is Monet's interpretation of Saint Catherine's in Honfleur.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #6: Eugène Boudin

Eugène Boudin (1824-98) was born in Honfleur and died in Deauville. The plaque here states that in spite of his travels he remained faithful to Normandy and the Pays d'Auge in particular. Baudelaire discovered his pastel skies in 1859 and Boudin used to meet up with Honfleur's artists at the auberge Saint-Siméon. Boudin's characters on Trouville beach brought him fame in the 1860s, although Honfleur maintained a special place in his heart: he encouraged the creation of the town museum, to which he left 70 paintings. Below the bust is one of Boudin's paintings of Trouville beach.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #5: Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) stayed here in 1859, with his mother and step-father, and wrote that to stay in Honfleur was the dearest of his dreams (which sounds a little like a tourist guide advert!) I'm not fond of the sculpture as it doesn't fit with any photo I've seen of Baudelaire. Under the bust is a photo of Baudelaire's mother's house in Honfleur.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #4: Johan-Barthold Jongkind

Johan-Barthold Jonkind (1819-91) was a Dutch landscape painter, a friend of Boudin and Monet who worked in Honfleur (the plaque here states) between 1863 and 1865. In 1864 he wrote that he found Honfleur admirable, and that he very much liked the cider and bread from Normandy. There is a plaque in Nevers which states that he stayed in an auberge there between 1861 and 1875!

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #3: Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (baronne d'Aulnoy)

Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (baronne d'Aulnoy) (1650-1705) was the writer of adult fairy stories not of the nature of Charles Perrault, but of a much more scandalous nature, weaving a subversive spirit through her allegories and satires: she is more often compared to Jean de La Fontaine's veiled criticisms the French court and society of the 17th century.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #2: Louis-Alexandre Dubourg

Louis-Alexandre Dubourg (1821-91) is another painter who was born in and died in Honfleur, where his paintings are of the town, the countryside and the fishing port. In 1868 he founded and managed the town museum, which was later to become the Musée Eugène Boudin.

Le Jardin des Personnalités, Honfleur #1: Léon Leclerc

Léon Leclerc (1866-1930) was a painter who was born and died in Honfleur. He was a staunch defender of the traditions of Normandy and the founder of the society 'Le Vieux-Honfleur' and the museum of ethnography. His paintings are representations of fishermen and the old streets of Honfleur.

Paul-Élie Gernez in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

Paul-Élie Gernez (1888-1948) was born in Valenciennes and died in Honfleur, and it was in this house, next to Satie's, that he lived and worked as a painter, watercolourist, engraver and illustrator from 1919 until his death. Cubism was an early influence, but he then settled to landscapes, still life and marine life, most of his inspiration coming from Honfleur.

Erik Satie in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

Erik Satie (1866-1925) needs no introduction, but he too was born in Honfleur, where the house where he was born is a tribute to his life and highly unconventional mind. As the leaflet advertising his house(s) says, he collaborated with such people as Picasso, Picabia, Braque, Cocteau and René Clair, and influenced such people as Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. To remind, among his most noted musical works are Trois Gymnopédies (1888), Six Gnossiennes (1890-97), Trois morceaux en forme de poire (1911), Sports et Divertissements (1914), Parade (1917) and Socrate (1919). Unsurprisingly, there is a representation outside of him as the 'fonctionnaire bourgeois' with his bowler hat and umbrella.

Albert Sorel in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

Albert Sorel (1842-1906) was a French historian born in Honfleur and the cousin of the philosopher and sociologist George Sorel. He was a member of the Académie française and the founder of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. He worked for thirty years on his greatest publication, which was in eight volumes: L’Europe et la Révolution française (1885-1940).

La Petite Sirène in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

The Ruelle de la Petite Sirène is named after a legend in which a fisherman from Honfleur dreams of meeting a female companion. Throwing his net into the sea he dozes off and is awakened by the sound of the waves. He draws in his net and finds a little mermaid smiling at him. He can't resist mooring his boat and taking her to his home via the alley which now bears her name. The miracle was that once the fisherman had shut the door the mermaid was transformed into a beautiful young girl. Here's the odd thing, though: the plaque here says that a representation of the mermaid is now sculpted into a wall, thus allowing lovers and newlyweds to affix a padlock to it as a symbol of their love. I know what they'd have thought of this idea in Paris, but I could find no sign of a sculpture, although some distance away, not far from the Musée Eugène Boudin, I found the sculpture photographed below.

Katia Granoff in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

Katia Granoff (1895-1989) was a French poet and art gallery owner of Russian origin who was largely educated in Switzerland and, fleeing from Paris during world War II and took refuge in a medieval castle  in Voulte-sur-Rhône, Ardèche. The war over, she opened three galleries: in Paris, in Honfleur and in Cannes. She wrote Amants Maudits, a book of poems dedicated to a number of literary and historical characters, as well as several other collections. I missed the gallery in Honfleur, which has been going since 1950.

3 October 2019

Alphonse Allais in Honfleur, Calvados (14)

The wonderful writer, comedian, absurdist and punster Alphonse Allais (1854-1905), whose writings should be far more widely known, was born in this house in Honfleur. I'm unsure about his tiny museum, which I believe is now closed down due to lack at present of finding a more convenient home: information online is vague and sometimes contradictory. I end my post with the bust of Alphonse Allais in the entrance in Honfleur's Office de tourisme.

Blockhaus, Honfleur, Calvados (14)

On the instigation of Michel Lamarre, mayor of Honfleur and vice-president of the Conseil Général of Calvados, this blockhaus was preserved in Honfleur as a memory, and in 2014 it was given to L'Association Honfleur by the town, the intention being to remember those who fought to regain freedom  for France.

28 September 2019

Robert Velter, aka Rob-Vel, in Saint-Malo, Ille-et-Vilaine (35)

Robert Velter (1909-91), more popularly known as 'Rob-Vel', is the children's cartoonist most remembered as the creator of Spirou. He is buried in the Cimetiére de Lorette. The plaque below pays tribute to him, although another plaque on this grave has gone: formerly this was a grave with a cross, but it has since been replaced by a new one. As far as I know, this is the only published shot of the grave in its present state.

François-René de Chateaubriand in Saint-Malo, Ille-et-Vilaine (35)

François-René de Chateaubriand's father René-Auguste came to Saint-Malo in the 1750s and made his money as a ship owner and slave trader. He married Apauline de Bédée and in 1768 the family moved to the Hôtel de La Gicquelais, Rue des Juifs, now Rue de Chateaubriand, where the son François-René was born on 4 September of that year. The first-floor windows show representations of François-René and Germaine (Madame de) Staël.

Opposite the casino is a statue of Chateaubriand,

who is obviously very big in Saint-Malo.

But I've no idea what occasioned this plaque of him in Saint-Servan, now a district of Saint-Malo, on the corner of Rue George V and Rue Ville Pépin.