A short way into Tatiana de Rosnay's Spirales I began to think of Ian McEwan's Saturday: the smelly underclass meets the well-heeled middle class and then things rapidly spiral downhill for the main character. I was appreciating this more than any McEwan, although by the end I was thinking of Amélie Nothomb's Tuer le Père, which was the book that put me off reading any more of Nothomb's books as I felt – well – cheated, short-changed.
18 April 2014
15 April 2014
Above of course is the very familiar figure of Hamlet reminiscing about Yorick, the king's jester, while staring at his skull. This statue niche is on the present Partington Players Theatre in Henry Street in Glossop.
The odd thing, though, is that the building began life not as a theatre but as the Glossop Liberal Club, Sir Edward Partington having laid the foundation stone in 1914 (although it wasn't completed until 1917).
The odd thing, though, is that the building began life not as a theatre but as the Glossop Liberal Club, Sir Edward Partington having laid the foundation stone in 1914 (although it wasn't completed until 1917).
14 April 2014
This is Vigan's 'livre de ma mère', essentially concerning her mother but necessarily also her mother's family and of course herself. The information is largely culled from people's memories, obviously including her own, and incorporates film, tapes, her mother's autobiographical writings, etc. Inevitably there must be some guesswork in the reconstruction, such as the fictionalization of dialogue.
The narrator calls her mother by her forename Lucile and describes her grandparents' household with its eventual total of nine children, although there were never nine at the same time.
Lucile's parents George and Liane and the rest of the family suffered three early losses: Antonin, who fell down a well at the age of eight; the adopted Jean-Marc, who was abused by his natural mother and died in bed from auto-erotic asphyxiation at fourteen; and Milo, who killed himself at twenty-eight and may have been involved in a suicide pact with two friends.
Lucile suffered from bipolar disorder, her daughter being used to trying to detect when a crisis would occur, when her mother would be re-admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The narrator mentions in passing that she too was briefly admitted to hospital for anorexia, which Vigan describes in Jours sans faim* (2001), translated as Days without Hunger and originally published under the pseudonym Lou Delvig.
It's quite possible that Lucile's life was traumatised by her father raping her at the age of sixteen, which is what she claimed, and the narrator finds two other women – one of them being another daughter – who were rather alarmed by George's behaviour towards them in their youth. But on the other hand Lucile's repeated written descriptions of the supposed rape don't exactly tally.
The narrator sometimes interrupts the narrative to describe how she went about finding her information and/or what difficulties she had in writing the book, and in passing she mentions Christine Angot's L'Inceste (for obvious reasons) and Lionel Duroy's Le Chagrin (as if fearing negative reactions within her own family – although certainly not from her sister Manon). Neither Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire nor Valérie Valère's Le Pavillon des enfants fous is mentioned, although there are similarities.
Towards the end of the book (and Lucile's life) the narrator says the doctor made the situation clear:
'either he put Lucile back in a chemical straitjacket, in which case she wouldn't have been able to work; or he gave her a chance to lead a normal life, and we had to accept that she expressed some irrational or suspicious ideas [...] "Like many people who aren't considered to be ill."'
She had the chance, but tragically it didn't last long.
At four hundred pages this book never flags, and it's even more riveting than the two earlier novels. I'm not too sure how she'll follow it up, but then Vigan's first directed film – À coup sûr – was released at the beginning of the year.
*The word 'faim' is pronounced the same as 'fin', and it's difficult not to see an intentional play on words.
Clip of 'Osez Joséphine', plus links to my earlier posts:
Alain Bashung: Osez Joséphine
Delphine de Vigan: No et Moi
13 April 2014
'IN MEMORY OF
"THE ROYTON POET"
WHO DIED 18TH SEPTEMBER 1863,
IN THE 70THYEAR OF HIS AGE.
AND OF MARY HIS WIFE,
WHO DIED 12TH MAY 1873,
IN THE 73RD YEAR OF HER AGE.'
According to a webpage written by a member of Royton Local History Society, James Taylor was born on the currently named Middleton Road near its junction with High Street. Beginning work as a handloom weaver, he moved on to a steam-driven cotton mill where he continued until he was sixty, when he began making shoe blacking and selling it from a shop near MIddleton Road.
He had no formal early education, his mother apparently fearing that he would turn into an irreligious radical, which he in fact did for a time before returning to the Christian fold.
Before the end of the 1820s he was writing poetry for magazines using the pseudonym 'poor poet'. He is most remembered for the poem 'On My Native Village' and shortly after his death a book – Miscellaneous Poems – was published by private suscription.
Taylor's grave was one of those moved from St John's graveyard in 1969, and is now in Royton Cemetery.
12 April 2014
I finally got round to visiting Macclesfield again: I made a post in 2009 explaining that while on the way to Atlanta (via Manchester airport) we were unable to find the kerbstone of Ian Curtis (1956–80) of the band Joy Division, although we made it to the important places in Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford.
Above is a photo of 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, where Curtis lived and where he hanged himself in the back kitchen.
TEAR US APART'
The kerbstone memorial, which has perhaps become Macclesfield's most important feature and is certainly visited by many people from all over the world. Today was a rather miserable Saturday and no one else was there at the time of our visit:
But there was strong evidence that many people had visited in the recent past, leaving all kinds of tributes, including an old tee-shirt bearing the album cover from Unknown Pleasures (1979), which was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport (featured in this blog earlier this year).
Elsewhere on this blog are photos of the graves of Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson in Southern Cemetery, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Below I show photos of tributes above the kerbstone which attracted my attention.
9 April 2014
Several years later – after Louis's parents have quietly returned to Brittany but not Brest, and have the ageing grandmother living with them – Louis returns from Paris for a few days over Christmas, although he cuts the visit short.
From the beginning it's clear that Louis doesn't like his parents, and his mother comes across as insufferable: she has always hated le fils Kermeur as a bad influence on Louis, and when she was in Palavas-les-Flots she used to ring her son every evening to check that he wasn't up to mischief. But he was.
We learn more about le fils Kermeur, of how he recruited Louis as a child into the petty theft of chocolate bars from a supermarket, and later how he encouraged Louis to burgle his grandmother's apartment. Shortly after the theft Louis left for Paris, where he rented a place in Paris overlooking Luxembourg. There, he fulfilled his ambition to be a writer.
Louis's 'family novel' is completed but must never see the light of day until his grandmother's death. It contains a great deal of information about Louis's family, and although it's fictionalised (with names and some facts changed) it to a certain extent falls in the relatively recent sub-genre of 'autofiction'. But this is not the book we're reading – which begins with a brief history of Brest – as the 'family novel' begins with grandmother's death.
Other things are different. In Paris-Brest they escape from the burglary with impunity, although in Louis's family book his mother finds le fils Kermeur out and is responsible for his imprisonment. When he gets out he seeks revenge and the whole of Louis's book leads up to le fils Kermeur cornering his mother in order to kill her. Obviously the reader now expects that this last part of Louis's book will come true and le fils Kermeur will in fact kill her in Paris-Brest.
But this is not to be and there's just a little bonfire of Louis's book. It's futile though, as he's caressing a memory stick in his pocket and will soon be back in Paris and out of his family's life for ever.
Interestingly, Tanguy Viel not only shares the same publisher as Laurent Mauvignier but is also a friend of his.
8 April 2014
Lisières means fringes or edges, and in Les Lisières relates to a large number of things. Paul Steiner grew up in V., a town in Essonne on the fringes of Paris, although with his wife Sarah he moved to Brittany, to a town in Finistère, on the fringe of France.
Ian Cross's New Zealand classic The God Boy reads at first like a young adult novel, until you realise that this is interstitial literature narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy recalling his previous life, in particular the disturbing events which occurred when he was eleven: the truth is often between the lines, part of which others hide from him, part of which he hides in self-deception.
Tia – mysterious, young and beautiful – is allergic to reality. She ran away from the death of her sister Monique, from the doctor, from the funeral. She is now running towards Goldie, a mysterious man who has written a succès de scandale concerning the Shoah that has made him the enemy of many, and who now travels incognito. Tia doesn't really want to find him, though, as it would be horrifying to find the person she's looking for.
Written quite a short time before his death from prostate cancer, J. G. Ballard's autobiography is relatively short, often amusing, and remarkably gentle on almost everyone, even – rather scarily for a republican such as Ballard – the Queen of England.
Right from the first paragraph we know that there's something wrong – at least from Denis's wife Delphine's point of view – with their marriage: as with 14 July holiday weekends for the last sixteen years, the couple have invited friends to join them at their holiday home in Coutainville on the Cotentin peninsula in the north-west, and Delphine thinks the more people there the better, as they put more distance between herself and Denis.
We know virtually from the beginning that Delphine is leaving Denis for good, and there are problems in the relationships of the other two adult couples. Lola is thirty-eight and regularly comes with a new boyfriend – this time it's with the twenty-six-year-old Samuel, who unsurprisingly comes across as somewhat immature to her: Lola can already see the end. And there are Nicolas and Marie, who are more Delphine and Denis's age, and have been married for many years, although for three years Nicolas has been keeping a secret from her: his breakdown was caused by the fact that he was most probably responsible for the suicide of a female teacher colleague who was having an illicit relationship with a male pupil.
The three couples are of varying financial circumstances, although they're all middle class, but with different reactions to the strange Caliban-type figure Dimitri, a surprisingly shy twenty-year-old who befriends Denis and Delphine's daughter Jeanne (aged sixteen). He's a young man of few – but very unsettling – words who will affect all the characters: Delphine is frightened for Jeanne's (sexual) safety, Nicolas fears that he's the brother of his dead colleague come to seek revenge, Lola is reminded of the child she had at sixteen whom she was forced to send away, etc. The major statement he makes is to say that the pine tree near Denis and Delphine's house is dying: the tree is the main thing that distinguishes the couple from the others, where people congregate, and is an important symbol of their little community.
Towards the end – after the traditional firework display in the village – there's the high drama of Jeanne going missing with Dimitri*, and then, well, nothing much at all: the end of the book is something of a damp squib.
*I forgot to mention that Jeanne doesn't seem to be interested in her smartphone too much. What? She's sixteen! Now that really is stretching credibility to its limits to make way for the plot.
Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour
2 April 2014
For the first time in a long time, I was unable to finish a book: that is indicative of the level of boredom to which I felt subjected by Yann Moix's Partouz.
24 March 2014
When Emilie notes that her first lover Dario wants to see her she almost immediately hops into her car and begins the drive from Paris to Genova, Italy. Despite the fact that she's just spent hours preparing for a loving evening celebrating her twenty-five years of marriage to her husband Marc, and despite the fact that she hasn't seen Dario for thirty years and has no idea why he wants to see her.
And why, Livre de Poche, do you show a photo of a much younger woman in the rear view mirror on the cover? Rhetorical question of course.
21 March 2014
The back cover of Calixthe Beyala's novel L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel ('The Man Who Promised Me the Earth') reads:
20 March 2014
Previously a schoolteacher and then a journalist, Marcel Frémoux now receives commissions to write the life stories of people who want their experiences – or the experiences of their friends or relatives – translated into book form.
Working on Beuzaboc's autobiography with him, Marcel soon comes to realise that Beuzaboc is lying about his heroic actions during the Resistance: bedtime stories he told the young Lupuline about killing a German in Lille, looking after an English airman, having his leg ripped apart by a bomb in the war, etc. Eventually Beuzaboc (which is also an invented name) implores Marcel to write the truth in the book, as he doesn't want to die leaving his daughter and friends believing a lie.
His daughter is already aware that these are lies – although neither Marcel nor the reader is until the end – but this leaves Marcel in a dilemma: should he tell the truth and expose Beuzaboc according to his wishes, or should the book continue as planned with all the lies?
Some people's lies are of course often other people's truths. Marcel sees a kind of vindication of his father's unrecognised work – and by extension that of others working against fascism in the Resistance – by writing Beuzaboc's original lies, which after all (apart from the very real events at Ascq, which Marcel resolutely omits) are at face value mere children's fantasy tales: so paradoxically, a kind of truth emerges through (and in spite of) the lies.
The structure of this novel strongly resembles a play, often in the form of a conflict between two people – Beuzaboc and Marcel. And I can see a resemblance here between this and Amélie Nothomb's crazy novels, but then I've probably read too many of her books for my own good. This is my first Chalandon though, but there's no reason why it should be my last.
19 March 2014
Crime novels are far from my staple literary diet, although a short time ago I read Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin Gentleman Cambrioleur and was impressed. With a few reservations, I'm impressed with L'Aiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle) too.
18 March 2014
Emmanuel Carrère's D'autres vies que la mienne – trans. by Linda Coverdale as Lives Other than My Own in the American and Other Lives but Mine in the English edition – is perhaps self-explanatory to anyone acquainted with Carrère's previous work: it's an attempt to move away from self-preoccupation and on to the lives of others.
Below is a link to another Carrère book:
Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe
17 March 2014
'THE UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER
Writer and Composer
BA English 1940'
This plaque is on the Samuel Alexander Building.
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation
14 March 2014
But the censorship of other people's work is a different issue entirely, and there have to be very good reasons for it, such as the fear of legal action.
There are some (often famous) examples of literary censorship, such as Jessie Pope's ruthless excision of much of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists – yes, he'd of course already self-censored the title to the milquetoast 'Ragged-Trousered' – but the original text was restored by Lawrence & Wishart much later; there was the puscillanimous censoring of much of the sexual content of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers by Edward Garnett (about one tenth of the book), until Baron & Baron came along and restored the text; then there was the horrendous butchering in the 'translation' (to give it a vastly unmerited description) of Beauvoir's The Second Sex by the anti-feminist, non-philosopher, French-literature-deleting H. M. Parshley, who managed to cut the text by a quarter, although Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's (translated and restored) text has still received criticism: luckily, I was able to read it in the original French.
My main point, though, is that – obviously painfully in the case of the ever-thorny issue of translation – the modern drift is towards a scholarly view of the original text, restoring it where it can be restored, ever heeding what is thought to be the final intention of the author.
What, though, are we supposed to think when we already have a final text but someone decides to censor it on the grounds that the text might cause offence? A recent case that came up was the changing of well over 200 instances of the word 'nigger' to 'slave' in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The argument, of course, is that the word 'nigger' is insulting to black people so it must be altered to conform to present-day sensibilities. Many people – particularly academics – were shocked by this measure, as indeed they should have been: irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is a major work of literature, irrespective of the fact that at the time the word 'nigger' had no pejorative connotations, and irrespective of the fact that Huck Finn is in no way a racist work (in fact quite the opposite), it is very wrong to interfere with an original text in this way.
That there are problems cannot be denied: the teaching of Huck Finn in schools must be handled maturely and with much tact. But in no way should any word of the original text be altered.
It therefore came as a shock to me when I saw that the word 'nigger' had been changed in the Five Leaves edition of Louis Golding's Magnolia Street. On inquiring I discovered that Ross Bradshaw was responsible for this action: unsurprisingly, he finds the word 'nigger' 'outrightly offensive'. So do I, although Magnolia Street was written in 1932, when is was not considered offensive: by censoring, you are dehistoricizing the novel, attempting to wipe away historical usage of language, altering an original text which should be left alone. This smacks not so much of misguided political correctness as of paternalism. Am I correct in assuming that no one else was consulted when this decision was made?
Unlike Huck Finn, Magnolia Street is not even freighted with the iconic baggage of being in the educational canon: at 500-plus pages, such a tome never risks being on any syllabus below undergraduate level.
So what is the problem? Totally misguided censorship is the problem. I spoke to Ross about the issue on 10 March 2014, and he pointed out that I was the first person who had ever expressed any objection to his censorship, although my esprit de l'escalier prevented me from saying the obvious: the tiny note in the book – which explains the reason for the censorship – is probably only noticed by a few footnote junkies like me, so how would anyone know they were reading a censored work anyway? (There are not even any footnotes or endnotes indicating where the text has been changed.)
To sum up: the censorship of this book is a major error: anyone using the novel for scholarly purposes must refer to the original text.
Below is a link to the blog post that occasioned this post. Also included below is a link to a two-year-old Guardian article on a censored Huckleberry Finn edition – the many comments are almost as interesting as the article itself:
Ross Bradshaw: 'The "n" word'
Benedicte Page: New Huckleberry Finn edition censors 'n-word'
12 March 2014
Patrick Deville's Peste & Choléra – now translated as Plague & Cholera – won the Prix Femina in 2012. It is a largely biographical novel about Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943), who was born in French-speaking Switzerland.
11 March 2014
Linda Lê's Lame de fond (perhaps best translated as 'Tidal Wave', as the cover perhaps suggests) reached the final stage of the 2012 Prix Goncourt before being trumped by Jerome Ferrari's Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome.
The novel is in four major parts corresponding to different parts of the day, from the heart of the night to twilight, and within each of those parts are monologues by four different people, but not always in the same order of speech.
Van begins. He has very recently been buried in the Cimetière de Bobigny after accidentally (I think we are given to believe) being run over by his drunken wife Lou.
Lou has been married to Van for about twenty years and they have a teenaged daughter called Laure.
Laure is a goth with a friend called Tommy.
And Ulma is Van's lover, whose flat Van had just left at 2 o'clock in the morning when Lou mowed her husband down.
That is the story, just as it is: the emphasis here, as we might expect from Lê, is not on what happens (or rather, doesn't happen), but on the psychological interplay between the characters: Lou is to be tried for her killing Van, although the interest lies not in if she is imprisoned or set free (which we never learn), but in the events which happened before Van's death.
Van was born in Vietnam to Vietnamese parents, although his father left the family to join Hô Chi Minh's forces and Van left for France when he was fifteen, where he was educated and permanently lived there as a proof reader.
Van was obviously more attached to his mother than his absentee father (who was later killed), and Lou was much more attached to her father than to her racist mother, who severed all connections with her daughter on her marriage to a Vietnamese.
Laure is not academically brilliant, and her father tries to 'correct' her grammar and her slang, although it is a fruitless. Nevertheless, Laure looks back on her childhood with nostalgia, and misses her father's pedantic ways.
It is Ulma who in a number of ways brings on the fateful event, although she, like the other characters, does not come across unsympathetically. The product of a hippie, globe-trotting and free-loving French mother Justine and a week-long relationship with a Vietnamese man in Paris, Ulma is largely brought up by her grandmother.
As a mark of how little importance suspense has in the book, the back cover informs us that Ulma is Van's half-sister. It is Ulma's eventual decision to send Van a letter informing him that he has a sister which brings on the lame de fond. Ulma's four monologues are written as if she were talking to her long-term psychiatrist, although her final monologue reveals that she no longer has any need of him.
Van meeting Ulma is a coup de foudre, an experience in which both see themselves in the other, and begin the incestuous relationship that will not only lead to Van's death, but occasion all the monologues in the book.
I'm not certain that Laure comes across as a fully developed entity rather than a somewhat stereotypical youth figure, but it was fun reading her (and Tommy's) expressions. The main potential problem, I think, is in how to persuade the reader to continue reading when virtually all suspense has been stripped away. It definitely worked for me, and I loved the book, although I suspect that not all people would read it in this way.
6 March 2014
This, then, is Le Troisième mensonge, the third volume of La Trilogie des jumelles (The Twins Trilogy), and it changes a great number of things. I'd begun to wonder if there were any hard-fast truths to the books, as there seemed to be so many 'lies', so much unreliable narration.
And that is one thing that's true: a lot has been unreliable, and although this doesn't stop in the final volume, all becomes clear in the end. However, if La Preuve began to set my head turning, this one made me feel on several occasions as if it were being kicked like a football. Because of its many mind-boggling twists, I can easily understand a number of people just giving up on this volume – or far more likely just skimming through it and missing vital details – but careful reading really does pay off.
So the second volume ended with Claus in prison, although it's really just a police cell where he's being held until he can be sent back home. And through the lies that have come before we begin to see how the notebook to a certain extent fed on reality but often changed it, moulding it to a different shape. And we're in for a number of surprises, shocks even, of which I can only give an indication of the main ones.
Unlike the first two books in the trilogy – which are told in the first person plural and third person respectively – Le Troisième mensonge is told in the first person singular. As a child Claus spent some years in hospital recovering from a (war) injury and when he got better was sent to live with an old woman who wasn't his grandmother at all, and he had no brother there and had no idea where he was. The man who died crossing the border before him was a deserter, not his father, and once over the border he meets Peter (depicted as a very discreet homosexual in La Preuve) who is living with his wife Clara (Lucas's lover in the second book).
It is over the border that Lucas decides to call himself Claus, and where he lives for many years before deciding to return to the country of his birth. There are dream sequences in Lucas's story, and it seems as though my suspicions were right about Claus and Lucas being the same person (just an anagram), as Lucas here (who's called Claus of course) doesn't believe he has a brother, thinks he's just created him in his dreams.
Le Troisième mensonge is in two parts and begins normally enough in the first person, although the second part seems to begin in a dream sequence: but the difficulty is the staggering revelation that the first person narrator of this half is the poet Klaus [sic] Lucas, whom Lucas (aka Claus) correctly thinks is his brother. Lucas is spending his last hours in the capital of the country, and he rings up Klaus and goes to his house with his passport (which calls him Claus of course) although Klaus (whose mad mother is in the house in bed) refuses to recognise him. So Lucas goes away bitterly disappointed.
The truth of the matter is that the brothers were separated by 'la chose' ('the thing') at the age of four. We learned in the highly unreliable first book that Grand-Mère killed her husband – twice-married Kristof hated marriage, but that's another story – but in fact it was Mère who killed her adulterous husband, whose forename was incidentally Klaus-Lucas and the twins were named after him. For some years while Mère was in a psychiatric hospital Klaus was brought up by Antonia, his father's lover, his younger half-sister Sarah living there too.
One day when Klaus is back at Mère's, where he has lived from the age of eleven up to the end – he never married as he only ever loved Sarah, but of course that would have led to incest – the ambassador tells him that Lucas has thrown himself in front of a train and had requested to be buried with his family. Klaus thinks it would be churlish not to allow Lucas this last wish, even though he doesn't recognise him as a brother, so OK he can be buried there. And he thinks that when Mère dies, jumping in front of a train will make as good a death as any for himself: he'll no longer have any reason for living.
Amazingly, Agota Kristof had no intention after the first book to write a second, or after the second a third, but they fit together ingeniously and I'm not surprised that they've been published in French and English in one volume – the first two may stand on their own, but I don't really see how a reader could get a great deal from reading the third without the others.
But Le Troisième mensonge is far and away the most complex and the most challenging, it's a wonderful book that beautifully completes the trilogy. And although I may well come to change my mind, at the moment it feels that taken together these three books are among the most absorbing reads I've ever come across. And that's saying something.
5 March 2014
La Preuve (The Proof) is the second volume of the Trilogie des jumeaux (The Twins Trilogy) and is considerably different from Le Grand cahier, the first volume.
4 March 2014
Agota Kristof (1935–2011) was born in Hungary but left the country with the Soviet invasion of 1956 to spend her life in French-speaking Switzerland, where she came to write her 'Trilogie des jumeaux' ('Twins Trilogy') in French some years later. This consists of Le Grand cahier (The Big Notebook) (1986), La Preuve (The Proof) (1988), and Le Troisième mensonge (The Third Lie) (1991) and is largely fictional: Kristof was a tomboy, although her brother was not a twin but a year older than her, for instance.