24 October 2010

Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Gone (1999)

The French publisher Les Éditions de Minuit is strongly associated with the nouveau roman, and has, for example, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Michel Butor, and Marguerite Duras in its portfolio. Its post-nouveau roman generation of writers include Marie NDiaye, Éric Chevillard, Jean-Philippe Toussaint...and Jean Echenoz.

At the beginning of Echenoz's Un an (1997), Victoire leaves Paris as soon as she awakens to find her boyfriend dead: she has no recollection of the previous evening, and, fearing that she may have killed Félix, draws all her money out of the bank and boards a train at Montparnasse station. With no apparent future intentions, she arrives at St-Jean-de-Luz in the extreme south-west of France, stays in hotels and rents a place until she gets robbed of nearly all her money, buys a bicycle until someone steals it, sleeps in the open air, occasionally hitches lifts (on one occasion receiving one from a Fiat driver), and lives the life of a tramp drifting around south-west France. From time to time, a mysterious Louis-Philippe, who knows about her situation and seems to know where she is all the time, finally tells her that it is safe to return to Paris; so she returns to Paris after a year of aimless traveling, only to find that Félix wasn't dead at all, but that Louis-Philippe, on the other hand, has been dead for over a year. Welcome to the world of Jean Echenoz, where things are by no means always quite as they seem.

Echenoz likes to play games. Movement is one of his preoccupations, and just as movement is vital to Un an, it is an important factor in Je m'en vais (1999), which is translated in the English edition as I'm Off, and in the American as I'm Gone, an expression which, in the manner of, say, Finnegan's Wake, begins and ends the novel. And like Un an, Je m'en vais takes place in a year, and as the earlier book begins with the protagonist's leaving of Paris and ends with her return to it, so the later novel begins with the protagonist leaving his home and then (briefly) returning to his now former home. And the name of the protagonist is Ferrer. Félix Ferrer.

Ferrer is a failing art dealer and his assistant Delahaye tells him of a ship that was wrecked at the North Pole forty years earlier, in which there are still a number of Inuit art treasures. The fiftysomething Ferrer decides, against medical advice due to a bad heart that should not be subjected to extremes of temperature, that he will go to the North Pole and retrieve the treasure. Before he leaves, though, Delahaye dies, and it is at his funeral that we learn that his forename was Louis-Philippe.

Ferrer succeeds in finding the art treasures, and during the journey has one of a number of sexual encounters he has throughout the book, another of which will be with a girl named Victoire.

One of the features of the two novels is that the narrator very rarely reveals what the characters are thinking, that things are almost always seen from an external point of view - what things or people look like, and what they do. Another slightly disorienting thing is that the short chapters often alternate between one person's actions and another, between what Ferrer is doing and what Baumgartner - another mysterious character whose actions are first seen in Paris while Ferrer is at the North Pole - is doing.

It's probably obvious to most readers that Baumgartner intends to steal Ferrer's Inuit treasure, which the jetlagged Ferrer has had valued, and is worth two medium-sized chateaux, although he just locks it in a cupboard in his gallery instead of immediately insuring it and putting it in a bank safe, which of course means that it is stolen by Baumgartner.

And Baumgartner - having frozen to death his junky dogsbody who is responsible for the robbery itself - tries to cover his traces and drives aimlessly around south-west France and Basque Spain in his Fiat, sleeping in hotels and spending all his money. At one stage of his travels he gives a hitch-hiker a lift: he recognises her, but doesn't want her to recognise him, so drives carefully and avoids potholes while she sleeps through the whole journey. Although her name isn't mentioned, she's bedraggled and smelly, and the reader of Un an will have little difficulty associating her with Victoire.

Ferrer learns that Baumgartner is in Biarritz, and tracks him down in a bar, although he's, er, not Baumgartner. Yeah, it's Echenoz playing games again.


My other Jean Echenoz posts:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Jeaan Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running

22 October 2010

Rugby, Tennessee, and Thomas Hughes of Uffington, Oxfordshire, England: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #1

Rugby is a tiny village on the Cumberland Plateau to the north-east of Tennessee. The settlement there was begun in 1880 by Thomas Hughes, better known for his book Tom Brown's Schooldays, which is set in the English town of Rugby in Warwickshire, where Hughes went to the private school of the same name.

Hughes's idea was to build a kind of utopia. In Victorian England, the practice of primogeniture meant that the first born son inherited his father's whole estate, leaving upper middle-class sons born after this with very few respectable professional opportunities. Therefore, Hughes conceived this agricultural community based on the principles of Muscular Christianity, in which much importance was given to sport.

The colony was beset by many difficulties - typhoid, land title disputes, maladminisration, and poor soil among them - and by 1887, following the deaths of several prominent members, most of the colony's original members had left. Hughes himself had spent very little time in Rugby, although his mother Margaret lived there.

Inside the school is a brief history, of which this is the relevant part:

'The first building on this site was a three-storey community building erected by Rugby's Board of Aid to Land Ownership [from whom Hughes bought the land and retained the name] in 1880. The first floor functioned as a school, the second floor housed a multi-denominational room, and the third floor was used as a meeting space for clubs like the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows. This community building burned in 1906.


A number of Hughes's books on display in the school.

As the sign on the door says, this library was built on 5 October 1882.

It contains 7000 books .

Kingstone Lisle was designed for Thomas Hughes to live in, although he used it very little.

Christ Church Episcopal, 1887.


The chancel windows, the left one of which is dedicated to Margaret E. Hughes (1797-1887).

And finally, Rugby Printing Works.

We had originally planned to spend the night at historic Newbury House in the village, but unfortunately had to press on further with our tour.
In 1907, the Morgan County School Board built the current building on the same foundation. Classes were held for all grades on the first floor, and the second floor held a cafeteria.'

21 October 2010

Kaye Gibbons: Ellen Foster (1987)

Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina, and lives in Raleigh in the same state. She published eight books between 1987 and 2005, although she has not published one since.

She suffers from bipolar disorder, and in 2008 was convicted of prescription fraud.

Ellen Foster is set in the mid- to late seventies. It is Gibbons's first novel, and she calls it 'emotionally autobiographical'. Many of the events in this first person narrative also coincide with events in Gibbons's own life: for instance, the suicide of her mother when the daughter was ten, the father who drank himself to death not long afterward, and Ellen's various changes of address within a very short period.

As well as tracing the story of Ellen's life after she decides to leave her abusive, incompetent and alcoholic father - which, among other things, involves staying with essentially uncaring aunts and an insane maternal grandmother - the concern is with Ellen's rapid psychological maturity.

Ellen Foster was originally conceived as a poem about an African American, and the young black girl Starletta becomes Ellen's best friend in the novel. In spite of this, at the beginning of the book, Ellen believes old white superstitions about blacks, that, for instance, she might change color if she shares her cup with a black person, so - even though very hungry - she refuses to accept a meal with Starletta's family. It takes the stability of Ellen's new (foster) family - after which she mistakenly changes her name - for her to realize that her love for Starletta has no bounds: 'I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it. It seems like the decent thing to do.' In spite of her ordeals, she realizes that Starletta has 'the hardest row to hoe'.

20 October 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help (2009)

Kathryn Stockett's The Help (2009) is a very popular novel, and I'm wary of such animals. However, this book - written by a woman born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi by a black 'help' and with an obviously partly autobiographical subject matter - is a powerfully written reconstruction of Southern life (largely from the point of view of black domestics) in the early 1960s.

The novel is structured in a series of narratives by the 'helps' Aibileen and the younger Minny (both written in a kind of black vernacular), and the young white Miss Skeeter (written in standard English).  Having the tail end of the Jim Crow law era as its central backcloth, The Help is firmly centered on black and white issues in the domestic field, concentrating on the abuse of black women in that area. With some justification, the front cover of the English Penguin paperback calls it 'The other side of Gone wih the Wind'.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Miss Skeeter and Aibileen and the former's strong interest in publishing a series of interviews about the treatment of black domestics by their white employers. Gradually, Aibileen persuades over ten other black workers to be interviewed, and eventually the anonymously authored book is published, and meets with some success, as well as considerable criticism in the Jackson community.

What shines through all this is not just the courage of the black women, not just the courage of one white woman to record it all, but the strength of human resistance against racial bigotry and general ignorance. A heartwarming book with no facile conclusions.

8 October 2010

A Celebration of Outsiders: Museum of Appalachia, Norris, near Clinton, Tennessee: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #1

More than once before, I've quoted Lee Smith about Appalachia being - and I paraphrase wildly - a kind of outsider's outsider. John Rice Irwin, whose ancestors were descended from pioneer settlers in the Big Valley of East Tennessee in the early years of the 18th century, is the founder and President of Museum of Appalachia in Norris, near Clinton, Tennessee. It is a remarkable place, started in the late 1960s, and is an accumulation of a vast amount of historical heritage that has grown from a mere two to 65 acres. Many of the exhibits are log structures, and many of them contain a large number of artifacts used by the mountain folk. The museum stands as a huge tribute to these people, many of them previously unsung.

Gwen's Little Playhouse was built by Will Elkins, who was a neighbor hired by Gwen's father, James C. Hubbard. It was much envied by local children, and it is very fortunate that is survived: the Tennessee Valley Authority had bought up several thousand acres of land to drown, but this was the only building that was saved. The theatre was in New Loyston, 15 miles east of the museum, and was given to it in 2008 by the 84-year-old Gwen Hubbard Sharp.

One of the endearing features of Museum of Appalachia is the Appalachian Hall of Fame, which contains a wealth of information about, and exhibits of, Appalachian life and Appalachian people. Many ot these people became well known nationwide, particularly country and blue grass musicians. Other people are a little less well known, such as the Cherokee Nancy Ward, whose first husband, Kingfisher, was killed in a battle. But his wife went on to be a woman of great influence. She later married a British trader, Brian Ward, and became renowned for her efforts as a peacemaker, bringing about a greater tolerance between the Cherokees and the settlers. She spent most of her life in Choka, the Cherokee capital near Loudon. R. Sterling King wrote a book about her, The Wild Rose of Cherokee: or Nancy Ward, 'The Pocahontas of the West':

But the Hall of Fame's strength is the attention it gives to ordinary, unknown people, who in the end are not so ordinary at all.
 
Toward the entrance of the Hall of Fame is a large placard containing the photos of many people, and John Rice Irwin's words:
 
'Pictured here are my friends: the warm, happy, independent folk of Southern Appalachia. They are my people and the people I love, and it was because of them and people like them that I started the Museum of Appalachia. And it is to them that this Hall of Fame is dedicated.'

One such friend was Tom Carter (1910-81), whose mother's bust he carved, and is shown above. Tom also wrote a poem about his mother, who lived in Duffield, south-west Virginia:

Ode to Appalachian Mother

TIME SOUNDED
as you arose in the mountains
and gave us birth.

Your earth wisdom, your toil and love
gave us food, clothing and shelter.

Wise in the way of TIME,
you endured fire and ice, joy and agony,
working always, tending us ever,

Soft in Love, determined in righteous-
ness, with unyielding integrity, you
held us firm in the search for
THE GREAT WHITE LIGHT.

You exalt the mountains!
The mountains exalt you!
Transcending self,
Thunder sounds your name.

Being tired, but trusting our strength,
you looked upward saying:
'Lord, my work is done.
Let me come home.'


Troy Webb lived in Clairfield, Tennessee, and lost a leg digging coal near his home. Although he returned to the mines after, he relaxed by whittling wood, and the objects he created are now much sought after.

Irwin calls Mary Dennings Bumgarthner a 'saintly little lady', and briefly notes that she lived just three miles south of the museum with her husband Lee, on a steep hillside in Faust Hollow.

The former one-room home of Tom Cassidy (1920-89), of Beard Valley, Union County, Tennessee. Eighteen years after Cassidy's death, Irwin found his cabin exactly as he had left it. Cassidy considered that a person had no need for more than this: a bed, a stove for heating and cooking, a frying pan, a dresser, a fiddle, and a pistol.

The sign reads: 'These two cells, dated 1874, each designed to hold four prisoners were used in the small east Tenn. town of Madisonville. On Dec. 20, 1917, Will Upton and his uncle Drew Upton were taken from one of them and hanged as they sang 'I'm Coming Home'.
Henry Harrison Mayes was a coalminer by profession and a soul-saver by obsession. He put religious markers in many states, drawing the places he'd chosen on a large map of the USA. To say the least, his ideas were eccentric. Most of the images below speak for themselves.

Mayes's door knob had a cover which opened to reveal a rather predictable message:
The uncovering.

The Mark Twain Family Cabin, formerly belonging to Twain's father John Clemens, which was transported from Possum Trot in Fortress County, where John owned much land and where he was postmaster.

The interior.

Big Tater Valley School, which was transported from Big Tater Valley.

Inside the school.

A privy, this one built with two holes.

This is one of them.

A reconstruction of the Peters House and Homestead. Nathaniel Peters lived in this house in the nearby village of Lutrell, where he brought up nine children and died at the age of 87.

From left to right, Carol Ostrom, Gene Brewer, and Anna Denison play Appalachian music on the verandah of the Homestead Smokehouse and Granary.

A slave cabin unopened as yet.

The infamous Popcorn Sutton's whiskey still. Popcorn* lived in North Carolina in the Smoky Mountains and had made moonshine all his adult life. In Museum of Appalachia's annual Homecoming event in 2003, Sutton made moonshine there, although he was told that he was not allowed to hand out samples of the whiskey, which he ignored and handed it out anyway.

When the police insisted that he stop, he took his equipment and left. Later, he was convicted of selling illicit whisky and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. As he had years before served a few months imprisonment for a similar offence, and having no desire to return to a 'caged animal' status, he gassed himself with carbon monoxide from his truck on 15 March 2009, a day before he was due to begin his term.

Popcorn's book, Me and My Likker: The True Story of a Mountain Moonshiner, was published in 1999 by Shockwave. It was re-published this year by his daughter Sky, in a spiral-bound edition that is numbered and is now virtually out of print.

*Popcorn earned his nickname by putting a pool cue to a malfunctioning popcorn machine.

This sundial is from Tennessee Williams's great-grandfather's sunken garden in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In the shop at the end of the tour, I was flicking through a coffee table book about the Appalachian Trail, which is 2174 miles long and stretches from Mount Springer in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. A voice a few feet away from me said 'I've done that', and I looked up to see a woman who turns out to be in her eighties, although she certainly didn't look it. When she was in her sixties, and a widow, she spent several months walking the trail, camping along the way.  And she said she still wore her wedding ring as she was too old for dating. You meet some interesting characters in the mountains.