2 June 2016

Lydie Salvayre: Pas pleurer (2014)

The title of Lydie Salvayre's Pas pleurer (lit. 'No Crying') is taken from an expression in one of Marina Tsvetaeva's letters that Salvayre discovered on researching 7 femmes (2013): she thought it apt because the title Pas pleurer, which is set in the Spanish Civil War and largely concerns her mother's situation, sums up her decision not to be a victim.

Salvayre's Spanish-born mother Montse was fifteen at the outbreak of the war, and from a family of 'mauvais pauvres': the kind of people the enraged novelist Georges Bernanos knew were being cold-bloodedly executed in Mallorca by Franco's forces, while he was living there. Bernanos's son had joined the fascist Phalange until he too saw what was happening, and the nevertheless very right-wing Catholic George Bernanos plays an important kind of bit-part in this novel. He returned to France in 1937 and his anti-Franquist (for which read anti-fascist) book Les Cimetières sous la lune was published the following year, and much later had a profound effect on Salvayre.

This is a novelised biographical work about Lydie Salvayre's family some ten years before she was born, partly culled from her mother's fading recollections which nonetheless remain vivid about this particular period. It is a story of two families: the main players are Montse herself and her brother José, and the bourgeois Jaime Burgos Obregón and his son Diego, by (it is revealed towards the end) another woman before Jaime met and married Doña Sol.

José is a young anarchist and has returned from Lérida with ideas about a wonderful new anarchist society that can be lived in Spain, and Montse later discovers the joys of living in an anarchist village. One sentence in the book gives an idea of this society, and I translate:

'From June '36, in fact, numerous villages became free self-governing collective communes outside of a central ruling power, without police, without law courts, without a boss, without money, without church, without bureaucracy, and in almost perfect peace.'

Hmm, so maybe the hippie 1960s in the UK and elsewhere weren't so great after all. The young Montse loved this, it fed into her whole life and is the principal memory her failing mind retains. But one of the results of the free love, the gender equality (hey, women can smoke too!) is that Montse gets pregnant and goes back to (a none-too-pleased) mother. Somehow, you know the end is in sight when Montse improbably marries the ugly Diego, who for some time has been (equally improbably) a communist. This means, of course, that José and Diego (although both on the left) nevertheless hate each other because of their political affiliations. It seems highly improbable too that Diego (according to the local gossip) had a hand in José's death, but the real message is that things are closing in on the left in general and it's time to flee to France, which is exactly what Diego and Montse do (although not together at first), and France is where they stay. Cue for Lydie Salvayre to appear.

But this book, Salvayre likes to think, is written with her mother. Montse not only spoke French with a Spanish accent for the rest of her life, used unconventional (the unkind would call it 'incorrect') French, and also used fragnol (a type of mixture of French and Spanish), and many linguistic tributes to Montse are given here. One expression that struck me was 'Il faut que tu comprends' (without the subjunctive), and then there's 'Il récite des versos [vers] qui hablent [parlent] de la mer' (lit. 'He recites verses which speak of the sea', but so much is lost in that), although the malapropism/fragnol expression I really love is 'tête de litotte' for 'tête de linotte'. This best translates as 'birdbrain' (linotte being French for linnet), but I find it interesting that it also suggests a word with which Montse (but certainly not Salvayre) is surely unfamiliar: 'litote', or litotes, from Greek rhetoric.

It's not just Montse's use of language that is interesting here, as the novel is strewn with Spanish words, expressions and sentences that seem to be not exactly untranslatable, but which describe the time more fully than a straight translation would allow for: how can you cope with an expression such as 'Rabelais était espanol [sic] camaradas, espagnol [sic] en esprit, claro, hermano de Cervantes, claro, [...]. Hybridity rules, time for Bakhtinian theory to take over. But not here.

Pas pleurer won the Prix Goncourt in 2014, although a review in Libé suggested that this was an error of judgement, that Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquête should have taken the title. Dunno, but out of about 115 Goncourts only ten female writers had got it before, and as I've not yet read Daoud's novel I'm not one to judge, but this is still a hell of a book.

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