31 March 2018

Honoré de Balzac in Saché (37), Indre-et-Loire (37)


Le Château de Saché has its origins in the Renaissance, although wings were added in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, and other alterations were made in the nineteenth century by the owner Jean Margonne. Margonne – a friend of Balzac's parents – often received Balzac (1799–1850) here, who affectionately referred to it as a 'vieux reste de château' in opposition to the other very impressive châteaux in the Loire valley. Balzac was born in Tours, which by car now is twenty-five kilometres from Saché, although then it was just over twenty on foot – a journey Balzac made. Between 1825 and 1848 Balzac regularly visited Margonne, finding peace and freedom from his debtors in Paris. He worked between twelve and sixteen hours a day, writing Le Père Goriot, César Birotteau, Louis Lambert and in part Illusions perdues here. His novel Le Lys dans la vallée is of course inspired by the area.

Paul Fournier's Honoré de Balzac, on which Fournier based his statue which was erected in Tours in 1889, and which the Nazis later took down for melting.

The dining room. The wealthy Margonnes lived in Tours and Paris but frequently returned to Saché. His surroundings inevitably influenced Balzac's novels.


Le Grand Salon, where Balzac played whist and tric-trac (a dice game) with Margonne.

The Cabinet de travail, representing Balzac's Derville in Le Colonel Chabert.

A representation of an ideal boudoir such as Fœdora's in La Peau de chagrin.

A representation of the luxurious bedroom of l'abbé Birotteau from Le Curé de Tours.



Reconstruction of Balzac's study, bedroom and cabinet de toilette.

Balzac by Alexandre Falguière.

In the Salle Rodin, a rather familiar representation of Balzac.

Balzac was a printer from 1826 to 1828. This is a reconstruction of a printing house of the day.

Horace Hennion, by Horace Delpérier (1910). Hennion was the originator of the Balzac museum collection, amongst which is the work below:

This bas-relief is by François Sicard, and was affixed to Balzac's birthplace, 39 rue Nationale, Tours, in 1899, the centenary of his birth. The house was destroyed in 1940.

A fascinating place, although we were initially very annoyed by an over-enthusiastic female 'guide' who tried to provide services we neither asked for nor welcomed: I would have liked to be far more blunt in my refusal. Ugh!

30 March 2018

François Rabelais in Seuilly (37), Indre-et-Loire (37)

François Rabelais (c. 1483–1553) was born in La Devinière, Seuilly, now the only museum dedicated to him. Antoine Rabelais was his lawyer father who had inherited several properties in Seuilly from his mother. This smallholding, or farm, dates from the fifteenth century and Rabelais was the third child. This, the Château de Grandgousier, the seat of giants, is is where Gargantua was born: the centre of the 'guerre picrocholine'. This is Rabelais country. L'Indre-et-Loire turned the property into a museum in 1951.

The property from a general viewpoint.

La Maison du Métayer, or tenant farmer, now showing the biography of Rabelais.

An anonymous oil painting on wood called Rabelais au verre de vin.

The pigeonnier-grange, or dovecote-cum-barn, dates from the 17th century, now holding an exhibition dedicated to Rabelais and Nostradamus.

The room contains a number of old editions of Rabelais's, this one including an illustration by Lucien Bouche from a 1930 Hazan edition.

At the back of the pigeonnier, Le Logis Rabelais, 15th century and of white calcareous stone.

La Grande Salle  in the logis.

Bust of Rabelais holding his pen, by Louis-Valentin Robert, who executed the Rabelais statue in the Turgot wing of the Louvre.

The charcoal sketch of Rabelais by Matisse presented to the musée in 1951.

The bedroom on the upper level.

The door to the petite chambre.

François Villon, Georges Brassens and Rabelais by Louis Mitelberg (1992).


The cellars were hewn out of the rock used to construct houses in La Devinière, and became an underground farm, also including an oven, chimney, and wine press.

And the wine press.

Finally, La Maison du Vigneron.

With its bread oven. And all of this for six euros (five if you've visited another museum in the département): it makes the National Trust look like a total rip-off.

Robert Merle: Week-end-à Zuydcoote | Week-end at Zuydcoote (1949)

Week-end à Zudcoote (translated as Week-end at Zuydcoote) is Robert Merle's first novel and received the Goncourt in 1949. Ironically, the title might suggest a weekend break (by the sea) but this still from the film on the cover belies that idea: this is a book about the defeat of the Allies by the Nazis in World War II and the aftermath as many try to escape over the channel. It is a novel of fear, violence, fleeting friendships or acquaintances, attempted survival, but most of all absurdity and death.

Four Frenchmen in the wreckage of Zuydcoote near Dunkirk (Dunkerque) make up the bulk of the story, Julien Maillat being the central character, the one the narrative follows on his incessant mainly pedestrian journeys, talking to a man carrying a dead woman with a large hole in her head, trying to escape across the channel with the 'tommies' before having to swim back to shore, killing two fellow Frenchmen trying to rape a young girl, etc.

Most of all though, we see Maillat's interactions with the other three: Pierson the curé, with whom (as an atheist) Maillat has brief theological discussions; the tall, thin Alexandre who does the cooking; and the cowardly fat Dhéry who dreams of riches after the war.

As the Nazis draw inevitably closer, Maillat leaves for neighbouring Bray-Dunes, to join the girl Jeanne, whom he saved from the rapists, is reluctant to leave the family home in spite of the fascists closing in, and whom he (incongruously) talks of marrying. Ineluctably, the end is climactic.

27 March 2018

Romain Gary (Émile Ajar): La Vie devant soi | The Life Before Us (1975)

In 1956 Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt for Les Racines du ciel. A writer can't win another Goncourt because it's not allowed. However, a certain Émile Ajar won the Goncourt in 1975 with La Vie devant soi (translated in English with the title The Life Before Us): the claim was that this was a cousin of Gary's, although it was in fact Gary himself, who didn't officially reveal the fact until it was discovered after his suicide in 1980.

La Vie devant soi involves Madame Rosa, a now retired prostitute for thirty-five years who takes in children born to prostitutes in the immigrant area of Belleville. Madame Rosa is a poverty-stricken Jew in her late sixties, and the other main character in the novel is the ten-year-old Arab Mohammed, usually called Momo.

Momo is far older than his years, which is partly a bi-product of the circumstances in which he lives by his survival skills, but in no small part due to the deception Madame Rosa has submitted him to since she 'adopted' him when he was three years old.

In spite of the religious and general cultural differences of their birth, Momo is devoted to Madame Rosa, to the point of looking after her when she starts to grow senile and have attacks of madness, paranoid that the Germans (in the 1970s) will come to take her back to Auschwitz. Momo sticks with her to the end, even cleaning her when she becomes incontinent, even shielding her from Doctor Katz when he wants her to die in an institution and she chooses to die in a cellar which she secretly claims as a kind of second home. Momo, who has developed a new maturity on discovering that his real age is fourteen and that Madame Rosa has sought to keep him for as long as possible, does all he can to see that her last wishes are fulfilled.

If the above sounds a little like a horror story, any horror is redeemed by the fact that Momo is the narrator, whose humour shines through, especially for his childish lack of understanding of some events and language. He says: 'Madame Rosa wasn't at all patriotic and it was all the same to her if people were north Africans or Arabs, Malians or Jews, because she had no principles.' (He means prejudices.) The untutored Momo mistakes amnesty for amnesia, and abortion for euthanasia.

Euthanasia is the key word here, and Madame Rosa is intent on dying with as much dignity as she can under the circumstances. In fact this can be said to be a novel holding high the rights of a person to die as they wish, not (as the medical profession appears to wish) as a vegetable. Madame Rosa is a few years older than Romain Gary here, although Gary once said that he had made an arrangement with 'the man upstairs': unable to face a future life of pain and dependence, he fired a bullet into his head five years after this book was published.

I've read a number of Goncourt winners, but this is one of the best so far.

108 rue du bac, 7th arrondissement, Paris.

Joan Adeney Easdale, aka Sophie Curly, in Wilford Hill Cemetery, Nottingham

The grave of the poet Joan Adeney Easdale is in Wilford Hill Cemetery, Nottingham. She re-invented herself in Nottingham as Sophie Curly,* a well-known figure, particularly in the city centre pubs. In the 1930s Leonard and Virginia Woolf published three books of poems by her; she married the geneticist Jim Rendel, who also had (albeit slightly distant) Bloomsbury connections: his father's uncle was Lytton Strachey, and his mother's sister was Frances Partridge. Her grave calls her by her three names: Joan Adeney Easdale, Joan Rendel, and Sophie Curly.

My comments on Celia Robertson's biography of her grandmother, Who Was Sophie?: My Grandmother, Poet and Stranger, are here.

*Although Celia Robertson calls her grandmother 'Sophie Curly' throughout her book, and although 'Sophie' and 'Sophia Curly' are inscribed on her grave, there are a few incorrect references online to her as 'Sophie Curley'.

25 March 2018

Sophie Divry: La Condition pavillonnaire | Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014)

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs is not a bad translation of the title for Sophie Divry's La Condition pavillonnaire: the novel itself, in its central and by a long way the longest of  its three parts, quotes Flaubert's Madame Bovary: 'Au fond de son âme, cependant, elle attendait un événement': 'Deep in her soul, though, she was waiting for something to happen.'

La Condition pavillonnaire is concerned with the life story of the fictitious M.A., from a young child until her death: the first part takes us through her schooldays and university in Lyon up to her marriage to François; the second with her boredom with the marriage, her bourgeois existence and her extra-marital affair with Philippe from work, whose severing of the relationship due to his promotion to Cergy with his wife and children leaves her devastated; and in the third part we see her doing a number of other things to try to fill in the gaps in her existence, try to heal her: charity work, psychiatry, yoga, acupuncture, etc, until she's a widow with grandchildren and will soon die.

Almost throughout, apart from the few occasions when 'vous' is used for the family in general, M.A. (a distancing 'name' in itself) is addressed as 'tu', which far from treating her in a familiar fashion almost belittles her, sets her apart, which of course is so true. Sophie Divry used to be a journalist for the monthly Décroissance (meaning 'ungrowth' (the paper is against consumerism)), and there are several instances in the book which give lists of the parts or the functions, for instance, of the car and the washing machine, all of which add to the impression of dehumanisation. And the car's wheels will continue to turn after M.A.'s death, the washing machine will continue to turn, on her death a new buyer will live in the couple's former house, and the cycle of life to death, the bourgeois suburban condition, will continue.

24 March 2018

Brigitte Varel: Un village pourtant si tranquille (1996)

It wasn't just the title, suggesting a (nevertheless) quiet village, but the suggestion that this novel, set in the Dauphiné in the Trièves area of Isère, is a very much a regional novel. Which it is in a way, although it's far more of a novel of suspense, with a number of murders, with much bloodshed and violence.

It begins quietly enough with Nicolas returning to an unidentified village – but one based on where Brigitte Varel grew up – and swiftly jumps back ten years to when Nicolas was twelve. He was an orphan brought up by the Mathieu family. As it says on the back cover, things start to turn odd when the head teacher of the local school (Roger Raine) takes a fall and there's a suggestion that he may have been pushed in an attempt to kill him.

But there is much more to come. His foster father is a violent alcoholic; his foster mother is having an affair with the postman; one of the main villains of the piece is a psychopath; another is a rapist. A third is a (bad) alternative version of Nicolas: Benoît, an orphan brought up (quite terrifyingly) some time before Nicolas, in a neighbouring farm run by the violent thief Gérard Louis, whom he is intent on killing.

Unsurprisingly, the hitherto quiet village becomes briefly overturned in the mayhem. Apparently Varel specialises in suspense novels set in Trièves. Surely they can't all be as breathlessly action-packed as this, can they?

20 March 2018

Laurent Seksik: Le Cas Eduard Einstein (2013)

Laurent Seksik's Le Cas Eduard Einstein, as its name suggests, is a novel concentrating on the life of Albert Einstein's psychiatrically disturbed younger son. It is in three imagined narrative voices: Eduard's (told in the first person), and Albert and his first wife Mileva's (both in the third person).

Albert's first marriage to the partly crippled Mileva was against his parents' wishes, and resulted in three children: Lieserl (who in the novel was abandoned to a nourrice and died before she was one year old); Hans Albert, who became an engineer and adopted US nationality with his wife; and Eduard, who developed severe mental (schizophrenic) problems at about the age of twenty and spent most of his life in Burghölzli clinic in Zürich.

The first marriage ended effectively in 1914, with Albert later marrying his cousin Elsa. Forced out of Germany by Hitler's régime, Albert Einstein escaped to America, where his left-of-centre political views and ideas on racial integration weren't exactly welcomed. He last saw Eduard in 1933, and the band round this edition shows them the last time they were to see each other, in Burghölzli: Albert looks uncomfortable, perhaps despairing, and Eduard looks disturbed or very puzzled.

To some extent the novel is a record of Mileva's devotion to Eduard, who finds it difficult to understand it when his mother, one of his few grips on life, dies. Several years later his father dies too, although initially he feels nothing because he has spent many years hating the father who has not bothered to re-visit him: the narrative makes it quite clear that Albert Einstein was a courageous man, braving the Gestapo, supporting the blacks in America, helping the Jewish cause, trying to prevent the USA from bombing Japan, but remaining incapable of visiting his own son.

Eduard's mind is understandably of central interest to the story, and his child-like vision of the world, along with his stating the same thing in a slightly different way, is evident in these astonishing words, and I translate from the original French: 'Life has taught me that nothing is definitive. However, I think I know that I'll never have any children. That's probably the best way to avoid being a father.' There's something oddly comical, but at the same time slightly chilling, in those last two sentences.

Eventually, from hating his absent father, Eduard comes to appreciate him, and as he looks through his father's well-known sayings he interprets one as a reference to his son: "'The main thing in the existence of a man like me lies in what he thinks and how he thinks, not in what he does or what he suffers.' Thanks for the compliment, dad." The novel ends on a happy note, with Eduard looking at the photo on the cover of this book with a journalist. This (as mentioned above) is the last time Albert will see his son, he (a man who normally dresses any old how) is very smartly turned out, as if this is a very special occasion, and he looks very sad. Eduard is happy.

19 March 2018

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent: Le Liseur du 6h27 | The Reader on the 6.27 (2014)

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent had made his name as a short story writer until Le Liseur du 6h27 (translated as The Reader on the 6.27), which is his first novel, and a very fascinating one at that. But while not exactly digressive,  Le Liseur du 6h27 is also a kind of meeting of several different stories.

Firstly, there's Guylain Vignolles, who is inevitably called (or thought of) as Vilain Guignol (or 'Ugly Clown'), but then that's the luck of the draw if your parents don't think when naming you. Guylain likes reading but his job is with a book-pulping firm, unread literature just being fed into the forever hungry jaws of La Chose, an almost humanised machine that takes on almost symbolic proportions. Some of the people he works with aren't very nice to know, either, such as the harsh boss Kowalski, or the eager kid Brunner, who takes a delight in destroying books. (The guardian Yvon Grimbert, who mainly speaks in alexandrines, is a different case altogether.)

Guylain's consolation comes not so such in talking to his pet goldfish Rouget le Lisle V (yes, there've been four more before and there'll be another later) as reading any pages he's managed to salvage from La Chose (while cleaning it) from his strapontin on the 6h27 RER every morning: he does it for himself more than anyone else, as it gives him a kind of purpose.

Giuseppe is a victim of La Chose, and has lost the best part of his lower limbs to it. His friend Guylain does a lot to help him after the tragedy, although gets a little worried for the state of his mind when Giuseppe says that he'll get his legs back. And in a sense he does: Giuseppe's research reveals that the obscure book Jardins et Potagers d'autrefois (roughly 'Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Yesteryear') was published on exactly the same day as Giuseppe's accident, so in a very real sense this book must be a part of him. So Guiseppe spends a great deal of time tracking down copies of this book, of which over a thousand copies were printed. But he gets depressed when he can find only over seven hundred of them. And the depression hits him a few months after another of the books are found. But then, secretly, Guylain thinks of contacting the author of the book, who he discovers has died, although he manages to get about a hundred copies of the book from his widow. These he releases very slowly to Guiseppe, aware that one 'found' copy will keep his spirits up for a few months, but that giving him all of them would probably not have a very long effect.

And then one day, on his strapontin, Guylain finds a USB stick, which he discovers contains the wonderful (and somewhat odd) autobiograpical writings of the mysterious young Julie, who is obviously in a similar ill-suited job as Guylain is in: she's a dame-pipi: a (highly articulate) toilet cleaner. And Guylain's in love, but how can he ever find Julie in the whole of Paris? Well, there are some clues, and it's the unemployed Giuseppe who'll read Julie's writings, piece things together from the internet, whittle down the possible places Julie can be working, and from then it's up to Guylain to try his charms out. She's not easy to please, but then they have so much in common... Great book.

18 March 2018

Sorj Chalandon: Retour à Killybegs | Return to Killybegs (2011)

Sorj Chalandon used to be a journalist for the daily paper Libération, specialising in particular in reporting on the problems in Northern Ireland. He wrote the novel Mon traître in 2008, which was inspired by his friendship with Denis Donaldson (1950–2006), a staunch member of the IRA and Sinn Féin who became a British agent. In Mon traître a French character (obviously based on Chalandon himself) named Antoine Chalons – a luthier, or maker of stringed instruments – appears as a friend of Tyrone Meehan's. In 2011 Chalandon returned to the subject with Retour à Killybegs (translated as Return to Killybegs), another fictionalised account of Chalandon's Story, although whereas Mon traître is narrated by Antoine, Retour à Killybegs is narrated by Tyrone, who was born in 1925 and died in 2007.

The structure of the book is in two essential parts: chapters that run more or less chronologically from the 1920s to 2007, interspersed with far fewer and much shorter chapters from 24 December 2006 – when Tyrone returns to his empty family home in Killybegs, where his strongly Republican father used to take out his frustrations on other people (and animals), but mainly Tyrone – to 3 April 2007, when Tyrone is murdered by a Republican group opposed to the peace process. (In reality the Real IRA admitted to the murder, although this name is not mentioned in the novel.)

This is to some extent a violent and gruesome book, beginning with Tyrone's father Padraig's beatings of him, through the general violence in Ireland at the time, the beatings of prisoners by the wardens, the prisoner's protests at not being treated as political prisoners, refusing to wear prison uniform and not washing, smearing their own shit on the walls, a hunger strike in the background, etc.

But the main thrust of the story is about Tyrone's betrayal of the political organisation he lived for: he has accidentally killed Danny, one of his friends, during a shoot-out with the opposition, MI5 have the bullets to prove and to broadcast the fact, and (by indirectly threatening his son and his wife) blackmail him into becoming an informant. There is really no way he can turn the offer down. But come the ceasefire and the setting up of the peace process, Tyrone's role as traitor will out, and his return to Killybegs, he knows, is a return to death. Chalandon makes Tyrone eighty-one here, although he (the real Denis Donaldson, that is) was of course much younger.

Retour à Killybegs is a compelling read, and received the Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française for 2011. I can't say that I've seen the excellent cover before, but this edition comes from'Le Grand Livre du Mois' book club, which I found in a book exchange depot.

My other Sorj Chalandon posts:
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Sorj Chalandon: Profession du père
Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères

16 March 2018

Auguste Mariette in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais (62)


François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette (1821–91) was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer and died in Cairo (where he is buried), and along with Jean-François Champollion he is the co-founder of Egyptology. His publications include Notice des principaux monuments exposés dans les galeries provisoires du musée d'antiquités égyptiennes de S. A. le vice-roi à Boulaq (6 vols (1864–76)); Dendérah (1875); Karnak, étude topographique et archéologique (2 vol., 1875); Voyage dans la Haute Égypte (1878); Catalogue général des monuments d'Abydos découverts pendant les fouilles de cette ville (1880); and Itinéraire de la Haute Égypte comprenant une description des monuments antiques des rives du Nil entre Le Caire et la première Cataracte (1880).

Ernest Deseille in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais (62)

'ERNEST DESEILLE
HISTORIEN DU BOULONNAIS,
POÈTE ET JOURNALISTE,
EST NÉ DANS CETTE MAISON
LE 14 MAI 1835'

Ernest Deseille (1835–89) was Boulogne-sur-Mer's archivist, and wrote a large number of publications, amongst which are the poem Un exploit de Roland, ou Pourquoi le diable a-t-il des cornes ?  (1860), a glossary of Boulogne sailors' patois (1978), and a 118-page book on the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (see above), which he called 'Auguste Mariette: Souvenir sur l'Inauguration de la sa statue'. After his death, his widow left a gift to Boulogne-sur-Mer of over ten thousand books and manuscripts.

Guillaume Duchenne in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais (62)


Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne (1806–75) – commonly known as Duchenne de Boulogne – was a neurological doctor born in Boulogne-sur-Mer who died in Paris. He was interested in photographing expressions created under the application of electricity to the brain, of which a few expressions are reproduced below: the origins of the uses of electricity to stun (or delete) people's memories under ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) or EST (electric shock therapy) in American English are quite clearly documented. I just wonder how much Duchenne can be blamed for this abuse of patients with mental problems. His main works: Essai sur la brûlure (1833); De l'Électrisation localisée et de son application à la physiologie, à la pathologie et à la thérapeutique (1855); Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou Analyse électro-physiologique de l'expression des passions applicable à la pratique des arts plastiques (1862); and Physiologie des mouvements démontrée à l'aide de l'expérimentation électrique et de l'observation clinique, et applicable à l'étude des paralysies et des déformations (1867).