24 March 2014

Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour (2009)

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.

It's hardly surprising that no one understands what she's up, let alone herself: like Dario, she's now about fifty, although unlike him she has three daughters who have all left home. This is part of the problem: she feels lost, and even tells her eldest – Zoé – that Dario is the only man she's ever loved. Unsurprisingly, Zoé walks away from her mother in disgust, and Emilie at least has the honesty to admit that she'd have done that same.

Emilie meets Zoé on the journey down because Zoé lives in Marseilles and guesses that her mother will pay a visit to Christine (Emilie's sister who has Down's syndrome) in a home not far from Aix-en-Provence, the town where Emilie spends the night. This is the last of a series of meetings that Emilie has made on her way to Italy, although the others have been with strangers, and have had a weirdness that seems to indicate an almost allegorical significance, although that's clearly not intended.

When Emilie arrives at Dario's wealthy home she's surprised to be greeted by Giulietta, his wife of twenty years: something's made Dario lose his memory and Giulietta – who's discovered some diaries that her husband wrote about his obviously enduring memories of Emilie – hopes that her presence will be able to jog his mind out of its amnesia.

Alas, this is fruitless, and attempts to reconstruct the cause of the trauma only worsen things considerably. Dario had grown very attached to Malika, a ten-year-old daughter of illegal immigrants who was a kind of daughter substitute he used to regularly give presents to. But one day when he's trying out his new car the sun gets in his eyes and he hits the young girl, who dies a few days later. Two years after the trauma reconstruction Dario's grief kills him.

This is a very quick read – despite the 278 pages – and frequently a gripping one, but it expects far too much credence on the part of the reader, particularly with the primum mobile. Er, so in preparation for the wedding anniversary celebration Emilie goes to the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine and finds it wrapped up in a copy of Libération, from which she reads a message apparently from her ex-lover telling her to go to his home in Italy, which is exactly what she does. And for some reason Giulietta chooses to leave just one message in a left-leaning newspaper in the hope that Emilie will see it. Umm. These days of course, people simply go to Facebook or Twitter, etc, but we know she's tried Facebook (which Emilie doesn't have an account with) and anyway that would ruin the plot, letting Emilie (and of course the reader) know in advance what would happen when she arrived in Genova. Modern technology continues to make things difficult for authors, which is obviously why Emilie conveniently forgets her phone. The major problem is that it's all too contrived, all so unbelievable.

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

Calixthe Beyala: L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel (2007)

The back cover of Calixthe Beyala's novel L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel ('The Man Who Promised Me the Earth') reads:

'Elle est noire, africaine, célibataire et mère d'une ado rebelle. Il est blanc, occidental, marié sans enfants. Entre eux, un amour fou. Une rencontre improbable, elle qui se bat pour les déshérités, lui qui vit dans un monde de célébrités. Et pourtant ils vont s'aimer... L'homme qui m'offrait le ciel est le récit d'une passion absolue. Mais la passion peut-elle lutter contre les pressions sociales, le confort des habitudes et la peur de l'innconnu ?'

My translation:

'She is black, African, unmarried and the mother of a rebellious adolescent daughter. He is white, western, married without children. Between them, a crazy love. An unlikely encounter, she fighting for the disinherited, he living in the world of the famous. And yet they will love each other... 'The Man who Promised Me the Earth' is the story of an all-embracing passion. But can this passion conquer social pressures, the comfort of habit and the fear of the unknown?'

Calixthe Bayala was born in Cameroon in 1961, which she left for France when she was seventeen. She is noted for her passionate support for the amelioration of the lives of African peoples.

For two years, between 2004 and 2006, she had a relationship with the television presenter Michel Drucker. This book, in which the first person narrator is the writer Andela and her lover François, is a fictionalisation of that relationship, and the book caused quite a stir in France on its publication in 2007.

L'Homme qui m'offrait le ciel describes the relationship between the Andela and François in some detail, from the increasingly frequent dinners, through the first physical embrace in a car which was interrupted by the police, to the mad love scenes during which Andela – twenty years the junior of the sixty-year-old François – teaches him the meaning of love: François is married, although he has slept separately from his wife without sexual contact for many years. But his profession depends on his wife.

Andela and François become increasingly attached to each other and he makes no attempt to hide the relationship from the public and in private he speaks of his dreams of moving to Africa with her, setting up a school and getting involved in humanitarian work. Andela never dreams that he will leave her, although the abrupt break comes via a telephone call from a friend of François's, who can't even bring himself to tell her in person.

The title may sound like this is a bitter novel, but it isn't, although it could easily have been so: towards the end, François asks Andela what the press and the country would say if they learned that he had left his wife for a black woman.

This is writing as therapy, and it is spellbinding.

20 March 2014

Sorj Chalandon: La Légende de nos pères (2009)

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.

He is moved when a customer, the surgeon Lupuline Beuzaboc, contacts him to put together her railworker father's Resistance stories: Marcel's own father worked for the Resistance, although he never told his son anything of his experiences: Lupuline's father can therefore become a kind of proxy. It's more convoluted than that though.

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.

My other posts on Sorj Chalandon:
Sorj Chalandon: Profession du père
Sorj Chalandon: Retour à Killybegs | Return to Killybegs

19 March 2014

Maurice Leblanc L'Aiguille creuse | The Hollow Needle: (1909)

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.

L'Aiguille Creuse is largely set in the Pays de Caux in Normandy, which can – as Leblanc describes it – be fairly accurately located in the triangular area between Le Havre, Dieppe and Rouen, with the north being the coastal strip between Le Havre and Dieppe, the south being the River Seine between Le Havre and Rouen, and to the east the valleys between Dieppe and Rouen.

Without going too much into the wildly unbelievable story – which includes murders, mistaken identity, obsessive sleuthing, incredible coincidences by the bucketful (no exaggeration), nail-biting chases and an ineffectual, Spoonerised Sherlock Holmes (as Herlock Sholmès) – L'Aiguille Creuse is essentially a battle of wits between Lupin and Isidore Beautrelet.

Lupin is a highly intelligent burglar and a kind of anarchistic would-be aristocrat – in the end he'd like to be remembered by having rooms in the Louvre named after him for instance – and Beautrelet is a fantastically gifted seventeen-year-old student of rhetoric at a lycée who is more a match for Lupin, who two thirds of the way through has to confess that the 'Bébé' is much more dangerous to his success as a thief than the inept police chief Ganimard or the bungling English dick Sholmès.

Fortunes swing to and fro for the two main characters here, and Beautrelet goes from hero for saving his father and Raymonde de Saint-Véran from the amorous clutches of Lupin – as well as discovering that L'Aiguille creuse is the château de L'Aiguille in the département of Creuse – to cry-baby when he finds that Lupin is one step ahead and knows that the château is a red herring netted by none other than Louis XIV. And then, when Beautrelet works out that the real Aiguille creuse is in fact the hollowed rock formation off the coast of Étretat* (incidentally the town where Leblanc used to live), he is shocked to learn that Lupin (using another identity) has in fact married Raymonde.

Lupin's fortunes swing too – not only is he upstaged by a schoolboy upstart, not only does he have to give up his luxury home in the hollow needle surrounded by kings' treasures and priceless paintings by old masters, but Sholmès shoots his beloved wife dead.

Maybe I just felt in the mood for a little light reading but – in spite of the old-fashioned-sounding words ('diable !', 'damnation !', 'gredin' ('rascal')), etc, instead of more modern words like 'putain', 'connard', and so on, I was quite surprised how fresh a lot of this seems, how crazy, and well, how enjoyable. I won't be turning Lupin into a reading habit, but all the same Leblanc a very good writer...

*No, it's not hollow in real life.

My Maurice Leblanc posts:
Maurice Leblanc in Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime
Maurice Leblanc L'Aiguille creuse | The Hollow Needle
Maurice Leblanc: Arsène Lupin: gentleman cambrioleur
Maurice Leblanc: Les Trois Yeux

18 March 2014

Emmanuel Carrère: D'autres vies que la mienne | Lives Other than My Own (2009)

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.

This is a true story, although not exactly a linear one, which concerns itself essentially with three things – the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia; excessive debt and two judges working in that area; and his sister-in-law's early death from cancer.

Carrère closely but indirectly experienced the effects of the tsunami when on holiday in Sri Lanka with his partner Hélène and their two sons, each by a former companion. A family staying in the same hotel lose their daughter Juliette, and the narrative reconstructs the effects of this death and others in such a way that painfully and skilfully describes large and tiny details. This section is particularly powerfully written.

When the family returns to Paris the author's sister-in-law (also Juliette) dies, leaving three daughters and a husband who is earning much less money than his judge wife. Juliette had one leg amputated, as did a her close friend Étienne, and Carrère begins the first of a number of interviews with Étienne about his life, his sympathetic (left-wing) work as a judge of victims of excessive debt, and his relationship with his colleague Juliette, who is doing similar work.

At first I couldn't see the where the tsunami fitted in, but at the end it's clear that the effects of the tsunami are to a certain extent mirrored – but in a smaller way – in the third part, which concerns the death of one person: the interest is still on the effects, the small details of tragedy.

Some critics had previously seen Carrère as something of a narcissistic writer, although I think he redeems himself in this book – parts of which are quite devastating.

Below are links to other Emmanuel Carrère books I've commented on:

Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe
Emmanuel Carrère: La Classe de neige
Emmanuel Carrère: La Moustache | The Mustache

17 March 2014

University of Manchester plaques #5: Anthony Burgess

Writer and Composer
BA English 1940'

This plaque is on the Samuel Alexander Building.

Below is a link to an earlier much longer post I made on The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester:

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

14 March 2014

Trouble on Louis Golding's Magnolia Street

Censorship in its most common form is self-censorship, something we do every day to prevent ourselves from going too far due to all kinds of considerations: losing our temper, our job, friendship, or just to avoid hurting people and so on. This form of censorship is expressed by omission, half-truths or simple lies. It exists of course in written form, which more or less serves the same functions.

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.

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: Peste & Choléra | Plague & Cholera (2012)

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.

Yersin had a brilliant brain – he was a scientific researcher who worked with Pasteur, was a ship's doctor, a tireless globetrotter, an inventor, a horticulturist, and many more things, always seeking to learn more. His most noted achievement was the discovery of the bubonic plague bacillus in 1894, as well finding a vaccine for the disease.

He spent many years in the then tiny Nha Trang in Vietnam, where he created his paradise and where he died. Deville describes his restlessless thus:

'At night, if Yersin is bored, he draws up plans for a water tower. And next day he starts building the water tower. For forty years, from all parts of the world, he will choose the most beautiful natural things and bring them back to Nha Trang – plants and animals, trees and flowers.' (My translation.)

Deville finds that the person in history Yersin has most in common with is Dr David Livingstone, although throughout the book he also makes references to writers who are also known for their travels: Joseph Conrad, Blaise Cendrars, Rimbaud, and Céline for instance. These are some of the novel's digressions/comparisons with which Deville punctuates his novel, and although the book follows a generally chronological pattern, there are a number of anachronisms relating to his subject's life which seem to be randomly thrown in. In some respects, the rambling nature of the narrative (not a criticism) reminded me of Iain Sinclair.

Patrick Deville presents an amazing man of whom I'd never heard before, and for whom the author obviously has a tremendous amount of respect – he visited the many places in the world Yersin went to. I thought it very interesting that Deville also said of him:

'He wanted to protect himself from the world, create his own quarantine area, a garden cut off from the world, viruses, politics, sex and war.'

He was never sexually or romantically associated with anyone: could it be that asexuality was a major driving force behind his insatiable lust for knowledge?

11 March 2014

Linda Lê: Lame de fond (2012)

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.

My other posts on Linda Lê:

Linda Lê: Les Évangiles du crime
Linda Lê: Lettre morte
Linda Lê: A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas
Linda Lê: Voix: une crise
Linda Lê: Personne

6 March 2014

Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie (1991)

This, then, is Le Troisième mensonge (The Third Lie), the third volume of La Trilogie des jumeaux (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.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook
Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles

5 March 2014

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof (1988)

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.

The first obvious difference is that the second volume is written from a non-omniscient third person point of view, and  the use of people's names is a novelty: all the action is still in the (unnamed) Little Town, but we learn near the end of the novel that Grandfather was called Claus-Lucas: the twins Lucas (who has stayed in the Little Town) and Claus (who escaped over the frontier) were named after him.

There are eight sections as opposed to about sixty in Le Grand cahier, making it far less episodic, and whereas the principal theme in the first novel might be said to be survival, in the second it is loss.

The main character in the novel is Lucas, who – deeply affected by the loss of his brother to another (unnamed) country – stays on at Grandmother's house and willingly accepts Jasmine and her (slightly disabled) baby Mathias into the household. Mathias is the product of fifteen-year-old Jasmine's long-term sexual relationship with her father, who is now in prison, and the teenaged Lucas has an occasionally sexual relationship with Jasmine.

A little later, though, Lucas starts to stalk thirty-five-year-old Clara, who works in the town library. Although there is no specific reference, it is clear that postwar Soviet occupation of Hungary is being evoked here, and some of the absurdity of the first volume is obviously repeated when the intellectually hungry Lucas learns that it is not only highly unusual to borrow a book from the library, but that probably all the books there will be put on the censored list.

As Lucas wheedles his way into Clara's life we find out that she too is suffering from grievous loss: her husband Thomas was (mistakenly, we learn later) killed as a traitor. And although Lucas also wheedles his way into her bed and spends every night with her, when the counter-revolution comes she will leave for the Big Town to protest against the occupying country, her thoughts still with Thomas.

Before this though, Lucas has to tell Mathias (whom he has come to love as a son) that Jasmine has left for the Big Town and thought it wise to leave him in his care. Mathias is painfully aware of his physical defects, but (quite unlike the twins in Le Grand cahier) insists on attending school: he is horribly bullied there and can never overcome his feelings of physical inferiority, although he is by far the most intelligent child in the school. His suicide by hanging (in his bedroom in the newsagent's Lucas has bought from Victor) calls to mind Little Father Time's in Hardy's Jude the Obscure.

At the end of the book Claus returns to the Little Town on a short-term tourist visa, eager to meet with his brother. Lucas's friend Peter now runs the newsagent's, and he gives him Lucas's notebooks which he kept up through the years. But Peter hasn't seen Lucas since he disappeared on learning that the remains of a woman had been dug up on the land he inherited from his grandmother, and he (a little oddly?) mentions that no investigations were made that could tie those remains to Jasmine's.

Lucas disappeared several years before, and Peter not unnaturally believes that his twin brother Claus is in fact Lucas returned, but Claus thinks he can prove his identity by his passport, although that in no way convinces Peter. The reader begins to question Claus's real identity, and as his visa expires after being renewed three times he is imprisoned and the town authorities decide what to do with him. Although he claims to have been born in the country they have no record of him, his brother or any of his relatives. And furthermore, he claims that the notebook proves the existence of Lucas, but all the entries are in the same hand and all have recently been written within six months of each other: it all seems to be an invention.

So are Lucas and Claus the same person? And why is the third novel called Le Troisième mensongeThe Third Lie? Unreliable narrators?

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles
Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook
Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie

4 March 2014

Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook (1986)

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.

Le Grand cahier is written entirely in the first person plural, the twins being the narrator(s), considered as one entity. They mention no specific date, country or geographical feature, and in fact no names of characters can tie the book to any particular place: the people are named according to their position in the family, and non-family are named either according to their profession or just given a nickname. However, it's probably reasonable to assume that the first invading country is based on Germany, and toward the end Russia emerges.

The twins are sent from the Big Town, where the war is increasingly worrying people, to the quieter Little Town to live with their maternal grandmother. As it's ten years since Mother went to see Grandmother (who poisoned Grandfather), the twins weren't born at the time; but they quickly discover that this old woman (nicknamed 'La Sorcière' ('The Witch') by townfolk) is egotistical and filthy, never takes a wash and smells very bad, and the boys have to find their way around the many problems this throws up, such as the fact that in the beginning Grandmother sells the twins' belongings and pockets the money that Mother periodically sends.

Time and again, the book shows the child as father of the man, and the twins have an intelligence that greatly transcends that of any adult in the book, a fact which is highly useful in a wartime context when everything – money especially – is scarce. They soon learn how to manipulate, to double guess, to steal when necessary, and to plan with great skill and dexterity, although – having learned earlier on that war breeds greed and egotism – they are content to get by by living on only what is necessary for survival, and go out of their way to help people who are in grave need of assistance.

To survive they develop a series of strategies, such as the 'toughening' one (which strongly reminded me of the Doubles game played by African Americans); they educate themselves way beyond the level of schooling for for their age; and they are always eager to discover new things about everything, such as learning different languages with great facility. They become fearless, unshockable, and to a certain extent (but only at times) frighteningly callous.

Above all, this book is a criticism of war. In the drinking den where the twins sing, a woman who criticises men's attitude is told she has seen nothing of war, but she replies:

'Seen nothing? Twat! We have all the work, all the worries: the children to feed, the wounded to look after. As soon as the war's over, you will all be heroes. Dead: heroes. Survivors: heroes. Invalids: heroes. That's why you, the men, invented war. It's your war. You wanted it, so get on with it. Heroes my ass!' (My translation.)

War poisons everyone: this is a lovely female take on soldier boys and their gruesome toys. The book-within-a-book is in fact this notebook they're writing, and although they say it should be entirely objective and very realistic, very often it takes on a rather surrealistic tone.

Depressingly, 'l'affaire Abbeville' came in 2000 when a number of parents – twenty-first century French spiritual descendants of the dreaded Mrs Grundy – complained vociferously that Le Grand cahier was being taught at a French school. The kind of thing that offended them was: the young pubescent Bec-de-Lièvre (Harelip) encouraging the twins' dog to have sex with her; the parish priest paying her to see (and sometimes put his finger in) her 'fente' ('crack'); the priest's servant sucking the twins' cocks and bringing herself off as they suck her nipples; the foreign officer having the twins fiercely whip his back and piss on his face; and Bec-de-Lièvre literally being, as her mother put it, 'baisée à mort' ('fucked to death') by twelve or fifteen soldiers. Police officers actually broke up one of the schoolteacher's lessons to arrest him for teaching a 'pornographic' book, although sanity prevailed in the end and a number of literary people (who of course knew what they were talking about) defended the novel.

This book is fascinating and I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. It's not just war that Agota Kristof aims at, but religion, the family, hypocrisy and lying in general, the education system, sentimentalism, etc. Great stuff.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie
Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles

3 March 2014

Strawberry Studios, Stockport, Greater Manchester

Strawberry Studios, Waterloo Road, Stockport.

1968 TO 1993
Association with the band 10cc
resulted in some of the most memorable
music being produced at these Studios.
Paul MacCartney, Neil Sedaka, [The] Stone Roses,
The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and
many others also recorded here.'

One of those 'many others' were Joy Division, who recorded their first album Unknown Pleasures here in April 1979.

The Waterloo pub opposite was the watering hole.