28 January 2015

Stephen Crane: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was born in Newark, New Jersey and died of tuberculosis in Badenweiler, Germany at the age of twenty-eight. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was his first book and published in 1893 under the pseudonym Johnson Smith, and his brother lent Stephen the money to finance the first impression.

Crane is associated with naturalist writing, and the novella clearly illustrates this. It is set in the slums of the Bowery in Manhattan in the late nineteenth century, where lack of education, multiple childbirth and the inability to break free from the resulting cycle of ignorance, violence and decay are endemic to the social network. The violence perpetrated on young Jimmie at the beginning is an everyday part of the environment he was born into, and a central part of his family life: virtually everyone in the family is violent towards the others, and it is evident that the violence is self-perpetuating. As is the alcoholism which fuels much of the violence.

Jimmie's sister Maggie initially seems to be a big exception: she's a very pretty and virtuous girl who goes to work in a shirt factory for poverty wages and seems to accept her lot. But then she runs into the trap of falling in love with Pete, who is a worldly wise, violent but smooth-talking spiv who wheedles himself into Maggie's life and eventually into his bed. As a result of the hypocritical double standards of the day, spending even a short time living with Pete – who has no interest in her whatsoever after the sexual spark has worn off – Maggie is disowned by her family and equally scorned by her neighbors.

Desperate, Maggie seeks help from a man of religion, who shuns her. Inevitably, the only recourse she can have without dying of starvation is to turn to prostitution.


In 1895 Crane had a great success with his novel The Red Badge of Courage.

He was traveling as a war correspondent in 1897 on a ship destined for Cuba when it was wrecked off the coast of Florida near Daytona: his short story 'The Open Boat' is based on his harrowing experiences of this accident. The boat had left from Jacksonville, Florida, where Crane had met Cora Stewart, a brothel keeper who was married but separated from her husband. Cora became Crane's companion until his death, still married but calling herself Cora Crane. Cora Crane herself was also a writer, although after her partner's death she returned to Jacksonville and her main income (initially at least) appears to have come from the management of brothels.

27 January 2015

Jean-Paul Clébert: Paris insolite (1952; repr. (with photos by Patrice Molinard) 1954)

I sometimes think the internet – and I frequently ask myself how we previously managed to live without it – has made digression not only an art form but a necessity: the trouble is, how do you avoid infinite digression? I have no answers, it's just a query. After reading a relatively recent online article on the Nouvel Observateur website about the artist-tramp Marcel Bascoulard from Bourges – whose life was traumatised by his mother shooting his father dead and whose own life ended in his murder for reasons that still appear to be far from clear – I clicked on a link related to the (to me at least) unknown Jean-Paul Clébert (1926–2011), in which I read an obituary of the writer.

As Clébert's daughter Virginie notes below, the photo on the cover is – I find a little confusingly – not of Clébert but of Patrice Molinard. This, his first book, is apparently what surrealists called a 'roman aléatoire', or 'aleatory novel'. This particular edition, though, is from Attila (2009) and based on the 1954 edition, which was published by the Club du meilleur livre, and has been enhanced by the 115 photos by Molinard. Clébert dedicates the book to the photographer Robert Doisneau, the writer Robert Giraud, and Patrice Molinard.

Clébert – until he reached almost thirty – lived the life of a tramp, which made possible the many realistic descriptions in this work, which appears to be the result of numerous scraps of paper such as the backs of cigarette packets and on toilet paper. This no doubt explains the desultory, digressive, repetitive nature of the book, but make no mistake: this makes Orwell's incursions into the world of the tramp look positively weak and even rather silly. But Paris insolite is of its time and obviously a great deal of self-censorship was involved: although the book isn't so much liberally sprinkled with street slang (some inevitably now old-fashioned) as it is stiffened with it in virtually every sentence, the reader is spared any 'strong' language that now gaily adorns many perfectly 'normal' reads. In fact Henry Miller's claim that 'Après avoir lu votre livre, j'ai les tripes remuées' ('After reading your book, my guts turned over') seems a wild exaggeration.

Admittedly, towards the end there's a description of the disinfection of tramps' clothes in which the smell emitting from them being washed reads a little uncomfortably, although – squeamish readers may now wish to skip to the next paragraph – Clébert glides quite smoothly (and non-explicitly) over a paragraph where he says that 'sexual perversion knows no limits'. Here he's talking about the practice of some people dunking pieces of bread into the troughs of vespasiennes: the former men's toilets that have long since been replaced by the sanisettes designed for both sexes. Clébert doesn't even mention what the men did with these soaked pieces of bread a few hours later when they came to collect them, although wouldn't 'gustatory perversion' be more appropriate than 'sexual perversion'? Clébert was no doubt living at a time when these people didn't actually have a name, and although the current Petit Robert, reverso.com and Wiktionnaire don't list the term, I'd previously seen it in a recent online article on Les Inrocks website and promptly verified that this wasn't some kind of joke by checking it out on several other places online: they're called croûtenards.

But let's return to (relative) sanity. I couldn't understand what possessed Clébert – born of a comfortable family – to decide after the war, when he was in his very early twenties, to live among a number of tramps in and around Paris. Initially he says he isn't a tramp, that you have to be over forty and not own a toothbrush to be a tramp, but a little later much more of his truth comes out: freedom is choosing where to live, not throwing your life away working forty-eight hours a week to keep yourself and your family happy. No, that's not living.

And so he chose to live in squalid conditions, very occasionally earning a little money as a métreur-appartments measuring flats and occasionally getting a bite to eat from the tenants but no sexual treats as he had to work with a partner; selling newspapers; and perhaps making a little win on the lottery. He sleeps outside, in squats, flop houses, flea pits, friends' slummy rooms, anywhere he can. He eats unsellable or waste food products from Les Halles and other markets; from dustbins; he scrounges from friends who have a little money; and drinks a great deal, mainly cheap wine in grungy cafés where he can talk to his mates. But he never allows them to think for a second that he's writing a book, as they'd see him as an intellectual, and he doesn't see himself as such; worse still, he's not an existentialist, and he's absolutely categorical about that. He is of course right about concealing the fact that he writes: he'd be torn to pieces if not literally then certainly verbally, and no one would ever be candid with him again. Best just to be as he looks, one of the lads, and there aren't a great number of women in la cloche.

The earthy, honest, largely candid rather than posed photos of Patrice Molinard (taken a few years after Clébert wrote the book) don't merely decorate it but complement it, they often underline the comments that Clébert is making. And even though it was written long before the masses of tourists came, Clébert mentions with scorn the American tourists, along with for instance the bouquinistes who've put up their prices greatly to meet the new money. But essentially of course we are seeing here the flipside of a beautiful city as it was in the late forties: the miserable wooden shacks and houses in la zone, the faubourgs built on wastelands around the old fortifications of Paris; the brothels, and the street-walkers who work for less and less money as they age; the alcoholism, the drinking for the sake of drinking in the bars where the tramps were once welcome and could afford to drink.

Not, certainly, a book to view with nostalgia, but depicted here are Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité within a world excluded from the tourist, where there are many immigrants – mainly arabs but also Jews and other Europeans – who form a part of the multicultural society within a society where there is not a word mentioned of racism.

A book of rare poetic beauty, a gem.

21 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps (2012; repr. with additions 2014)

Daniel Pennac's Journal d'un corps is exactly what it says: the life story of a person's body, concentrating far more on the bodily functions of a man's life than his life story as such. And it's really very clever, but... I find the 'but' part very strong not just because all of this is leading to an inevitable conclusion but because the reader can guess many of the stages in between, no matter how well or how originally they're done here. The result for me was frequent boredom – which partly explains why I took a few days over it – and an increasing feeling of depression as D-day draws nearer. Nevertheless there are many things here to alleviate the boredom.

As I mentioned in my previous posts on Pennac's books, persecution is a common theme, and whereas most of the persecution here comes from the narrator's own body, the diary proper begins at the age of twelve, when he's been tied to a tree by a rival boy scout group during a game. And he sees a nearby ants' nest and fears they'll eat him, so he shits himself. His terrible experience is made worse by the fact that there is more persecution to come instead of the sympathy he deserves when l'abbé Chapelier and his mother start bullying him.

The diary takes the narrator up until a few weeks after his eighty-seventh birthday – presumably the day of his death – and as this is a 434-page book there are many stages leading up to the end which deal with various states of the body developing and degenerating in between. And many of the descriptions are inventive and amusing, such as men comparing parts of their body as they go through life: in youth, it's muscle size; 18-20, it's the bulge in swimming trunks; 30 to 40, it's density of hair; in your 50s, it's (preferably lack of) paunch; in your sixties, it's your teeth.

And of course there are body fluids and solids and sounds, so we're told about not being taught how to piss properly instead of dribbling by pulling back the foreskin; we learn what a perfect turd is; about how having your first wet dream is seen by some guardians as a rite, as a mark of maturity; and then there's vomiting, farting, belching, etc. Even female bodily processes are slightly touched on, as in when the young narrator can't understand why a sign in the toilet warns not to throw sanitary towels down the pan: now who in the world would throw towels there? Inevitably some things would be lost in translation: 'miction impossible' is a good pun on the film title, but in English 'micturition impossible' just gets lost.

As in the other novels below, Pennac's love of language shines through, and this to me is the most interesting factor. The narrator finds the expression 'va te chier' (lit. 'go shit yourself') very strong, and states that the verb 'chier' in the reflexive pronominal sense is a deadly weapon,  reducing the adversary to his own excrement: in French, the expression means what it says quite literally – you are in effect telling the person to do the impossible, a literality only someone like Pennac would notice.

Again, I was reminded of Queneau – surely the baby question used when seeing chimpanzees de-flea themselves: 'keskifonpapa ?' ('Qu'est-ce qu'ils font papa ?') (or 'What are they doing dad?') is surely too much like the first word of Zazie dans le metro – 'Doukipudonktan' (translated by Barbara Wright in the English version of Queneau's novel as 'Howcanaystinksotho') – to be a coincidence.

In the name of delicacy, I won't move on to prostate operations or impotence, but just leave this blog post on a joke, and there are many of them in a book that in the main I'm certainly pleased was written rather than not written. There are several jokes by the character Tijo here, and I think this is the one I prefer, and which I translate so liberally that I leave quotation marks out:

A man has a pain in his little finger that moves to his shoulder, down his sternum and to his knee, and it's becoming unbearable. He goes to the doctor, who tells him that the only cure is to have a testectomy. The guy has to think a little about this, but the pain is so unbearable that he just has to have his balls cut off. Some time later he goes to the tailor's for a new suit and the tailor asks him on which side he dresses, and the man of course isn't too sure what to say. But the tailor says the answer's important because if the suit is made the wrong way the client'll have a terrible pain starting in his little finger, moving up to his shoulder, down to his sternum and to his knee.

Yeah, I know.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat
Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother
Daniel Pennac: Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école

17 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother (1987)

La Fée carabine is the second part of Daniel Pennac's 'La Saga Malaussène', and like the first novel is also translated by Ian Monk, this time with the amusing title The Fairy Gunmother. Some sources also refer to this as a crime novel, and that tag would certainly have more credence over Au Bonheur des ogres as a crime novel, although again this novel is also a kind of comedy, if a little darker.

In the previous post I mentioned Pennac's use of slang, which evidently exists not simply to give the book a crime genre atmosphere, but because Pennac is obviously preoccupied by the use of language, as might be expected of an author whom an Oulipian has chosen to translate. At one point in the book Bernard Malaussène's mother mentions Verdun, who has been staying at their house, and Bernard's thought patterns are displayed: 'Je pense d'abord à la bataille. [...] Je pense "Verdun", "Verdun d'un", "Vert daim", et ce putain de mot ne veut pas me donner son sens. "Ça doit être un sacré problem pour les étrangers"'. In other words Bernard tells the reader that he thinks of the battle of Verdun, then of possible groups of words that the two syllables can signify, but it won't immediately yield up its meaning, and Bernard thinks this kind of thing must be a real problem for foreign speakers.

Power relationships are of central interest in Pennac's books too, individuals wielding power over others mainly in a working environment but also outside it. But whereas Au bonheur des ogres concentrates on the pecking order within a department store, in La Fée carabine the emphasis is on cops and villains, both against each other and amongst themselves. Interestingly, Bernard seems to more or less have the upper hand in his work situation with his new boss Queen Zebo, who significantly is only heard over the phone as Bernard is hardly ever 'on the job', either as an official scapegoat or incidentally with his girlfriend Julia, but that's another story, and this book – as the reader might expect after the first volume – is full of stories.

The novel is best summed up by Chief Inspector Coudrier, who, unable to understand what he calls 'fin-de-siècle paradoxes', thinks the time for his retirement has come:

'... a world where Serbo-Croatian Latinists create female killers in catacombs [at Montrouge rather than Denfert-Rochereau], where old ladies kill cops who are charged to look after them, where retired booksellers slit throats at the drop of a hat in the name of Literature, where a bad girl throws herself out of a window because her father is worse than her...' (My translation.)

This is the world of Daniel Pennac, and although there's not too much about the Malaussène family itself this time, both cops and family are joined in two ways at the end: retired cop Van Thien – who's been doing volunteer police work posing as an 'innocuous' Vietnamese woman – is finally forced to take a job telling stories to the family's kids in his Jean Gabin voice; and – it had to happen to some guy – Pasteur runs off with Bernard's mother.

Bordel de merde!

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat
Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps
Daniel Pennac: Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école

15 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat (1985)

Au bonheur des ogres (1985) is translated into English by Oulipo member Ian Monk as The Scapegoat, and this is the first of the 'la Saga Malaussène' series, which also includes La Fée Carabine (1987), La Petite Marchande de prose (1989), Monsieur Malaussène (1995), Monsieur Malaussène au théâtre (1996), Des chrétiens et des maures (1996) and Aux fruits de la passion (1999).

Some have called Au bonheur des ogres a crime novel, which for me doesn't really hit the descriptive spot: I'd hesitantly call it a superior comedy within the framework of a crime novel, or maybe a crime novel lost inside a comic novel.

Descriptions are therefore not easy for this book, which has a multitude of characters and of course bows to Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des dames, set in a large department store in the late nineteenth century and pointing to a future when the small shop will almost be swallowed up. But Au bonheur des ogres is set at the end of the twentieth century, and although the plot involves a series of bomb attacks on the department store Magasin, a great deal of the interest is on the dysfunctional  Malaussène family.

Bernard  Malaussène is the narrator, who works at Magasin and lives in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, earning enough money to keep his brothers and sisters alive: in fact they're half-brothers and sisters because the absentee mother spends most of her time with a different partner and seems to return home pregnant at the end of each amorous adventure.

I was in some doubt as to whether Bernard's sexual equipment was also dysfunctional because in his first sexual adventure with the very big-breasted and highly desirable 'Aunt Julia' he only has a 'mollusc between two sea shells', although he fully rises to a later occasion.

Aunt Julia isn't an aunt at all but a journalist he caught shoplifting and rescued from the store detective: the aunt tag could be seen as a compensatory device because he has unexercised incestuous desires towards his beloved sister Clara, a girl who photographs everything she sees and has her bac exams coming up soon.

Of the other siblings there's Louna, who's pregnant by a doctor, decides not to have an abortion and gives birth to twins at the end, causing potential strain on the Malaussène budget; Thérèse who can predict the future and works out that the people who died in the bombings had it coming astrologically; Jeremy is twelve years old and experimenting with explosives; le Petit, as his name suggests, is the youngest and draws ogres. I mustn't forget the remaining member of the family: smelly Julius, the epileptic dog.

Bernard's job is in the complaints department, although he describes himself as a professional scapegoat: he's really good at sending customers back home after they are emotionally blackmailed into withdrawing their complaints about faulty goods – Bernard feigns really wild panic attacks, pretending to have the threat of dismissal hanging over him, leading to poverty for his large family.

I could go on about the riot of characters who work in the shop, or the murders that aren't quite what they appear to be, but this is probably enough to give more than a sprinkling of an idea of the novel's content and its style, which is by the way breakneck because all the characters and the events are shovelled (I think that's an appropriate term) into under three hundred pages.

I'll probably not make it through all the seven novels of the saga, although I'm certainly giving myself a clearer idea of what Pennac is up to by reading the second volume next. Au bonheur des ogres is very liberally peppered with various slang words, and there's a slight feel of Queneau (à la Zazie dans le métro) to it, although Pennac's main intertextual reference – apart from Zola – is Carlo Emilio Gadda's Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1944), which is translated into English as That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, and into French as L’Affreux pastis de la rue des Merles.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother
Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps 
Daniel Pennac: Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école

13 January 2015

The Voice of Charlie Hebdo (and J.B. Bullet, and Renaud)

The full-page announcement in the press reads 'Ils veulent nous réduire au silence. Ils n'auront obtenu qu'une minute' ('They want to reduce us to silence. They only got one minute'.) In smaller writing underneath are the words 'Nous sommes Charlie' and 'Reporters sans Frontières: Pour la liberté de l'information'.

Below, a link to J. B. Bullet singing 'Je suis Charlie', a protest song that has gone viral. Two chorus lines read:

'Un coup d'Kalach pour un coup de crayon
Tu salis ta religion'

This refers to the work of a pencil being replied to by a Kalashnikov, and states that the perpetrator is soiling his religion. The music recalls a much earlier song: Renaud's 'Hexagone'. This was a very different kind of protest song though: on Sunday the police were applauded as their vans went carefully  through the crowd, whereas Renaud's protest was very different indeed. Times change. (Renaud, incidentally, once declared that Charlie Hebdo is the first paper that made him laugh.)

Links to both songs:

J. B. Bullet: Je suis Charlie
Renaud: Hexagone

12 January 2015

Dany Laferrière: Pays sans chapeau (1996)

As I wrote in the blog post below, Dany Laferrière left his native Haiti in 1976 after the murder of his fellow journalist Raymond Gasner, and Tout bouge autour de moi is an account of his return to Haiti in 2012. Pays sans chapeau, however, concerns an earlier return he made: his first in twenty years, in 1996. But this time it's a semi-fictionalised account.

Pays sans chapeau (lit. 'Country without Hat') is a Haitian name for death, a place where a person's hat is never worn. And death is very much part of this novel, as indicated by the local painting Enterrement à la compagne ('Burial in the Country') by Jacques-Richard Chéry on the front cover.

Laferrière's novel describes the exile, the narrator (Vieux Os ('Old Bones')) getting together his mother Marie and aunt Renée (who both appeared in Tout bouge autour de moi), re-joining his friends Philippe and Manu and his former girlfriend Lisa, whom he learns has always loved him.

But the 'real' events described between family and friends are interspersed by dream sequences, so that the novel largely consists of relatively small sections which happen in a kind of dream or subjective world where zombies or Haitian gods exist, and larger sections in the 'real' world divided by smaller labelled ones. But there is a certain amount of merging, of confusion between the 'real' and the 'dream' world. The final section, where Vieux Os visits the other world and meets some gods, is logically called 'Pays sans chapeau' after the title of the book, and the final section is a one-page resolution of both the dream world and the real world.

10 January 2015

Dany Laferrière: Tout bouge autour de moi (2011)

Once – on a twelve-night stopover between Miami and Belize – I went to Haiti, staying most of the time in the capital Port-au-Prince ('t' unpronounced). It was a tremendous experience, and has left me with memories as vivid as if it were yesterday. It has also led me to follow later events in the history of Haiti, including its literature. Before saying a few words about Dany Laferrière's memories of Haiti, I speak here of my own.

My visit was in the eighties shortly before the fall of the horrendous dictator Baby Doc (who died last October), when the radio jolted you into wakefulness with a military chant in which the words 'Vive Duvalier, président à vie' are the most memorable. In the heart of the capital the dreaded tontons macoutes policed the streets. And although the people I met openly expressed their hatred of them, I otherwise found very little evidence of open political dissent: indeed, and as Dany Laferrière notes, the people in this desperately poor country were proud of the contradictory opulence of the presidential palace.

The poverty is perhaps the first thing that I noticed on arrival in the city. Tourists have never flocked here, and a white person is a rare sight, a symbol of wealth and therefore a potential source of revenue, and I met a number beggars who approached me with highly elaborate tactics, although those offering to be my guide were more common. I saw wooden shacks that were homes for so many people, and saw a whole family bathing in muddy rain water that had collected in a hollow at the side of a street-cum-dirt track.

I also encountered hostility that was sometimes casual, sometimes malicious: the girl in a slum area in Cap-Haïtien who laughed when my foot got stuck in a gutter and said 'C'est bien fait pour toi' ('It serves you right'); and the guy way to the back of me on the empty road to Pétionville who yelled 'Branleur!' ('Wanker!) at me: I turned to look and he verified the exclamation with 'Ouais, toi!' ('Yeah, you!').

These of course are just isolated incidents, and my memory leaves me with far more positive things. The people smile brightly through their pain and their poverty. If you're lost or in difficulty they'll help you and expect nothing in return. I went on a long, gloriously noisy bus ride to Cap-Haïtien, a sleepy adolescent girl lolling her head on my shoulder, her mother next to her bouncing about with the rough ride and to the sounds of the local Tabou Combo band on the bus cassette, all the time chewing on a huge stick of sugar cane. In the hotel in Port-au-Prince a businessman  from Harlem introduced me to la caille, the local name for the mancala board game: he was wearing a tee-shirt with the logo 'Why worry? Play warri' (another name for mancala), but went cold on me when I bought a far superior mahogany version near the central market for $4, whereas he was selling his boards for $10.

I don't think I need to mention the tap-taps because if anyone knows anything about Haiti at all it's the crazy form of transport there. Dany Laferrière, though, does briefly mention them in Tout bouge autour de moi (lit. 'Everything Around Me Is Moving'), his description of the earthquake in Haiti, which took place on at 16:23 on 12 January 2010: the exact time emblazoned on Haitians' minds. Estimates of deaths vary wildly, but perhaps 160,000 lives were lost.

Laferrière was born in Haiti and had left it long before my visit: he worked on the 'opposition' paper Le Petit Samedi Soir, but emigrated to Québec in 1976 following the assassination of his colleague Raymond Gasner. Tout bouge autour de moi was written from the time that Laferrière returned to Haiti for a Haitian-Canadian literary conference, and just after he'd ordered lobster at the Karibe hotel in Port-au-Prince and started on the bread the world moved and Haiti was thrown into chaos.

The book doesn't attempt to be an account of the earthquake, but simply describes the state of the capital of the country as Laferrière witnessed it at the time of the catastrophe. It is related in episodic form in over one hundred different sections which are not necessarily linear and include his return to Québec, then his return to Haiti again not long after due to his aunt Renée's death, and there's even a short piece about a woman in her sixties greeting him in Montréal after recognising him from television.

I know what Laferrière's talking about here, know both the places he mentions and easily recognise the Haiti he depicts, and I'm fascinated when he describes seeing such Haitian writers as Frankétienne and Lionel Trouillet, although I doubt that a great number of people will experience a great deal from this book, and I'm left with an impression of messiness, lack of coherence. That may be because I've read this short account over four days in between which I've been following the insane activities in Paris. Dunno, but I'm now starting to read Laferrière's Pays sans chapeau, which is a fictionalised version of an earlier return by Laferrière to Haiti. It's described as a novel, and I'm hoping to be more enthusiastic about this one.

7 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Michel Houellebecq

As the world now knows, the four cartoonists Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, also the director), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Wolinski (Georges Wolinski) and Tignous (Bernard Verlhac) were assassinated by terrorists at the Charlie Hebdo office in the 11th arrondissement of Paris today. This is a terrific loss.

The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo comes out on Wednesdays, and coincidentally today's issue contains the above sketch by Luz (Renald Luzier) regarding Michel Houellebecq, whose new speculative novel Soumission (the French translation of the word 'Islam', meaning 'submission') was published today. The headline reads: 'The predictions of the magus Houellebecq: "In 2015 I'll lose my teeth... In 2022 [the year in which Soumission is set] I'll celebrate Ramadan".'

I speak of coincidence because the terrorist attack was apparently carried out at the time and on the day of the week that the assassins knew that everyone would be together at the office for their weekly meeting. So there seems to be no relation whatsoever between the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo and the publication of Houellebecq's book, which envisages a future France ruled by an Islamic political party.

ADDENDUM 1: How much actual support as opposed to coverage has the UK press given to this atrocity? Not a lot, as they don't seem to understand much at all about French culture! (Although I like the Independent cartoon of the middle finger of a cartoonist rising from a blood-soaked copy of Charlie Hebdo, because it shows a definite understanding of the paper's diehard mind!) NB: The Guardian has since announced a donation of £100,000!

ADDENDUM 2: The French press has drawn attention to 'Anglo-Saxon' papers' pusillanimity concerning the affair by showing images from some of the papers actually censoring out 'offending' images from example front page copies of certain Charlie Hebdo issues. As Charlie famously said: 'Rire bordel de Dieu!', which could be translated as 'Fucking laugh for Christ's sake!'. Not the thing to do on a day of mourning, OK, but laughter is the very weapon Charlie use to convey its message: pity that not everyone understood it that way though.

ADDENDUM 3: Le Monde has just (21:47 English time 08/01/2015) announced that Michel Houellebecq has suspended plans to promote his new book Soumission. Instead, he is leaving Paris to 'get away from it all'. His friend Bernard Maris – who published Houellebecq économiste last September – was one of the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

ADDENDUM 4: Now that it seems that France has found and got rid of the instigators of the insane attack on Charlie Hebdo, I can only hope that the events of today (9 January 2015) and the last few days don't have repercussions, and that everyone will realise that there is a major difference between 'Islamo-fascism' and true Islam, which is a peaceful religion. I fear, though, that extreme right-wing parties such as the Front National and its misguided followers will view today's events as a reason to reinforce a racist platform. I was struck by this web page from the Nouvel Observateur, which lists attacks on Islam, but also shows a picture of a Muslim holding a typed paper saying 'PAS EN MON NOM' ('NOT IN MY NAME'). (This of course is what many of us said about the obscene Bush-Blair pact, the plan to destroy Iraq.) No, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam: it was the result of a few crazed individuals, nothing more. The web page is here.

6 January 2015

Christophe Donner: L'Empire de la morale (2001)

I don't think it mentions anywhere in this book what the narrator's name is, but it's quite clear that Christophe Donner is writing about his own history, and that the 'roman' (or 'novel'), as the book is described, does in fact contain a great deal of autobiographical information, sufficient for it to come into the autofiction genre or sub-genre.

As an adolescent, the narrator has a recurring 'hallucination' that his fingers are swelling to a huge size, becoming spongiform. He's sent to a special institution in Bougival until he more of less cures himself, but the whole exercise is really a settling of accounts with his parents.

His mother is initially a child psychoanalyst, then she moves to psychoanalysing adults, whereas his father is a communist. The narrator feels that he has to dissect these what he calls 'religions', in an attempt to rescue himself from his demons.

The trouble is, he's somewhat reductive and attacks Freud largely on the grounds of his study of the unconscious and more particularly because of the Œdipus complex. He picks easy targets, as it's not too difficult to ridicule Freud for interpreting dreams as essentially sexually based, and nor is it difficult to destroy an argument that reduces actions to a desire to have sex with your mother and kill your father. Especially if, as Donner says, Freud based his arguments on a false premise about Œdipus: why should he have had a guilt complex about issues he knew nothing about?

And then of course there's communism, although Donner spends most of his arguments against communism by talking about Lenin's syphilis and its effects: there's very little about Marx and Engels, from whom the idea of communism of course comes: was the USSR actually communist then, or simply tagging the name to a very violent regime?

The narrator of L'empire de la morale sees a great deal of violence in both communism and Freudianism, in fact so much that they become the twin evils of the 20th century: after all, communism paved the way for Nazism, didn't it? Er...

By now it's apparent that the narrator is a pretty reactionary, pretty right-wing individual. What we're talking about here is someone who sees socialism, communism, and anarchism as extreme threats to the world, but of the insanities of the right there is barely a mention. What of western governments' supporting, say, Pinochet, or Duvalier, or Saddam (until he became the bogie man), what of the evils of neo-liberalism, which believes in unfettered capitalism, is increasing the wealth of the already-wealthy beyond all reason, and allowing the poor just to die in their rags and ignorance? Not a word.

Sorry, and sorry for the cliché, but left has always been right, and right always has and always will be wrong. The misappropriation of words should never be taken at face value: who today would call, for instance, the French Parti Socialiste actually socialist? Only a fool.

I enjoyed reading this book for a number of reasons, but mainly because it introduced me to the painter Eugene Gabritschevsky, who seems to have been a fascinating (and crazy, but why not) artist. Shame about all the right-wing bullshit though.

3 January 2015

Marie NDiaye: La Sorcíère (1996)

I read Marie NDiaye's Rosie Carpe (initially to some bewilderment) several years ago, and coming across her earlier novel La Sorcière I felt I had to have another go. From the beginning the reader is plunged into strangeness, with the narrator Lucie (a witch with imperfect powers) initiating her twelve-year-old twins Maud and Lise into the mysteries: there's an obvious link between initiation and puberty here, as underlined by the girls shedding tears of blood.

Its takes a very short time before Maud and Lise prove to be better witches than their mother, and are ready to fly the nest: they turn into crows while on a train journey with Lucie, then back into their human selves when the train goes through a tunnel; they are also clearly responsible for the termination of their aunt Lili's pregnancy; and, as crows again, they just fly off and leave Lucie when she's on her way home with them.

Lucie's powers are essentially limited to such matters as locating people in the future or the present which is how, for example, she comes to track down her missing husband Pierrot in his new ménage. Lucie's mother, on the other hand, has strong powers and turns her ex-husband into a snail when Lucie tries to bring them together again.

What the reader is witnessing here is not horror or plain fantasy as such, but a kind of magic realism: supernatural events co-exist in world that is only too real – the twins were culturally weaned on TV and buy pizzas from neighbour Isabelle when Pierrot invites someone in from work; Pierrot himself, as his name suggests, is a clownish person who has a job as a timeshare seller; money is hard to come by; and Lucie, struck by the names of the shops in Bourges, wonders (in an all-too-modern setting) if she isn't in her own town, where pretty much all the shops and street layouts look the same.

But other things happen that you wouldn't expect to find in a realistic novel: people can simply appear as if from nowhere and no one is surprised about this, like Lucie's mother and her new partner Robert making themselves at home in the kitchen of Lucie's mother-in-law almost a total stranger to them – in the early hours of the morning and carrying on a conversation and the mother-in-law not batting an eyelid when she emerges from sleep in dressing gown and slippers. This is a world in which things happen as if in dreams.

There certainly seems to be some social criticism here, and not mainly because Lucie is arrested for the age-old charge of being a witch. Abandonment, separation, isolation, games that families play on each other are central to this novel as in Rosie Carpe. Marie NDiaye – uniquely, the winner of both the Femina and the Goncourt – is clearly a very important writer, and I shall continue to delve into her fascinating books.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine

Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes
Marie NDiaye: Quant au riche avenir
Marie NDiaye: Tous mes amis
Marie NDiaye: Quant au riche avenir
Marie NDiaye: Tous mes amis
Marie NDiaye: Hilda

1 January 2015

André Baillon: Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (1928; repr. 2012)

André Baillon's troubled life began in Belgium in 1875, his father dying exactly a year after his birth. His mother died when he was six, and he entered a religious school the following year. He was interned in the psychiatric hospital of Salpêtrière in Paris on a few occasions, and after several attempts succeeded in killing himself in 1932. He is buried in Marly-le-Roi (78), and has left a number of imaginative works, one of the most noted being Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (lit. 'The Luxembourg Earwig' (1928)). Baillon's poet lover Marie du Vivier wrote a biography about him (La Vie tragique d'André Baillon (1946)) and a critical work (Introduction à l'œuvre d'André Baillon (1950)), and although she describes Le Perce-oreille as 'uneven and badly constructed', several literary scholars would disagree with her.

Le Perce-oreille is in three parts and from the beginning we learn that the narrator Marcel is twenty-five ('or fifty') and writing about his life from a psychiatric hospital. Part I describes Marcel's childhood until he is fifteen: the slow dispossession of the family's property until they are living in a kind of boarding house on Île Saint-Louis in the 4th arrondissement; Marcel's religious education, but particularly the occasion when his tormentor Dupéché squashes an earwig in the jardins du Luxembourg; and the brief move to Provence with his 'uncle' and 'aunt' Varia, from whom he discovers the torments of unfulfilled sexual desire.

Part II is the shortest and concerns Marcel's relationship with his friend Charles, Charles's relationship (such as it is) with Jeanne, and Charles's death and funeral.

Part III is concerned with Marcel's relationship with Dupéché and Jeanne; with Dupéché and Louise's wedding ceremony and Marcel's weird behaviour there; and sandwiched between is Marcel's sexual initiation by the much older prostitute Nelly.

These are the mere bones of a story which is not so much a mad narrative as an obsession to write away madness, although the obsession usually takes over and becomes a succession of repetitive thoughts about how things appear to others, how others perceive, twisting ideas, twisting 'reality', whatever that means here. As Nelly tells him: 'Be careful, you live in your head too much'.

Dupéché perhaps has too obvious a surname, and one too easily identifiable with sin (péché), even the devil himself.  But his words Marcel often imagines, and it is simple (maybe too simple) to identify him as a personification of Marcel's self-hatred, self-torment, self-torture.

Things of little or no importance take on a big, even enormous, importance. The earwig perhaps represents a number of different things: self-harm (oeil percé), Marcel's madness, Marcel himself, Dupéché, things loved and hated, perhaps above all the aleatory, but not all of these at the same time: the earwig can change at anytime, transmogrify within the text.

I'm sure there's a great deal more to this book, which is frightening, exhilarating, most of all stimulating, although that would require a second reading: some books deserve a second reading, some don't but this most certainly does. This is clearly a forgotten classic, and I'm very pleased that the small Belgian publisher Espace Nord has re-issued it.