28 June 2015

Anne Hébert in the 5th arrondissement, Paris

DE 1980 À 1997

Anne Hébert (1916–2000) also died in the Canadian province in which she was born. She moved to Paris after the death of her mother in 1965. Hébert lived at 24 rue Pontoise, close to the Seine and close to the eastern end of boulevard Saint-Germain, from 1980. In 1998 she moved back to Québec after thirty-two years in France.
Link to my other Anne Hébert posts:

Anne Hébert in Québec city
Anne Hébert: Les Fous de Bassan

27 June 2015

Juliana Horatia Ewing in Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire

'here lived
Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841–1885) was a writer of children's stories who was born in Ecclesfield, Sheffield. Over eighty years before Alison Uttley lived in the street Higher Downs (at number 13), Ewing briefly lived next door at number 14. Her work was appreciated by Kipling and Edith Nesbit, and her story 'The Brownies' is thought by some sources to have given the Baden-Powells the name for the junior Girl Guides.

26 June 2015

Alison Uttley in Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire

Alison Uttley (1884–1976) was born near Cromford in Derbyshire and in 1906 received a BA in Physics from the University of Manchester: she was at the time only the second woman there to graduate with honours. The house above is 13 Higher Downs, Bowdon, Cheshire, where – as the plaque states – she lived from 1924 to 1938. Following her husband's suicide in 1930 she began writing to support herself and her son, and although perhaps best known for her animal creations for children she also wrote for adults. The Country Child (1931) is a fictionalised autobiography.

Uttley's diaries – written between 1932 and 1971 – were edited by her biographer Professor Denis Judd and published in 2009. Part of the headline of a review of the book in the Guardian by Alison Flood calls her a 'jealous, contemptuous woman with a particular loathing for "the Blyton"'. A link to the article is here.

My shot of the Uttley plaque at Manchester University:

University of Manchester plaques #1: Alison Uttley

23 June 2015

Marie Vieux-Chauvet: Amour, Colère et Folie | Love, Anger, and Madness (1968; repr. Zulma 2015)

Marie Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy Amour, colère et folie (translated as Love, Anger, and Madness) is a major work of Haitian literature, although for many years it was virtually unavailable to readers in Haiti. First published by Gallimard in Paris in 1968 and strongly (but tacitly) criticising François Duvalier's violent régime policed by his dreaded tontons macoutes, Amour, Colère et folie swiftly incurred the wrath of 'Papa Doc' who threatened the author and her family with their lives. Vieux-Chauvet (1916–73) was in New York (where she died) at the time of publication, and her husband in Paris, although on his return he bought up copies already distributed and destroyed them.

This new edition of Amour, Colère et folie by Zulma contains an Afterword by Dany Laferrière, the newest member of the Académie française, who recalls finding a pristine copy of the trilogy under some sheets in an old wardrobe of his mother's: the suggestion is that this was forty years ago.

Amour begins the trilogy and is the longest of the three. Central to the story are three sisters. The 39-year-old Claire Clarmont, an 'old maid' brought up by bourgeois, puritanical (even violent) parents who has never been allowed – or more correctly never allowed herself through timidity and lack of self-confidence (she's the only black member of the family) – to love a man, although her sexual frustration and her jealousy are crippling her. Middle sister Félicia is eight years younger and married to the Frenchman Jean Luze, who has had a sexual liaison with sister Annette, who at eight years younger than Félicia is the 'baby' of the family at 22.

Annette is sexually liberated, as opposed to her sister Claire, who is nevertheless the rebel of the family. Claire dreams of sex, and of being with Jean Luze. Towards the end – after Annette has found sexual contentment and appears to be happily married – Claire plans to kill Félicia and practises the crime by stabbing a cat. All of the above events, though, ignore the political backcloth which all the while threatens to engulf the personal. Power is now in the hands of the ignorant and the heartless.

Previously, Claire has said:

'In the horror of my solitude I've found out that society isn't worth a shit. It hides behind a wall of imbecilities. It is the principal thing that cripples freedom. To be born, to suffer, to grow old and to die resignedly, such is our lot as long as we don't rock the boat.'

In Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy, even people who don't rock the boat are summarily assassinated at the whim of 'le commandant' and his men. Or, like Claire's friend Dora are perhaps raped and mutilated to 'encourager les autres'. Or else they are driven mad like Claire, who envisages stabbing Félicia so she can have Jean Luze to herself, although she hits the wrong target – which is actually the right target, but that's another issue.

Colère leads us further into the nightmare that was Duvalier's Haiti. Men in black (the Tontons, of course) begin the novel by showing that freedom is now dead by driving stakes around the house of the Normils, in so doing effectively preventing them from gaining access to their lands, effectively robbing them of their lands. The house and lands are the grandfather Claude's birthright, and his son Louis goes to a solicitor (with his daughter Rose) in an attempt to reclaim the land. But Rose is of course intentionally there as bargaining power, and despite taking a huge amount of money, despite Rose being continually brutally raped by one man in black, the family will never get back its lands and some will be killed. All those who don't support the mindless, murderous régime are at risk.

Folie reduces things to basics: one at a time, four very hungry poets come together in a room lived in by René the narrator. They are afraid to venture outside for fear of being shot dead, there is no food and only white rum to drink. They go mad and are executed in the end.

To varying degrees, all three stories contain strong elements in the main title: love, anger and madness. The raw power of this book is unforgettable.

17 June 2015

Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions... (2011)

Published by the Bordeaux company Finitude, Capharnaüm has since it began in 2010 usually been a yearly journal. The 2011 issue is devoted entirely to Jean-Pierre Martinet, containing many of his frequently long letters to his friend the publisher Alfred Eibel, whom he refers to throughout as 'Fred'. The letters begin in April 1979, when Martinet had returned from Paris to his family home in Libourne and was looking for a place to establish a bookshop-cum-newsagent's; the letters end in September 1988, four and a half years before his death at the age of 49.

Eibel writes the Introduction to the series of letters, in which among other things he speaks of the strong criticism Martinet has both for himself and people he knows or has known, although at the same time he recognises the merits of the same people. This is particularly true, I noticed, of his attitude towards Gérard Guégan who relaunched the publishing house Le Sagittaire and published Jérôme, Martinet's second novel; and of Michel Marmin's the 'Nouvelle Droite' ('New Right') organisation GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d'études pour la civilisation européenne).

Not that this should suggest that Martinet was left-wing: although he shows throughout a great sympathy for the repressed, the dispossessed and the outsider in general, his letters clearly show a strong disdain for political parties:

'I didn't vote last time and I'm not going to vote this. I'm probably a very bad citizen but the future of this country full of bastards is a matter of complete indifference to me! In any case, universal suffrage is no more than an imposture serving to keep the upper middle class (right or left) in business: I think Marx wasn't mistaken there.' (My translation.)

Martinet is waiting for a moderate sum of money to come from the sale of inherited property on his mother's side, but this becomes a fiasco and in the end he moves house in March or April 1980 to Tours, to a tiny newsagent's with a tiny flat and high hopes of extending the business by selling books. Newspapers sell, although his main profits are made through magazines: book sales are very infrequent, and of the Barbara Cartland, San Antonio, and SAS (Gérard de Villiers) type. His only day off is Sunday, which he sometimes uses up by visiting Eibel in Paris, usually at the Coco de Mer restaurant on the boulevard Saint-Marcel near the Gare d'Austerlitz: the restaurant is noted for its seafood from the Seychelles, although all Martinet ever mentions in his letters is enjoying a good wine.

It's evident that Martinet is only just managing to keep his head above water financially, although when he left Tours is uncertain: there's a gap in the correspondence after September 1983 which an editorial paragraph suggests is partly due to Martinet meeting Eibel in Paris on a monthly basis, partly due to letters that have gone astray. But by October 1986 he's back with his mother in Libourne.

It's in Libourne that he starts writing again, and La Table Ronde – which also pays him a little money as a reader – publishes his third novel, L'Ombre des forêts, which attracts a few good reviews but doesn't exactly set the country alight with enthusiasm. There is no mention of sales figures so we don't know if it did any better than his first two novels: La Somnolence sold less than 500 and Jérôme a little more than 600. I didn't realise that he was working on a fourth novel, which was an extension of Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large*, although he was having problems with the length, and joked that it didn't need secateurs so much as a chain saw. He was particularly pleased with the fact that he was becoming more comfortable with writing dialogue.

This is a gem of a read, providing great insights into the mind of Jean-Pierre Martinet. He writes with a great deal of enthusiam about films (usually old ones) that he watches on television, and I thought it significant that he calls the sparseness of his dialogue in L'Ombre des forêts 'too Bressonian' in places.

*And Maman – see the appropriate post below – doesn't manage to pull the trigger.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large

15 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large (1986; repr. 2008)

Jean-Pierre Martinet can be a very disconcerting writer, and Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large (I suggest 'Those Who Live on the Edge') begins very disconcertingly. This is my translation of its apparently gender-confused first sentence: 'Mum looked at the sky but, from up there, no one was looking at him, Mum, he knew only too well.' OK, I should have read the front flap first: Maman (meaning 'Mum' in French) is the surname of the main character, Georges Maman.

Originally I'd been thinking that in several ways Martinet reminds me of the New Zealand writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson, and certainly some aspects of their lives are similar: the huge amount of drinking, the obscurity of their work (especially when they were living), living with their mother, their early deaths, etc. The works of both of these writers are a weird mixture of the dark and the humorous, although Martinet lays on the dark with a far thicker brush. But it is particularly Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large which reminds me of another writer: Amélie Nothomb for the dialogue and the situation, the two characters caught in a hellish kind of huis clos, hating each other yet at the same time bound in a trap from which there seems to be no escape.

Maman is of course a loser: a once promising actor, he's now on his uppers, and he's only had a few walk-on parts the whole year. He's been reduced to doing porn, although he even failed at that because he was incapable of getting an erection. With his last fifty franc note, he shambles into the nearest bar and cracks five hard-boiled eggs while impatiently waiting to get served. But he doesn't eat them as he can't stand eggs – they remind him too much of the catastrophe of birth, perhaps? – and gets rebuked by an old guy at the counter for wasting food and mentions the starving in Ethiopia. Mamam, theatrically, says he doesn't give a shit about Ethiopia, and looks round for positive responses to his performance: no one has noticed anything.

The waiter of course doesn't even notice the great Georges Mamam – if he'd been Depardieu or Belmondo, all right, but Maman? Who he? It's as if he never existed, apart from the fact that the waiter's annoyed about all the egg shells on the counter. Maman orders a beer and requests the waiter to go easy on the froth. He swiftly drinks three more and naturally wants to go to the café toilet, but all four cubicles seem to be permanently engaged. So he pisses in the phone box, and while he's at it tries to phone Marie Beretta, the woman he used to live with some years ago, and is still obsessed with.

It's then that he runs into Dagonard the assistant film director, who's also a loser but with more money, and has been working on a Jim Thompson adaptation for ten years but hasn't been successful because of Yasujiro, a cancer he's named after the Japanese film director Ozu: Dagonard's cancer is imaginary, but that's the kind of man he is. And he's an insufferable bore, forever banging on for hours about film plots, and Maman particularly dislikes him because he insists on punning on his name and addressing him as a woman. Maman thinks the only reason people tolerate Dagonard is because he's always got money on him and in fact seems to buy conversation with it. Consequently, Maman decides to tolerate Dagonard's tedious non-stop talking as he's looking for a meal ticket and maybe the permanent loan of several hundred francs if he's lucky.

He gets the meal, but Dagonard lies and says he's a little short of money so they eat at a place where the food is pretty crappy, although to compensate this is washed down by copious supplies of beaujolais, the effects of which partly numb Dagonard's prattle. But Dagonard is self-aware and knows that Maman is only with him to try and wheedle money out of him. He also knows that he still loves Marie Beretta and can use this knowledge as a psychological weapon, speaking of how famous she now is, and of the magazines he has with photos of her husband and child. He gives Maman a 500 franc note, whereupon Maman leaves and takes a taxi home.

In the middle of the night, and still under the effects of the three Rohypnol tablets he's taken, Maman awakes to find Dagonard shaking him: Maman, in his drunkenness, left the key in the lock. Dagonard says he saw Maman going into the chemist's before taking a taxi home, and feared that he was going to kill himself. And so the mental torture continues, with Dagonard getter drunker and drunker on Maman's dirt cheap 1.5 litre Margnat wine in plastic bottles, and even eating his Canigou dog food in the fridge: Maman has no dog.

Eventually the dead drunk Dagonard is bundled into a cab, but not before he's told Maman that he's left a present in the fridge. Maman steels himself to open it, and finds a pistol with 'M BERETTA' in a circle on the handle. He puts it to his temple. But we don't know if he pulls the trigger.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...

13 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life (1979; repr. by l'Arbre vengeur 2012)

L'Arbre vengeur appears to specialise in publishing out-of-the-ordinary works, and as this one is by Jean-Pierre Martinet it is of course very much out of the ordinary. La grande vie has the distinction of being the only book by Martinet that has been translated into English (as The High Life), thus giving a wider readership at least some idea of what Jean-Pierre Martinet – an unfortunately very neglected author – is playing at.

La grande vie is a novella first published in Gérard Guégan and Raphaël Sorin's journal Subjectif in 1979, the year after the publication of Martinet's huge novel Jérôme, which is considered as his masterpiece by most of the relatively small number of people who have read it.

Most of Martinet's main characters – similar to Martinet himself – drink a great deal. However, the narrator of La grande vie is the central character Adolphe Marlaud, who doesn't drink. He is a very small, shy and weedy character who only weighs 38 kilos. He feels that life is a prison and – much like the main character in 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' who 'trie[s] to pass unnoticed like a stowaway on a ghost ship', Adolphe says 'My rule of conduct was simple: to live as little as possible in order to suffer as little as possible [...] I'd willingly have given everything I owned to be invisible, or a ghost'.

The novella is entirely set in a very small area. Adolphe lives at 47 rue Froidevaux – incidentally the same address where Martinet used to live – overlooking Montparnasse cemetery, and from his fifth floor accommodation he can see his father's grave in allée Raffet. He has a part-time job a short distance away at a shop selling funeral goods on the corner of rue Froidevaux and rue Boulard. Monsieur Rameau runs the shop and is a rather unsympathetic character with a bad temper, although his behaviour tends to be greeted by a mental shrug of the shoulder on Adolphe's part. Adolphe has some rather unsavoury thoughts about his customers, particularly the young widows – who sometimes give him an erection
 and he'd love to know if they wear black underwear too.

There are some surreal moments in La grande vie, but none more so than in his relationship with Madame C. the elephantine concierge, who is two metres tall and weighs almost 100 kilos. She is a 48-year-old widow with the hots for the unfortunate Adolphe, and uses him as a sex object, her voracious vagina swallowing him whole – apart from his feet, which she holds to stop him wriggling, until her orgasm shakes the walls and she spits him out, 'leaving me alone like a dispossessed king, soaked from head to foot, incapable of uttering a single word'. But he, er, comes to like the attention.

Until, that is, Madame C. drags him to the cinema with her to see a porn film: Adolphe doesn't like the idea of them being seen together in public, although he really likes porn films and the theatre is empty so Madame C. doesn't make a nuisance of herself by spoiling the view for other people by her enormous height and girth. It's when they get back to rue Froidevaux that the trouble starts. She's been turned on by the baroness in the film being buggered by the cook, so she rips Adolphe's clothes off and is on the point of stuffing him between her gigantic buttocks when he takes an enormous saucepan, stuns her with it and escapes naked to his room, where he stays for a few weeks with the door bolted.

When Adolphe emerges he discovers that the concierge has been replaced: Madame C. tried to kill herself on the métro but only succeeded in derailing the train, and is now in a psychiatric hospital. Adolphe can at last concentrate on his main interest: keeping cats and dogs away from his father's tomb: he's given up his job and now keeps his rifle ready to kill any animals that stray near the grave. He's even entertained the thought of taking a pot shot at pedestrians but spared them so far, although if that young girl who came to the shop and called him a slug comes this way again...

Adolphe gets a thoughtful letter from Madame C. in hospital, who asks him to do a few things for her, but he screws the letter into a ball and bins it: he's read somewhere that madness can be contagious.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...

12 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières (1972 (title story); repr. by Finitude 2009)

Nuits bleues, calmes bières (lit. 'Blue Nights, Calm Beers') is a short book containing two short stories: that of the title, and a shorter one called 'L'Orage'. 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' was originally published in the magazine Subjectif in 1978, and 'L'Orage' in Matulu in 1972. In both of these stories, the obsessions and the very dark style of Martinet's novels La Somnolence, Jérôme and L'Ombre des forêts can clearly be seen.

'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' is about the life of a man who's dead, but dead in the sense that he sees Melville's Bartleby or some Henry James heroes as dead. Yes, this is a literary name-dropping book that, for instance, several times mentions a sentence by Henri Calet in which the character Odilia, mentioned by the unnamed protagonist as seen – rather similar to the way Monsieur first sees Rose Poussière in L'Ombre des forêts – from a window. And the story ends by mentioning Rimbaud, although the cinema is also important, and the narrator imagines Murnau filming Louise Brooks: a quotation from Brooks appears at the head of the initial page of this story.

Louise Brooks states that, at the age of seventy, she has given up trying to find herself, adding that her life was nothing. How does this relate to the narrator? Well, not only can't he find himself either but he's utterly lost. Deeply, existentially. The last time anyone knocked at his door was to deliver a telegram informing him of his own death, whereupon he celebrated by drinking several 'red beers', by which I imagine he means George Killian's, several crates of which he took to his own grave, drank, and escaped back into life.

This isn't exactly a wonderful advert for that particular beer, as the narrator now experiences a living death in which he 'tried to pass unnoticed like a stowaway on a ghost ship'. In a sentence that may well – in a much, much lighter context – have been written by the singer Renaud, he says: 'Le zinc était mon pays' ('The bar counter was my country'). It's only after many demis (always drunk alone) that he can, after checking out that no one has moved into his accommodation now that he's dead – leave whatever crappy bar he's in and go home to perhaps drink more beers before dropping into bed, maybe wrapping the sheet around himself like a mummy, a shroud.

As just an indication of the style and content, this is my translation of the first sentence, and I make no typo here as the second sentence closes the bracket opened in the first sentence:

'That evening, on going home, after knocking over at least a dozen dustbins, slitting the throats of three dogs and slapping a drunken blind man who had mistaken him for Marilyn Monroe (he had tried to embrace him in the middle of the street, in the rain, but he had succeeded in escaping.'

'L'Orage', quite simply, is a brief early sketch of the novel La Somnolence: the protagonist is also called Martha, who is seventy-six and suffering from hallucinations of persecution: she fears the swifts menacingly flying by her window and the little girls come out of the gooseberry bushes to hide and whisper in the base of her bed. She has a home help who brings her the newspaper, and drinks whisky from the bottle. But much of the action in La Somnolence begins when she sets fire to her home, whereas this is where the sketch ends.

Alfred Eibel, publisher and friend of Martinet, writes a brief Afterword entitled 'Jean-Pierre Martinet ou l'éternel purgatoire', and 'everlasting purgatory' does seem to be an apt description for the man who wanted to be recognised as a writer but died unknown, who had a fruitless relationship with a woman who couldn't stop drinking, and who himself drowned in alcohol before he reached fifty: a kind of living death not very dissimilar to that of the anonymous character in 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières'.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...

10 June 2015

Alice Parizeau: Côte-des-Neiges (1983)

Alice Parizeau (1930–90) was a novelist, journalist and criminologist. The title of this book – Côte-des-Neiges  refers to an area in Montréal, the town in which much of the action in this book takes place. Parizeau's husband was the economist and politician Dr Jacques Parizeau, who died on 1 June this year.
Côte-des-Neiges begins with one of the two central characters – Madeleine, who is called Mado by almost everyone – as a twelve-year-old at the cinema with her friend Catherine, one of the sourdes-muettes (the deaf and dumb girls) Mado assists in a nearby convent. Coincidentally, I visited Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery in Côte-des-Neiges last year, and took the photos below of a plot of deaf and dumb girls' graves. The expression 'SOURDES-MUETTES' is at the base of the cross in the centre, and I include an example of one of the gravestones, of Anna Sauvageau. Each stone bears the letters 'S.M.' for sourde-muette. Anna died in 1939, which is also coincidentally one of the years in which this novel is set. Alice Parizeau – who was buried in the adjacent cemetery of Mont-Royal – must have been aware of the existence of the plot.
Côte-des-Neiges is something of a sprawling epic covering about twenty years in the lives of two people: Mado and Thomas. Mado is a foundling whose unknown mother left her with one of the sisters. She was breaking rules by taking Catherine to the cinema, but the girls' actions are particularly visible because the place has to be evacuated due to a fire, and Mado is expelled from the convent and has to work for a pittance as a maid to the Pouliot family, in which the husband is a financially very careful (OK, mean) banker.

Thomas is the young boy who shepherds Mado and Catherine out of the cinema to safety, falling for her charms immediately and planning to make her his girl. But this will take some time, and Thomas's job as a telegram delivery boy obviously doesn't have great prospects. And then the Depression comes and his father Adam, a baker, is running into money problems because his customers are asking for credit all the time and he's a soft touch. Thomas travels across Canada, first working as a wood cutter and then making real money by selling bootleg hootch in the USA, then returns home to Montréal with enough money to keep his father's business afloat.

Thomas goes on to run a successful biscuit factory, but Côte-des-Neiges details much more: it is a study of jealousy and independence set against not only the Depression but the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The jealousy largely comes from Thomas's brother Joseph, who has been in love with Mado for years but who comes back from the Spanish Civil War with one arm less and a feeling of defeat.

Independence is written throughout the novel, although it's Mado's independence that is most noticeable, and in some respects Côte-des-Neiges is a strong feminist tale with Mado taking over the running of the factory during Thomas's unforeseen detention in Europe, which ruffles a few feathers and angers the frustrated Joseph, who sees her as turning into a man.

This is in many ways a riveting novel although a little old-fashioned in its ambitions, which tend to lean back to the realism of the nineteenth century novel. But that's not the main criticism I have of it: throughout, Mado and Thomas show a lack of interest in 'politics', viewing any ideology as harmful: they just want to make money and get rich, as if capitalism weren't a political ideology! The narrator seems to confuse Stalinism with communism, and the final chapter seems to me to lack any semblance of credibility: Thomas can clearly see that Canada – laughably, as he sees it – is now embracing a kind of McCarthy witch hunt mentality, although he has denied that he's a capitalist, and has plans to give his workers more money, provide them with decent and cheap housing, etc. I wasn't convinced: what would Mado say?

7 June 2015

Lorette Nobécourt: En nous la vie des morts (2006)

En nous la vie des morts (2006) – Lorette Nobécourt's sixth novel – is the third of hers I've read, the other two being her first ones – La Démangeaison (1994) and La Conversation (1998). Nobécourt's earlier books are dark – black even – but En nous la vie des morts (lit. 'The Lives of the Dead in Us'), despite the title, represents a new, optimistic departure, full of the joy of life, a great eagerness to embrace new sensations and break with negative thoughts. This novel very easily avoids being a 'feel-good' book, or a self-help book, or a Buddhist tract. And it's by no means just the magic mushrooms that have done it.

Nobécourt also avoids accusations of writing autofiction by making the narrator male and North American, in fact from New York, although she has never – at least certainly not up to 2006 – been to NYC, and I think it's pretty evident from her descriptions of American fast food outlets and motels that she's never driven in the States. But that's not the point, as just imagining – even in dreams – of having done things doesn't make them any less real to Nobécourt. And the narrator's best friend Fred believed that what most people call reality is just a surface veil, and that the work of a writer is to introduce the reader to another, more profound dimension of reality.

But Fred is dead, has killed himself by jumping out of a window for reasons unknown. And the narrator Nortatem – or Nort for short – is distressed. Nort has also more or less broken up with his girlfriend Georgia, although he never really related to her but related far more to Guita, a girl full of eastern wisdom and aphorisms with whom he has also enjoyed sex. But Guita has left for France to communicate with a nun who's become a Buddhist. Nort leaves the madness of New York for the serenity and isolation of Vermont, where he rents self-contained accommodation and makes contact with Guita (and, reluctantly, with Georgia) when he drives some miles into town to buy supplies and email from an internat café.

Nort, along with a number of bottles of wine, takes with him his pet hamster Léandre – who surely represents the futility of the workaday world, turning the treadmill all the time until only food and drink breaks fill in the intervals before death? – and the book-within-the-book, Guita's En nous la vie des morts: the chapters in this book-within-a-book are all stories of different people at different ages of their life, but all whose ages are related to the number 7, such as seven-year-old Joselito's story, or Leny's (who is 16 – 6+1 = 7), or Diego's (who is 25 – 2+5 = 7), etc. All stories have a bearing on the philosophy of life, all are related in different ways, and throughout his 49 days (7 weeks of 7 days) in Vermont Nort undergoes a healing process, seeing the relation between himself and the characters in the stories as he slowly reads them, learning from them.

Nort isn't a hermit in Vermont during this time, and he meets an old Indian woman who helps him get his car out of the mud and whose whole being relates to him as he has sex with her; but his mind seems to be on other things as he passes up on the opportunity of having sex with Laura, whose breasts he afterwards wonders about.

But the 7th chapter – about the much-changed 34-yar-old Nort himself leaving Vermont, phoning Guita in France and her returning to JFK to fall into his arms – is a very different story from Nobécourt's bleaker ones.

This is obviously not just a story with a happy ending, and there are glorious moments in the novel. As an example of the powerful things in this book, I translate below a few sentences from Chapter Three ('25 ans' or '25 years') of the book-within-the-book, which describes how individual consciousness becomes transformed into mass mindlessless as the ideology of war takes the upper hand:

'One after another they stopped believing in the collection of these experiences and these ideas, these desires and these feelings which they had automatically up to now called "self". They could no longer be themselves because they were no longer a product of word and flesh but a bonding of brutality and vice, no longer men, not even bodies but pieces of bodies without consciousness, of which animals would have felt shame if they knew shame.'

Soif ('thirst') is all-important in this book, and it is seen as vital to pursue our desires. As another Laura – the one in Chapter Six ('61 ans' or '61 years') says: 'Never compromise with your thirst.' Nort's reaction to earlier chapters is: 'I've never felt so acutely the importance of our choices and the necessity of moving away from all blindness. [...]. Joselito, Leny and Diego are gutted by life but blessed because they have instinct. They haven't said yes to life, they are the yes.' When he has finished reading the book, Nort too will become the yes.

This is an amazing book full of many revelations, and further proof of Lorette Nobécourt's importance in contemporary French literature.

My other Lorette Nobécourt posts:

Lorette Nobécourt: La Démangeaison
Lorette Nobécourt: La Conversation

4 June 2015

Pierre Duclos and Georges Martin: Piaf: Biographie (1995)

The first chapter of Piaf begins with Louis Leplée first discovering Édith Piaf singing on the corner of rue Troyon and avenue Mac-Mahon near l'Étoile, although later in the chapter the writer becomes more guarded, and says this might not be true that he discovered her there. And the chapter ends with Leplée's murder.

Chapter Two is all flashback, detailing what is known – or at least what has been said about Piaf – up to Leplée's death. And then Chapter Three picks up from Chapter One. Apart from pecking about a bit, searching for particular things that this biography says about events or people in Piaf's life, I'd had enough, and I suspect that many others have felt the same: this was written more than twenty years ago, and the only 'review' I can find is a two-sentence affair on the French Amazon website – it calls it badly written and one of the adjectives used in the title is merdique ('shitty'). So what's wrong with it?

Piaf was written by two people. In the Foreword, publisher and/or editor Hervé Hamon says that 'collector' and 'fan' Georges Martin wrote all the Indexes, which amount to about eighty pages of detailed discography (including unrecorded songs, refused songs, etc), filmography, theatography, and so on. Pierre Duclos 'became' 'fou de Piaf ('crazy about Piaf'), although Hamon immediately adds that this was in the guarded way that a biographer is of his or her subject. Umm: Duclos did later write a biography of Georges Cano, local politician in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande in Brittany (population 11,000) but I'll definitely give it a miss.

The reason I stopped reading – and I do so very rarely – is because I found the bulk of the book (the 450 pages written by Pierre Duclos) unreadable: I just couldn't digest a publication that more or less reads as a list of dates and songs and conflicting 'he-said-although-she-said' stories. But most of all I couldn't feel anything engaging, anything of interest to hold onto. Which is really frustrating and immensely disappointing as Édith Piaf is a fascinating character.

I won't dump this book though: despite the lack of Bibliography – and how unscholarly is that? – there is at least an Index that may well be useful to refer to in the future.

2 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence (1975; repr. by Finitude 2010)

Criminally, Jean-Pierre Martinet is very little known even in France – the country of his birth and where he spent the brief forty-nine years of his life – but outside Francophone countries he's almost entirely unheard of.

This is the third Martinet novel I've read, and as expected almost all – if not all – of the characters are in varying degrees of insanity, making it a little difficult (to make an understatement) to trust the reliability of the narrator. Of what then can we be sure? Er, this is all part of the fun, and black as Martinet's books may be, the readers are missing out on a great deal if they don't find his books funny.

I'm rambling slightly, but nowhere near as much as Martha Krühl, the narrator of La Somnolence, which is Martinet's first published novel. This Finitude edition has a five-page Introduction by Julia Curiel, in which she makes a case for the novel being a kind of foretaste of Jérôme (1978), which was published three years later and is considered by many critics as Martinet's masterpiece. Curiel, unlike the critic Pascal Pia before her, sees autobiographical content here, and now that more is known about Martinet's unfortunate life La Somnolence does indeed appear to have strong autobiographical elements. As Curiel points out, the name Martha does evoke the name Martinet, and Martinet's friend Alfred Eibel has spoken about Martinet's fear of the swift bird species ('martinet' is French for the bird) seen as having a metal beak: Martha speaks of her fear of their metal bills cutting her throat.

Martha is seventy-six and lives in an appartment with a photo of her father – a man of religion who hanged himself from a cedar tree when Martha was only sixteen – a crucifix, and a copy of the Bible. La Somnolence is a deranged monologue – often reporting conversations – addressed most of the time to a man (whom she may have once loved, may have met in a psychiatric hospital after her father's death, or who may be completely imaginary) who drinks a great deal of beer and whom she imagines (?) as spending much of his time silent and sleeping or sulking on a mattress in her corridor. Her father called him 'Ouine', which of course evokes Georges Bernanos's darkest novel: Monsieur Ouine.

Martha hasn't left her flat for weeks and her ramblings are full of paranoid delusions, thoughts that everyone is spying on her, out to get her, perhaps especially 'Ouine'. (Martha doesn't mention him as Ouine herself, but for the benefit of this post I find it easier to give her 'ami' a name.) She has a home help she pays a pittance to bring her cheap whisky (Martha's an alcoholic like Martinet), petits fours and do a little cleaning, although she suspects her of drinking some of the whisky and watering it down to top it up, possibly with urine.

Perhaps Martha sets fire to her flat and perhaps she kills 'Ouine' unintentionally in the process, but suddenly she's outside the claustrophobic environment and the narrative tilts way over into hallucination, suicide and murder. There's a dead man who's in a small space like a rabbit hutch and whose wife is constantly shaving him and cutting his nails but leaves Martha to look after him, and Martha thinks it best to shine his shoes as there's no point in cutting his incessantly growing toenails as they just destroy his socks and he has no more, but then she finds his young daughter's singing disrespectful and hits her with the pommel of her cane and may have killed her.

Then Martha goes to the cinema but thinks that the posters are telling her things about herself, and then she walks in on a film where two viewers are getting too sexually excited for her liking, and as they're getting down to it she pommels them, and may even have killed them. As she walks out she notices that the receptionist appears to have killed herself.

Still only in her dressing gown and slippers and stinking of sweat and vomit – or is that just part of her delusions? – Martha tries to kill herself by lying down in the road, but no traffic comes. She is desperate for whisky, and then she meets a young man she saw leaving the cinema and who invites her back to his place to open a special bottle of twenty-five-year-old scotch. But he falls unconscious in his car outside his house so Martha breaks in, can't find the drink and pisses (although she would insist on 'urinates') on the carpet just as the young man walks in.

But he doesn't appear to have noticed and is anyway too busy talking about his dead girlfriend – the one who bought the whisky – and still keeps promising to crack open that bottle, after a certain sexual act that is. So Martha goes down on him, feels disgusted, staves the young guy's head in, but he's still alive and praying to be finished off and...

Welcome to the very weird world of Jean-Pierre Martinet.

On the back flap is an uncredited sentence from the magazine Les Inrockuptibles which states that Martinet's only fault was that he wasn't American, because if he had been then Jérôme would have been an internationally acknowledged cult novel. I agree of course, although his cult status wouldn't only apply to the one novel, but to Jean-Pierre Martinet's whole work itself.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...