30 October 2015

Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares (1999)

I suspect that a major reason why Gallimard brought out this collection of all of the six novels that Boualem Sansal published before this year's 2084 is because they imagined that he'd win the Goncourt, and certainly it was a big shock for many people this Tuesday to learn that 2084 didn't even make it to the Goncourt's third selection. We may never know why, although it has been suggested that Sansal is perceived as an Islamophobe, which doesn't square with reality: he simply doesn't like Islamic excesses.

The six novels contained in this volume of more than 1200 pages tight pages are Le Serment des barbares (1999), L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux (2000), Dis-moi le paradis (2003), Harraga (trans. as the same title) (2005), Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller (trans. as An Unfinished Business) (2008), and Rue Darwin (2011). Also here is an informative Preface by Jean-Marie Laclavetine, plus an even more informative potted and illustrated history of Boualem Sansal's life, with the history of Algeria from 1940 up to the present day.

Sansal married a Czechoslovakian but a new law required that children of 'mixed' marriages be taught the Islamic religion. Sansal sent his two daughters back to Czechoslovakia to their maternal grandparents. The marriage ended in divorce in 1986, Sansal saying that his personal life had been ravaged by Islamists.

Sansal was also responsible for what he euphemistically calls the 'restructuring' (for which read privatisation) of the Algerian economy,* although in the same year his third novel was published he was dismissed from this post: he had gone too far in his criticisms of the chaos-ridden country Algeria had become in the years following its independence from France in 1962.

*Unfortunately Sansal is far from being a friend of socialism and sees it as outmoded, whereas many of us in western Europe have seen exactly how chaotic and socially unjust, for instance, the privatisation of public utilities actually is. In an interview, Sansal interrupted his interviewer because he used the expression 'selling off' ('brader') in relation to privatisation and claimed that the word was a hangover from the days of socialism. Enter 'restructuring', then, which to me seems almost to smack of the Orwellian 'Newspeak' Sansal so detests.


But on to the first novel, Le Serment des barbares, which is a runaway train, or a whirligig, a linguistic roller coaster in which Sansal seems to be going out of his way to show his considerable learning on his sleeve. 'Rabelaisian' is one of the words that are often used to describe his work, and this novel (perhaps in particular, as I haven't yet read the rest) is a wonderful display of verbal pyrotechnics, using often very long digressive sentences often soaked in polysyllabic words, or Algerian words or terms both common and less common, or slang words, words for the love of words, often clothed in literary allusions.

All this to describe the chaos that Sansal now sees as Algeria, the political divisions within the country, the arabisation, more frequently the mindless violence, the wholesale slaughter, the misrule, the horror of daily existence. Perhaps most of all, the manufacture of ignorance: Sansal sees a triple illiteracy: the loss of French, the mis-teaching of Arabic, and the death of Kabyl and other native languages.

There's a detective story at the root of Le Serment des barbares, and the book begins in a cemetery, where two very different people are being buried: the very rich Moh who's a kind of godfather, and the poor Abdallah Bakour, both of whom have been violently murdered: the ageing police officer Larbi's job is to pursue the investigation into the Abdallah killing.

As Larbi makes his enquiries throughout the book – between the various tangents that Sansal digresses into – we inevitably learn about Abdallah's past. Until the year after Algerian independence he had been an agricultural worker for a French family in Algeria, and when they moved back to France he continued to work for the family: bosses had died and others taken their place, but he was still greatly respected by the family in his new home and had more or less been thought of as one of the family. He had refused to accept money to upkeep the family tomb when he returned to Algeria at the age of sixty-five, but maintained it freely, living in a very modest home near the Christian cemetery. He is in fact a kind of symbol, his double identity standing for the possibility of tolerance, bringing the torn parts of the country together.

Alas, Larbi – mockingly referred to as both Maigret and Columbo – is too good at his job. He knows there's something wrong, knows it defies common sense that this harmless, humble soul should be assassinated as if he's a gang boss, so what's it all about? He gnaws away at it, a dog digging up a bone, digging, now... it couldn't be that drugs and weapons are buried in the tombs and Abdallah...? Too late, cop.

This is a rant, but it's a hugely powerful one, a tour de force, a kind of masterpiece. Boualem Sansal enters the world of Francophone fiction like a verbal steam roller.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux

27 October 2015

Régis Jauffret: Claustria (2012)

There's a sort of legal disclaimer at the front of this book, stating that it's a work of fiction, as of course you'd expect from a work that describes itself as a novel on the title-page. Jauffret's Sévère (2010) also described itself as a novel on the title-page and was also based on a fait divers or story in the news, but it had nothing like the legal disclaimer here, and it ran into legal complications. But Claustria clearly states that any characters in it have no relationship to living people. Well...

Well, Jauffret did a great deal of research on the Josef Fritzl case before writing the book, to the point of going to Austria, interesting himself in the Fritzl trial, visiting the dungeon in Amstetten where Fritzl imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth for twenty-four years and raped her perhaps 3000 times, and where she had seven children by him. He even calls the protagonist by his real name, but as Josef Fritzl was the only guilty party here he changes the names of all the other characters. The world knows the essentials of this story, but not much about how Fritzl's 'second family' survived, how it spent its time.

This really is where Régis Jauffret's novel comes in, because he imagines what it must have been like to undergo such an ordeal, although as he says, it's easy to imagine being tortured or being shot dead, but how can anyone conceive of twenty-four years of this kind of torture, of not being free to belong to the outside world, of not knowing when your torturer is going to come and rape you, of not knowing what kind of mood he's going to be in, of what he's going to do next?

Jauffret refused to see Fritzl when he went to Austria because he's a man completely without ideas, a blank. Certainly we're talking about a cunning person who premeditated the rape home several years before the abduction of the girl Jauffret calls Angelika because he built it as a nuclear shelter. The food supplies were well thought out as Fritzl shopped in another town to evade suspicion, and he only delivers them at night. But Fritzl has no inner life, is incapable of thinking anything through if it isn't practical. He is Nazi-like in that his power is absolute and he will listen to no one but himself, but he has no ideology: Jauffret shows him an a complete egotist, which must be the truth otherwise Fritzl would have gone mad. And another terrifying thing is that as far as I know no psychiatrist declared him insane. This too is difficult to imagine: how can a person responsible for so much insanity be sane?

So Jauffret (who put off writing the book for several years) imagines the unimaginable. He had an idea of the smells from his visit to the hell-hole, but imagines Angelika trying to escape by using her father's mobile phone, trying to keep sane by watching TV, by resisting the torture in other ways, but by also accepting the inevitable. The book was difficult to write, and in places it's difficult to read but not because there are any graphically described scenes of torture: we're spared, for instance, details of Fritzl pulling his daughters teeth out, and the rapes are not dwelt on in any detail.

But this is a also a story of love, of moments of joy, of Angelika educating her children, of trying to bring them up as best she can in the circumstances. This is 544 pages of skilfully crafted fiction, and Jauffret has made a powerful achievement. The title of the novel, by the way, comes from a fusion of the French word 'claustration' meaning being shut up or confined, and the word 'Austria'.

My other posts on Régis Jauffret:

Régis Jauffret: Lacrimosa
Régis Jauffret: Sévère

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #12: François-Charles Barlet

1838 – 1921'

François-Charles Barlet was an occulist and had similar interests to those of Papus and Max Théon. He was one of the first members of the French Theosophical Society, although he left them and joined the Groupe indépendant des études ésotériques (GIDEE). His publications include Essai sur l'évolution des idées (1891), Principe de sociologie synthétique (1894), L'évolution de la sociologie (1894), L'instruction intégrale (1895), Synthèse de l'esthétique : la peinture (1895), and L'art de demain : la peinture autrefois et aujourd'hui (1897).

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #11: Semyon Yushkevich

LE 12
I've not been able to discover much about this Russian playwright and novelist, quite probably because his first name is also transcribed Simeon, Simon, Semyon, etc, and his surname Youchkievitch, Jushkevich, and so on. However there's an English Wikipedia page on him (but not a French one as far as I can see and my Russian's non-existent) which has a few paragraphs. He was a member of the Sreda literary group in Moscow and 'was a representative of the Jewish-Russian school of literature'. I also learn that he wrote a play called 'King' (1906) and a novel called 'Leon Drei'. (I use the inverted commas rather than the conventional italics because I doubt that these works have ever been translated into English, although in Russian his oeuvre apparently stretches to a fifteen-volume collection.

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #10: Brigitte Gros

1965 – 1985

Brigitte Gros was a politician and a writer, the daughter of the writer Émile Servan-Schreiber and the sister of the journalist, essayist and politician Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. Earlier in her writing career she wrote novels such as Véronique dans l'appareil (1960) and Quatre heures de transport par jour (1970), which was adapted into a 1973 film called Elle court, elle court la banlieue. Later she wrote non-fiction books on urban living such as Les Paradisiennes : La Vie des femmes dans la cité (1973) and Une Maison pour chaque Français (1977).

26 October 2015

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #9: Pierre Morhange

1901 – 1972'

Pierre was a poet born into a Jewish family and was a teacher of Philosophy. He founded the review Philosophies with Henri Lefebvre in 1932 and supported the Communist Party and the surrealist movement. He wrote translations into French from English and Russian, and for at least one publication used the synonym John Brown.

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #8: Jehan-Rictus

'Voui, dormir... n'pus jamais rouvrir
Mes falots sanglants su'la Vie,
Et dès lorss ne pus rien savoir
Des espoirs ou des désespoirs,

Qu'ça soye ou ben l'matin,
Qu'y fass'e moins noir dans mon destin,
Dormir longtemps... dormir... dormir !

1867 – 1933


One of the most interesting graves in Bagneux is that of the poet Jehan-Rictus. Rictus was born Gabriel Randon de Saint-Amand, and his poetry is his transcription of the Parisian working-class dialect of the day. The verses above are from his Déception ('Disapointment'), and the two books mentioned contain his major works: they deal with the plight of the homeless (Les Soliloques du pauvre), and workers, prostitutes, beaten children, burglars, etc (Le Cœur populaire).

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #7: Barbara

1930 – 1997'

The family plot of Barbara, one of France's greatest singer-songwriters. She was born Monique Serf, the surname of her father, and in the early days of her career she sang as Barbara Brodi, Brodsky being her mother's maiden name. In 1998, the year following her death, her unfinished memoirs were published as Il était un piano noir… (lit. 'It Was a Black Piano...'). In them, for the first time, she publically revealed her father's incestuous abuse of her at a very early age. Barbara's most famous song was 'Dis, quand reviendras-tu ?' (incidentally covered several years ago by Martha Wainwright), and this clip of her singing it gives a very good idea of the emotion she put into a song: Dis, quand reviendras-tu ?.

25 October 2015

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #6: Rachilde and Alfred Valette

1860 – 1955'

The grave of Rachilde (née Marguerite Eymery) and her husband Alfred Valette, although time seems to have eroded Valette's name in his own right. Rachilde was brought up as a boy, she was an excellent horse rider and could use a pistol and a sword as an expert. By the age of eighteen she arrived in Paris with the intention of living by her pen. Her most famous book was Monsieur Vénus (1884), the French version of which can be read here. It brought her fame, and scandalised many.

As I said in the previous post, Valette founded Mercure de France.  Rachilde published an enormous number of books, whereas Valette (apart from Mercure) published just two novels.

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #5: Francis Carco

1886 – 1958'

Francis Carco was born in Nouméa, New Caledonia, which he is quoted as calling the '[French] prison capital' by André Negis in his biography Mon ami Carco (1953; repr. 1986). Negis's first chapter is called 'Le Goût du Malheur' (lit. 'The Taste of Misfortune') after Carco's novel Vérotchka l'Étrangère ou le Goût du malheur (1923). Carco spent the first five years of his life in New Caledonia, and was considerably marked by it, by his father speaking of the treatment of the prisoners at the family dinner table, by a man being beheaded for killing his prison warden, by regularly seeing convicts in chains.

In his early twenties he frequented the 'Lapin Agile' in Montmartre with such regulars as Pierre Mac Orlan, Maurice Garçon et Roland Dorgelès. His first novel, Jésus-la-caille – which involves a homosexual pimp – was first published in Mercure de France thanks to the novelist Rachilde, who was co-director of the magazine and the wife of Alfred Valette, its founder: they are also buried in the Cimetière parisien de Bagneux (see my next post).

Famously, Carco had a brief relationship with Katherine Mansfield in an 'escape' from her husband John Middleton Murry in 1915, and the character Duquette in her short story 'Je ne parle pas français is modelled on Carco.

Carco wrote a number of novels, and Le Roman de François Villon (1926), a fictionalised biography.

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #4: Bernard Frank

This is by no means an easy grave to find, particularly as it doesn't appear to have a single legible word on it.  And there are others which are almost identical, but this is the genuine item.

When Bernard Frank (1929–2006) was twenty he met Sartre and contributed occasionally to Sartre's Les Temps modernes; Frank also included Sartre as a character in his novel Les Rats (1953). Writing in an article in L'Observateur, it was Frank who coined the term 'hussards' to describe the right-wing group of writers in which Roger Nimier, Jacques Laurent and Antoine Blondin are generally included – an expression which is of course still used for them. One of his most noted novels is Un siècle débordé (1970), which won the prix des Deux Magots the following year.

24 October 2015

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #3: Jean Paulhan

'JEAN PAULHAN 1884–1968'

In photographs the Paulhan family tomb looks deceptively tall, whereas in reality it stands at little more than waist height to the average adult. Also buried here is Jean's philosopher father Frédéric Paulhan (1856–1931). I wrote a few paragraphs about Jean Paulhan here.

23 October 2015

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #2: Alfred Jarry

The unnamed grave of Alfred Jarry (1873–1907) is fittingly bizarre. Jarry had a huge influence on a large number of people and literary or artistic movements, such as those involved in the Theatre of the Absurd, surrealism, dada, and Oulipo (particularly with his 'Pataphysics). In short, he was far before his time, and as such he had the power to shock, as in his very strange and most famous work – the play Ubu Roi (1896) – in which the first word is the euphemistic 'Merdre' (for 'Merde'), which is so conveniently translatable into English as 'Shirt' (for 'Shit'). Jarry is also well known for his bicycle, his revolver, drinking absinthe to excess, and for his last wish on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four: a toothpick.

Paris 2015: Cimetière parisien de Bagneux #1: Armando Chirveches

The grave of Armando Chirveches is written in Spanish:


Armando Chirveches (1881–1926) was born in La Paz, Bolivia and although he wrote modernist poetry initially he is better known as a novelist. He was influenced by Spanish writers such as Armando Palacio Valdés and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and also by the French naturalists. His three most noted novels are La candidatura de Rojas (1908), Casa solariega (1916) and La Virgen del Lago (1920). He spent many years in Paris.

21 October 2015

'Walt Whitman: The Commercialization of an American Icon' by Ed Centeno

On seeing my blog post here following my visit to Walt Whitman's birthplace in Huntington Station, Long Island last year, Ed Centeno emailed me last month with several examples of his very large collection of Whitman memorabilia. I could see a good opportunity for another post, and here I include a number of images from Ed's collection which he very kindly sent me. I leave the images to speak for themselves as most of them are largely self-explanatory, although I should add that the pictures of the house are in Camden, N. J., where Whitman lived for a number of years until his death in 1892. I've yet to go to Camden, and Ed's photos toward the end of this selection show Whitman's grave in the local cemetery. I now leave all the talking to Ed:
'My 27 years with Walt have been and continue to be rewarding, challenging, and inspiring. My intention has always been to exhibit rather than write or lecture about my Walt Whitman Collection. When devotion and passion are given to something you truly enjoy, it’s inevitable that audiences will be curious to see what you collect and interested in learning why you collect. 

'The primary focus of the collection is the commercialization of Whitman’s name, image, and body of works in memorabilia, ephemeral material, commercial products, fine art, and digital format. My reason for this madness is to enrich my knowledge of the past, preserve the aspect of collecting for future generations, and acquaint myself with the phenomenon of Whitman’s popularity.

'This fascination humbly began while I was researching material for an article about American poets on stamps. To my astonishment along the way I learned that the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, was only several miles from where I lived as a teenager. I soon discovered that Walt has been depicted on advertising for cigars (ironically he never smoked), coffee, beer (he also never drank), insurance, and the list goes on and on! There are also places named after him—the Walt Whitman bridge, high schools, a shopping mall, parks, apartment building, bookstores, just to name a few.'





'To see more of my collection, learn about upcoming Whitman events, and read more about his poetry, please visit the following links:

http://www.waltwhitman.org/ (Walt Whitman Birthplace)

http://www.whitmanarchive.org/ (Walt Whitman website)

http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/whitman/ (Library of Congress Archives)

Centeno_005@hotmail.com (my personal email)

songofmyselfmarathon@gmail.com (12th annual marathon reading “Song of Myself”)'