28 February 2016

Antonine Maillet: Pélagie-la-Charrette (1979)

Pélagie-la-Charrette is the seventh novel by Antonine Maillet, and the first by a non-European to win the Prix Goncourt. After the removal of the Acadians from Canada by the British in 1755, Pélagie-la-Charrette is a fictional recreation of the return from the South of the USA to Acadia by Pélagie, family and followers in 1770. It has been translated into English as Pélagie: The Return to Acadie, although I find it difficult to imagine how the many Acadian expressions used in the original could have been translated.

This then is the story of Pélagie LeBlanc (called Pélagie-la-Charrette) and fellow Acadians' ten-year journey to Grand- Pré (Nova Scotia), with a cart pulled by oxen. On the way they move from Charleston (North Carolina), through Baltimore (Maryland), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Boston (Massachusetts), Salem (also MA), to their final stop.

On the way they have picked up other travellers, including a black slave whom they treat with a respect he has never known, bury some people, steal just to survive, and nearly starve. Other principal characters are Bélonie-le-Vieux, who starts out as a ninenty-year-old, and who is the story teller of this essentially oral culture, and Célina the healer and midwife.

There is much 'doubling' in the tale, as in the case of twins, the two Jeannes, the ghost cart of death following the cart bearing the living, and the flashes forward to relatives towards the end of the 19th century. Pélagie's beloved captain Beausoleil also follows in his ship, meeting her at ports of call. There are sad moments, as when a child has to be buried, and humorous ones, such as Pierre à Pitre's thefts and imprisonment in Baltimore, and throughout there is a polyvocality, a Rabelaisian joy, an obvious delight at the re-establishment of a home for the Acadians.

My other post on Antonine Maillet:

Antonine Maillet: La Sagouine

Olivier Bourdeaut: : En attendant Bojangles (2016)

The imprint page of this Finitude first edition says 2015, although it appears that the publication date of Olvier Bourdeaut's En attendant Bojangles wasn't actually until January 2016. As part of the Winter rentrée this is one of the major novels, and has already received considerable success. The back cover reveals that Bourdeaut is 35 years old, that this is his first novel, and that he had hesitated for a long time before putting pen to paper.

This is in some respects a rebellious book: towards the end of it, the central narrator says that his father Georges 'was reading the newspapers and laughing to himself because for him the world was mad'. That is certainly a central message here, although the educational system is also seen as sadly lacking: Georges's wife has an argument with their young son's school teacher regarding his lack of attendance in the morning, saying:

'What do you want? My son to be a civil servant! My son is an erudite nightbird who has already read the dictionary three times over and you want to turn him into a seagull covered in dirty oil, fighting against a black tide of boredom! It's to avoid just that that he only comes in the afternoons!' (My translation.)

How can anyone argue with such words? It fact no one can argue with George's wife – who doesn't have a name, or rather she has a multitude of them, but no one fixed name in the novel. She is fluid, very changeable, full of energy, a lover of life, of freedom, of dance, a wonderful person, but alas a very disturbed person.

Yes, the son is the main narrator, although Georges briefly intervenes in parts to fill the readers in on the background, how he met his future wife, and the lies he told but then life is full of lies, life is a novel. The son grows up in a crazy household where his parents frequently dance to the happy-sad song 'Mr. Bojangles' by Nina Simone, they hold huge, insane parties and have an exotic pet bird called Mademoiselle Superfétatoire (a name which means 'superfluous') and who loves to be stroked.

As the mother increasingly dislikes the idea of her husband working at all, as she just continues the round of lavish spending and the pile of unopened letters continue to grow, it's pretty obvious that there'll be problems with unpaid taxes, pretty obvious that Georges (and indeed their young son) have just been playing along with her, swept up by her wonderful personality, her pure sanity, although it's also obvious that's she's as mad as hell and getting worse. And it's a madness that will particularly manifest itself when she burns part of the house down in an attempt to destroy the past.

And so she goes to a psychiatric hospital, where it's evident that's she's the sanest of the inmates in a way, but then many of the inmates are also by no means as mad as they're said to be, and the chemical straitjackets that hold them to Earth also restrict their ability to function as individuals with gifts to show the world. So Georges and son capture her from the prison of the hospital, and she spends her final days in their Spanish home.

Final days that is, not because she's dying, but because she is becoming terminally mad. So a glorious last dance, then a morning overdose of sleeping pills, a dive into the lake, and no more pain. Is this novel really as good as many people say? Yes. It is.

27 February 2016

Oscar Coop-Phane: : Zénith-hôtel | Zenith Hotel (2012)

Oscar Coop-Phane's first novel, Zénith-hôtel – translated into English without the hyphen or the diacritics, but with the title partly hiding the excellent cover photo – was published when the author, who had spent some of the time working in a bar while writing it, was twenty-three years old. And the publisher Finitude sees fit to mention that Coop-Phane read Emmanuel Bove, Louis Calaferte, Henri Calet, Eugène Dabit, Paul Gadenne, Raymond Guérin and Georges Hyvernaud between the author's studies and his small-time jobs. His youth doesn't show through in the novel, though, and this fascinating little work (124 pages) earned the Prix de Flore in 2012.

Zénith-hôtel concerns the life of a street prostitute ('not a call-girl or anything like that'), although the principal point of interest here is Nanou's clientele. Nanou lives on the sixth floor in a grubby room where she makes coffee, uses her neighbour's shower and crashes to bed at the end of a day rather like, she observes, a factory worker, only her factory is the street and the assemble line is populated by cocks.

This is a day in Nanou's life, and after her general introduction there follows a description of the existences of her clients, each followed by the initial exchange of dialogue between Nanou and customer, and then a few pages of Nanou's comments on her lifestyle. As an example of the dialogue, this is particularly interesting, and I translate:

'I have a dog. It is OK for him to come with us?'
'You wanna do things with your mutt?'
'No, I don't want to leave him in the street. He'll die. He won't move. His name is Bâton.'
'So let's go then, and bring Bâton.'

Nanou's clients for this particular day, then:

– Dominique, who is pretty crazy, who imagines that his parents, the maid and a neighbour wanted to kill him by crushing his head between the wooden piano cover and the keyboard. He didn't know why they were out to get him, but he had to stop it, and now he's happy that he gets decent meals and can use the library, and his friend Georges has money put aside for cigarettes, coffee and the occasional dope, even if it means Dominique sucking him off from time to time. And just look at the forty-eighth birthday present Georges has given him: Nanou for a whole twenty minutes.

– Emmanuel is with his fat wife Estelle, and he's OK, and they're both pions, supervising the schoolkids, but Emmanuel (unlike Estelle) doesn't want any of his own. On Sundays Estelle goes to see her mother, so he masturbates and fantasizes, until he goes to Nanou, who also has big breasts the way he likes them.

– Victor is the one with the dog Bâton, who hasn't long left to live, which is one of life's tragedies, especially as Bâton is really all Victor has to live for, and who would like them both to go at the same time. He's even thought of Gardenal as a means of suicide for them both, but...

– But there are always things to live for. Take Luc, who after his marriage collapse moved back to his parents and now lives on the ground floor and repairs mopeds for a living. Luc uses the local bar 'Babylone', where there's the obliging Bouboule who's only too pleased to give regulars a quick blow job in the toilet. Luc's nevertheless a sad case, with his mopeds, smoking his beer and drinking his cigarettes, er...?

– Jipé Végétal (and his father says he and his rather fat brother Antoine should be proud of the surname) is to co-manage the bar 'L'Épervier' and has always been more go-getting, and attracted more girls than his brother. Nanou will help him clear his head.

– Robert, oh, Robert, he's just odd. Very odd. He regularly buys bonsaï trees, but insists on calling them 'dwarf trees', gives them each a name, and is worried about who will inherit them after he dies. And what a pity he couldn't get further than the first sentence of his projected novel: '"Have you never noticed", he said to him, "that an empty cup on your table in a café seems completely normal to you if it's your own, but dirty, indeed disgusting, if it was there before you?"'. Robert thought it a good idea to begin with a small truism, although unfortunately his literary career ended with this sentence.

Here and there I caught glimpses of Oulipo, and certainly this book isn't a story as such, although it's a series of stories in a way. Oscar Coop-Phane, in a video clip in which he's talking about Zénith-hôtel, reminds us of what Céline whom he's fond of quoting said: if you want stories, then read a newspaper.

24 February 2016

Auguste le Breton: Les Racketters: Du rififi à Hambourg (1968)

The story: Joseph Mercier, a Frenchman, has killed a man and escapes to Germany, to Hamburg to be exact, where his devoted friend Freddy lives with his wife and makes his living from the underworld, his immediate boss being a man called the Prince, and Mr Big being Walter, a man of great fortune from dealing in many kinds of things, ammunition being a very lucrative business, and with a one-armed bandit protection racket later proving highly profitable also. Although married with a child Joseph (usually called the Frenchman for the sake of anonymity) falls in love with the Polish prostitute Marleen, who is bound by a kind of contract to her pimp, who demands the exorbitant sum of 100,000 marks from the Frenchman for her release. Amazingly, the Frenchman pays him off and she begins to share her life with him. A number of dead bodies litter the book – including those of Freddy, Walter and Marleen – and in the end the Frenchman makes his way back to France alone, where he will certainly be found to have killed in self defence.

Crime is not my usual literary food, and my initial reaction on reading the book was rather negative, seeing many of the usual stereotypes: the tough guys, macho types who leave the passive girl at home or love them and leave them, do the dirty business, don't flinch on killing – Walter turns out to have lost his balls in the war, so well, he just has to turn out to be a wimp, a big mummy's boy doesn't he?

Then it struck me how the crime novel can easily, and effectively, be used as a catalyst for channeling big themes, such as love, corruption, temptation, friendship, betrayal, revenge, etc. Les Racketters has all of these elements, but there's no happy ending. And there's no hero: how can the Frenchman be a hero when he just leaves his wife and takes up with another woman, then betray not only his new bosses but also his one true friend, whose death he accidentally causes and who dies defending him.

There's more to le Breton than initially meets the eye. He coined the word 'rififi' (meaning 'trouble') for instance, which is included in the Petit Robert, and he also wrote books on slang. He believed that it is pointless to write about places you'd never visited yourself, and he'd been everywhere in the world where his many Rififi books are set. There's even a hint of didacticism in the book: there are several footnotes explaining terms mentioned. I'll probably give him another try next time I find one of his books .

22 February 2016

Léo Malet: Énigme aux Folies-Bergère

You would of course expect a book written in 1952 to be something of a peddle back in time, although this 1978 cover, with the bare-breasted woman, seems to conflict somewhat with the use of language, which is sometimes unbelievably prissy in its censorship: we have a number of unfinished words or expressions, for instance: 'emm....' (for 'emmerder'), 'm'eng...' (for 'm'engueuler', even 'B... D...' for 'Bon Dieu'. Scheesh! You'd hardly believe this was written in a country in which (in the nineteenth century) Zola (in Germinal) wrote about a guy screwing a menstruating girl against a wall, where Aragon wrote Le con d'Irène, or where Courbet notoriously painted a magnificent female sexual organ, and on and on ad infinitum.

Not that there's anything prissy about the actual content here: Superintendent Raffin thinks bromide would be in order on seeing a sample of the naked girls in the Folies-Bergère dressing room, and as for the once-beautiful and now alcoholic Clara pulling the bedclothes away from her to reveal her one leg and stump and ask him who would want her now....

Crime is not my usual genre but then everyone should take a literary holiday now and then, and Léo Malet – very much a self-educated person and in his day a hugely successful writer – is well worth reading. There are murders all over the place, there's a lot of drinking and (particularly on the part of Raffin) a lot of thinking going on, the plot may creak noisily in places (such as hiding the jewels on the imitation horses at the Folies-Bergère, but what the hell?

Malet actually writes very well, and is noted for his black humour. I particularly liked the way Raffin, on receiving the post mortem report from the lab team, which reveal that the murdered Humbert Courvoisier lunched on beefsteak and chips and red wine, notes that he then took over three grams of lead as a digestive. Another observation of his is that the grass François Laumont, found dead on his doorstep, was 'a natural gossip of the underworld silenced by a twenty-five centimetre blade'.

And how can I ever forget the two visits and all the time it took to detect Malet's Grave:

Remi Rousselot: Francis de Miomandre: Un Goncourt oublié (2013)

At 255 pages (plus a generous Index and Bibliography), Remi Rousselot's Francis de Miomandre: un Goncourt oublié may not initially seem like a huge book, although it is: the Goncourt-winning Miomandre (for Ecrit sur de l'eau, 1908) is indeed something of a forgotten writer, although Rousselot goes out of his way (particularly with his extensive research at BNE (Bibioteca Nacional de España) to amend this situation.

There are so many people mentioned in this book, so much pre-internet networking, so many events in the life of Miomandre, that it would take an enormous post to do this fascinating book justice, although the back page (quatrième de couverture) gives a fine summing up of the contents, and I translate the first two paragraphs, which is most of this summary:

'Francis de Miomandre (1880–1959), the sixth Goncourt prize winner and the author of an intriguing and plentiful œuvre, the first translator of important Hispanic texts (Asturias, Unamuno, Cervantès, etc), is completely forgotten today. This dandy, this faithful friend of Gide, Suarès, Larbaud, Breton, Supervielle, Desnos, Milosz, Soupault, Claudel and many others, was a constant witness to celebrated twentieth-century literary adventures in Paris – up to the difficult post-war years – when he was cast aside because of his incarnation of the preciosity of the old century.

'It took the passion of a fascinated young man, Remi Rousselot, to delve into the archives deposited in the Cervantes room in the Biblioteca Nacional de España and follow the path of this life through the First World War, the années folles in Paris and on the Basque coast, the literary salons, the Spanish [Civil] War and finally the Second World War and the return to Paris.'

This of course is just a short summary, which leaves out Miomandre's birth in Tours, his move to Marseille, his being an early orphan and his move to Paris, his marriage to the older (and richer) widow Anne, his frequent leaving of her to venture abroad, his incessant socialising, his manic writing to both keep up appearances and maintain a relatively extravagant life-style, his move(s) to Mallorca, his pet monkey and chameleon, etc.

When Miomandre felt forced by economic circumstances to sell his library of signed first editions, the signatures included this by no means definitive list: Alain-Fournier, Antonin Artaud, Maurice Barrès, Joë Bousquet, Francis Carco, Jean Cassou, Blaise Cendrars, René Char, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Colette, René Crevel, Salvador Dalí, Roland Dorgelès, Georges Duhamel, Léon-Paul Fargue, André Gide, Jean Giono, Jean Giraudoux, Remy de Gourmont, Julien Green, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Marcel Jouhandeau, Valery Larbaud, François Mauriac, Charles Maurras, Paul Morand, Jean Paulhan, Marcel Proust, Raymond Radiguet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jules Supervielle, Paul-Jean Toulet, Tristan Tzara, Miguel de Unamuno, Paul Valéry, etc.

Miomandre in fact had many literary friends – even though he must have lost some after his library sale – and many of them were high-profile. It's perfectly normal that things move on and literary figures become out of date, but it's quite surprising that such a figure (even bearing in mind his relatively low sales) should have become so obscure. It's arguable that anyone who's been awarded the Goncourt will ever be completely forgotten as his (or her in the scandalously low eleven instances of women winning it) name is still up there, but all the same Rousselot's excellent biography (and the re-publishing of Écrit sur de l'eau the same year by Éditions de la Différence) must surely go some way towards putting the writer´s name back into circulation.

My other post on Francis de Miomandre:

Francis de Miomandre: Écrit sur de l'eau | Written on Water

20 February 2016

Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève (1939)

It's been a few years now since I've written any blog posts about films, a fault I shall correct forthwith. Marcel Carnés Le Jour se lève is a classic work of French cinema, and without doubt one of Carné's major works. The dialogue here is written by Jacques Prévert, and Jean Gabin's acting is superlative.

The expression 'poetic realism' is frequently made of this film. The concentration is on objects, the psychology often tacit, particularly on the part of the Gabin character François. The film begins with a working-class street setting, moving to a dingy lodging house where a man clasping his belly falls down a few flights of stairs dead at the feet of a blind man who shouts for help.

We then enter the room on the fourth floor which the dying man has staggered from, where François has obviously shot him, and locks himself in from the police who try to shoot the lock off the door but François barricades himself in using a wardrobe. 

The audience doesn't know the motive or anything of the backstory, and it is this which, unusual for the early date of this film, will be shown in three flashbacks, returning to the present to watch the chain-smoking François and his limited activities in his claustrophobic one-room home.

Le Jour se lève proved popular with the public, although it was banned by the Vichy régime as it was too pessimistic, too defeatist for the desired mood of the time. The dead man is Valentin, a dog trainer who works in music halls and is played by a very active and menacing Jules Berry, whose behavior strongly contrasts with the pensive François.

Contrast is a major feature of the film: the sultry language and actions of François against his beloved  Françoise (Jaqueline Laurent) as opposed to the forced jollity of the music hall, the silence of François alone in his room as opposed to the gunfire of the police, the (visually expressed) loneliness and despair of François as opposed to the excitement of the crowd outside, etc. Until he releases all his anger at the crowd, until he avoids the police gas by killing himself, which seems inevitable.

A tremendously powerful film that evidently has to be watched than once.

Antonine Maillet: La Sagouine 1970; repr. Bibliothèque québécoise 1990

This is a collection of sixteen speeches (this being in fact a one-person play) written by Antonine Maillet from New Brunswick, a mainly French-speaking province in Canada. Maillet, who won the Goncourt in 1979 for her novel Pélagie-la-Charette, is Acadian and this play is written in Arcadian and inspired by a certain Sarah Cormier. The woman on the cover is Viola Léger, famous for her theatrical interpretations of the play. Maillet was born in Bouctouche, where there is now a park called Le Pays de la Sagouine: La Sagouine is a seventy-two-year-old uneducated domestic filled with an age-old wisdom.

 I read a commentary from a girl who used to be a student at Montréal university, who writes about being given tickets for a performance of La Sagouine, and that when the audience saw an old woman with a bucket and mop get up on stage and start talking in an incomprehensible language she expected that the woman would be removed by security officers. But this was not to be: this, of course, was the beginning of the play itself, and bit by bit La Sagouine's strange words begin to take on some sense.

This edition comes with an eight-page Glossary because of the very problem mentioned above, although many of the unconventional words aren't in it and the reader is forced to work at understanding: words such as 'saouère', 'aouère' and 'ouère', for instance, mean 'savoir', 'avoir' and 'voir': there's often a kind of key which greatly aids understanding when unlocked.

La Sagouine is often cynical or skeptical, knows that there's one law for the rich and another for the poor, and gives her views on many subjects, such as: her floor-scrubbing job, Christmas and the New Year, the lottery, the church, war, the seasons, death, etc.

In a Foreword to this remarkable book, Alain Pontaut lists the paradoxes of La Sagouine, including the fact that she 'knows nothing and clarifies everythng', 'speaks in the name of people who have little language, and powerfully gives them a voice', 'speaks of a land which hardly exists and makes it exist by talking about it', 'has nothing and makes us a major gift', and so on.

My other post on Antonine Maillet:

Antonine Maillet: Pélagie-la-Charrette

17 February 2016

Azouz Begag: Béni ou le paradis privé (1989)

Azouz Begag's Béni ou le paradis privé (lit. 'Béni or the Private Paradise') is about not fitting in, being alien, but trying not to be, trying to assimilate into a country you've nevertheless been born in. But that's too harsh a summing up, too exaggerated a slant on a novel which is full of life and the excitement of it, in fact a very amusing book in spite of itself, in spite of the life it represents.

Ben Abdallah lives in Lyon, was born there, but prefers to call himself Béni as it sounds more French, it disguises his Algerian ancestry. His birth name is like a cloak, or djellaba, of (foreign) identity.

 But in many respects Béni is more French than the, er, French French. His racist English teacher, for instance, asks his post-BEPC (for which read GCSE) class what form the conjunction 'aussi' takes when it's at the head of a phrase. The French French kids have no idea, although Béni comes up with a very good answer:

'Monsieur, on emploie la forme interrogative, c'est-à-dire, par exemple: je lis beaucoup à la maison, aussi suis-je capable à répondre aisément à votre question.'

My translation: 'Sir, the interrogative form is used, as in for example: "I read a lot at home, so I can easily answer your question."' This is actually quite a clever answer, as it also registers a meaning change of 'aussi' from the usual 'also' or 'as well' to 'so' or 'as a result', etc. The teacher gives his reaction to this: 'And if this isn't the limit when the only foreigner in the class is the only one who can boast that he knows our language.' 'Foreigner', 'Our language': mindless expressions of exclusion.

Béni calls himself Béni to avoid this kind of exclusion, although he sometimes opens himself to ridicule by presenting himself as a kind of Michael Jackson, someone from another culture pretending to be what he is not. But Béni (because of his age) can't even be fully included into the society of his false (Arab) friends by being admitted in to seeing a porn film, and most important of all is rejected from the private Paradis club to which the title alludes, a club where he has expected to meet France, the symbolically-titled young girl he loves so much. This is a book which makes an important point.

My other post on Azouz Begag:
Azouz Begag: Le Gone du Chaâba | Shantytown Kid

13 February 2016

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

You just can't tell with Anne Tyler. In 2012, at the time of the publication of her last novel The Beginner's Goodbye, Tyler said that she hoped that her next novel would take a long time. A Spool of Blue Thread not only hasn't taken a long time in Tyler terms – the usual length of time is three years – but her latest contains 465 pages: about 200 more than her normal offerings. And far from representing a lessening in quality, I consider this to be one of her best.

This is a family saga which weaves about in time, very removed from linearity, and the spool of thread in the title can be taken as both literal and figurative, knitting the disparate parts into the reader's consciousness. Abby Whitshank (Red's wife) is one of the main characters and before she dies in a car collision at about the age of 72 her family believe she's beginning to lose her mind, although glimpses into it suggest that this is far from the case. Especially relevant here is Abby insisting on calling the dog Clarence, whereas Clarence has been dead some time and been replaced by Brenda: I prefer to see this as a literary device, a manifestation of the thread joining different generations – and also as a generic term for the family dog – as opposed to a sign of impending dementia.

As a lover of Anne Tyler's fiction who has read almost all of her novels, I feel compelled to return to my long-established habit of refuting those critics who seem to think that Tyler is a comfortable, light read, a writer of cozy fiction. For instance, an article in The Chicago Tribune 20 June 1986 is written by John Blades and entitled 'For Nutrasweet Fiction, Tyler Takes the Cake', and Blades calls Celestial Navigation (still my favorite Tyler novel) a 'soft-focus and sentimentalized portrait of an outcast artist': Blades can't possibly have read the book because for much of the time it reads like a bad acid trip!

Interestingly and surely tellingly, as Tyler must have been writing with a knowing wink to Blades's remarkably off-target review – she even mentions Nutrasweet in this latest novel. Which represents a very far from comfortable world. Although Denny only appears 'behind the scenes' when making a telephone call to his parents Abby and Red in 1994, when he was 19 and appears to have been uncertain of his sexual identity, he serves as a framing device for the novel, which ends with him swiftly taking the Amtrak back to his 'home' in New Jersey. It is Denny who mends Red's bright blue dashiki (which itself links two important occasions at very different times) and who finds the original blue thread; and it is also Denny who helps out at his parents' ancestral home when they're in difficulty. But ironically, Denny has also been a very problematic character, a drifter, a worry to his parents, a person who can never settle anywhere or with anyone, who bears some resentment toward Stem, who's not his real brother, but (in spite of having a negligent and usually absent mother) was one of the 'orphans' the social worker Abby took pity on.

Red's parents Junior and Linnie had a far from idyllic marriage, Red and Abby seem to be falling apart due to old age, many people in this novel just don't get on with each other, it can hardly be described as a cozy book with a happy ending, although it is often very, very funny.

This is a remarkable book about families, ageing, compromise, resilience, eccentricity, love, and much more. The modern world makes a bigger appearance than usual in Tyler's novels also, wi-fi and email are mentioned, and, oh, the language is slightly more adventurous. I feel sure that the mischievous Tyler – who usually keeps her speech within the limits of very polite language, her characters frequently uttering such quaint euphemisms as 'jeez!' and 'scheesh!' – deliberately called her main characters in Spool 'Whitshank' just so she could have a walk-on schoolmate call her offspring 'Shitwank'. So much for Nutrasweet.

My other Anne Tyler reviews are below:
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

12 February 2016

Fleur Pellerin now has time to read Modiano

Yesterday Fleur Pellerin, the French Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, was sacked from the post she had held for only eighteen months. The world can only ask why she wasn't sacked earlier, or indeed how she came to occupy the post in the first place.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is arguably the most important international event in the literary calendar, and was won by French novelist Patrick Modiano on 6 October 2014, after which Fleur Pellerin had lunch with him: I can't imagine what they talked about, although Pellerin told Maïtena Biraben that the lunch was wonderful, and that the two of them 'laughed a great deal'.

Biraben was questioning Pellerin on Canal plus's Supplément programme on 26 October 2014, and perfectly logically asked what her favorite Modiano book was: 'Euh, euh...' Not only couldn't Pellerin think of a Modiano book but she hadn't read one of his books, hadn't even read a book in the last two years because of the pressures of work. Many people might consider book reading as part of the work of a minister of culture, and many people throughout the world reacted in a very negative light to this confession. OK, this was obviously a wonderful opportunity for the right-wing Le Figaro to score political points by bemoaning the lack of culture in the government's cultural figurehead, but the paper evidently had a very strong point.

How can a governmental representative of French culture have lunch with a French winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature and not raise the subject of, well, literature? The reminder that the mighty André Malraux once held the post Pellerin held until yesterday makes her original appointment look not only stupid but really bizarre. What next? Donald Trump for president of the USA? Pellerin made things even worse for herself by saying how shocked she was by global reactions to her idiocy. But at least the wonderful news is that she's gone now, and she missed out on the Villa Médicis jolly. No wonder she reportedly burst into tears on hearing of her dismissal: she'd been onto a good thing for far too long.

11 February 2016

Lady Chatterley in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire

A very silly Guardian article, written by Claire Armistead and purely coincidentally written 1 April 2014 and concerning the opening of a D. H. Lawrence-themed pub in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire on Midsummer's Day, June 24 of that year, suggests (no doubt ironically) that perhaps it should have been named 'The Rainbow' or, er, 'The Plumed Serpent' (which I found Lawrence's most tedious novel). No, surprise, surprise, local people in the Eastwood & Kimberley Advertiser opted for The Lady Chatterley: after the book Lady Chatterley's Lover of course, which is by far Lawrence's most famous and his most influential novel, a book which can even be said to have played an important part in the sexual revolution of the 1960s (and I've no need to quote from Larkin's 'Annus Mirabilis'): a major book, in a word. And The D.H. Lawrence Society declared that it was 'delighted' with this choice of name. Me too, and the Mellors beer (after the main male character, again of course), which has the same image on the pump clip as is on the pub sign, is brewed especially for Wetherspoons by the Lincoln Green brewery based in nearby Hucknall.

8 February 2016

Simone de Beauvoir: Les Mandarins I (1954)

The dazzling lights that were Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Jean Sartre haven't gone out, and will continue to blaze, I'm sure, long after more recent writers in France and the rest of the world – many still living – have long been forgotten. But I have no intention just yet of saying much about this, Simone de Beauvoir's huge Goncourt-winning novel, which the Folio version here divides into two separate books, both more than 500 pages in length. I've just ordered Les Mandarins II and shall be making a longer comment in due course on the full 1000-page book.

Beauvoir wanted readers to take her book as 'neither autobiography nor reporting, but evocation'. Not too sure about the meaning of that last word for her, although clearly she didn't intend it to be seen as a roman à clef, which it certainly isn't, although a number of the characters in it have a number of resemblances to actual characters within Beauvoir's world: Beauvoir herself is a little like Anne Dubreuilh, the writer Robert's wife; Scriassine recalls Arthur Koestler in a number of ways, etc, etc. But the other principal player in the novel is Henri Perron, who has a great deal of similarities to Albert Camus, notably with his paper L'Espoir, which sounds a little like Combat: Beauvoir even lays the analogies on thicker with a wink to the main character in L'Étranger by celebrating Henri's return with...a bottle of meursault!

As I said above, more comments when I've read the whole work, but it seems great so far.

3 February 2016

Patrick Lapeyre: L'Homme-sœur (2004)

And so, as with Patrick Lapeyre's two other, later books I've read – La Vie est brève et le désir sans fin (2010) and La Splendeur dans l'herbe (2016) – there are references to the supernatural or the extraterrestrial, or just the plain weird in ordinary, everyday situations, whatever that may mean. For instance, we have a man spending his life waiting for his sister (and I'll return to waiting as a major theme a little later) being compared to a man walking on the ceiling (which has echoes of Éric Chevillard's Au plafond (1997), but we'll let that one dangle). Then we have the protagonist Cooper (the man-sister) seeming as humorless as an android when he's had too much to drink, or (in the many references to television or the cinema in this and other novels by Lapeyre) Cooper at his piano compared to Captain Nemo at his pipe organ or of the prostitute Lauren Boneau being used to 'close encounters of the third kind'. It's normal (in Patrick Lapeyre's universe) to see a car as a spaceship, or (in just the one, rather tacit example of incest) as Cooper and his 'lover' sister Louise seen as 'spacionautes'.

Yes, this sounds like a strange book, and indeed it is, although I'm sure that all of Lapeyre's books must be: in the three I've read so far, waiting is the main theme. But this is not Waiting for Godot, and is in many ways unlike the work of Samuel Beckett, things do end. And Lapeyre seems to be so preoccupied with the nature of waiting that it could be said that he seems to be devising a taxonomy of the subject: in La Vie est brève et le désir sans fin there was a brief mention of waiting as a religion, although if religion is supposed to represent a (surely dubious) variety of freedom it becomes a form of error, of enslavement in L'Homme-sœur, in which Cooper becomes a prisoner of his own mind. Much as I loathe translation, I'll try to give an English interpretation of the French in an attempt to convey the sense of one paragraph of this:

'Cooper can very well imagine himself on the platform of a station that's been disused for years, calmly waiting for the woman of his life. That would be typical of him. Perhaps he would be surprised by the state of the station, would reflect on the delay of the trains and on the lack of consideration given to travelers; but it wouldn't cross his mind that he'd got the wrong station, nor of course that he'd got the wrong life.'

Cooper isn't a pathetic forty-year-old male virgin: he's lived (admittedly for very short periods) with three women, he's (with little success) tried prostitutes, and he's even nurtured hopes about the much younger Robine, the friend of his sister who would perhaps have brought him closer to Louise, even have been a substitute for her. But it is not to be. Nicole, the fortyish virgin ex-work colleague is only too ready to help him, even move in with him in a, er, sisterly way, but nor is that to be. So he just becomes his sister, in a virtual kind of way.

My other posts on Patrick Lapeyre:

Patrick Lapeyre: La vie est brève et le désir sans fin
Patrick Lapeyre: La Splendeur dans l'herbe