25 April 2016

Marcus O'Dair: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (2014)

It's only relatively recently that I bought The Soft Machine Volumes One and Two (1968 and 1969), although the first album of Robert Wyatt's that I bought was a number of years before: Old Rottenhat (1985), which is in essence political, and of course firmly left wing. The song 'Alliance' (concerning the formation of the Social Democratic Party by three right-wing members of the Labour Party whose names I couldn't be bothered to key in) contains two wonderful lines that should be a rule to live by: 'I think that what you're frightened of more than anything | Is knowing you need workers more than they need you.' And, typical of Wyatt, he extends the politics to global proportions: 'The United States of Amnesia' refers to what was essentially the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, and 'East Timor' is about the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.

Some years after I bought Old Rottenhat I happened to be looking at a few places featured on the Heritage Open Days programme around 2000, and decided to make the Humberston Fitties in Lincolnshire one of the places to visit. This was an area of salt marshes now occupied by holiday chalets – mobile homes, cabins and the like – and although I'd previously noted that Robert Wyatt had a home there part of the year (he lives half an hour away in Louth the rest of the time) I certainly didn't have him in mind as my partner Penny and I walked round this fascinating place.

Until, that is, a beaming, bearded, avuncular figure in a wheelchair outside his home greeted us and ushered us inside. There, it seemed like a whole different world. He introduced us to his wife Alfie (the artist and creator of almost all of the art on his albums, including Schleep (1997), a poster of which was stuck to the kitchen wall), whose full name is Alfreda Benga, who was born of a Polish mother and Austrian father. I didn't let on that I knew who he was (although in 1990 he claimed that he used to be Robert Wyatt to Morning Star journalist David Granville).

I collected a little
of the above information from Marcus O'Dair's biography, a book of which I wouldn't have been aware if I hadn't been browsing the website of the Morning Star, which sells the book: unlike many people as they age, Robert Wyatt has fortunately never rejected his left-wing roots and become a boring right-wing old fart: in fact he's anything but an old fart.

With the generous lists in the Discography, Notes and Sources and Index, this book weighs in at 460 pages: this is an extremely well-researched, well-presented and well-written book to treasure. 'Authorised' can of course mean 'censored', and although unauthorised biographies can have the benefit of being more honest than the others, they don't have the supreme power that interviews from the subject himself/herself can endow: and make no mistake about it, this is as 'warts-and-everything' a biography as you're likely to find. Not only does Wyatt's first wife Pam declare that Wyatt (during The Soft Machine's grueling tour of the States) 'shagged his way across America' and Wyatt himself admits that he got in a 'tangle' in LA, causing him to spend a few more months there after the other Softs had left, preventing himself from seeing his wife and child back in England. And towards the end of the book Alfie (far from being anti-drink herself) sees the booze as becoming too much of a problem for Robert, hence the ultimatum: stop drinking or leave. That was in 2007, and apart from a few initial hiccups he's now teetotal, although maybe he needed the drink for his creativity as he's not produced a solo album since. I could mention Wyatt's pulling the plug on Matching Mole as a little extreme, but this paragraph is already overweighted.

The half-title Different Every Time comes from the first line of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song' on his Rock Bottom album, as well as the double album of the same name (on which, surely oddly, 'Sea Song' doesn't appear). And while we're on the subject of individual songs, I may as well mention the only thing I don't like about the book, an ever-so-tiny niggle: all the song titles are italicized, along with the album titles, which I don't just find unconventional but plain confusing. (Yes I know, it's pathetic of me, isn't it?)

But I could go on and on about the joys of this book, the songs it's introduced me to, the knowledge it's given me of one of rock's finest musicians, from the unrecorded The Wilde Flowers; through (The) Soft Machine (a band which dropped the definite article to, I imagine, fall in line with, er, the fashion of the day); through Matching Mole (a pun on the French for 'soft machine': 'machine molle'; to final solo singer.

I haven't even said anything about the almost fatal accident, his suicide attempts, the Softs snubbing him out of his own band, the jazz, avant-garde and pop influences, or all the associated outsider performers (Ivor Cutler, Gilad Atzmon, Slapp Happy (and Dagmar Kreuse in particular), Green Gartside, etc, etc). Or the literary influences, such as the name The Soft Machine coming from William Burroughs's novel title. Or even family friend Robert Graves and Deià in Mallorca. Oddly, there's even a mention of the very weird Edward Gorey (see my blog post of his Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts home) here. But I found even weirder (although perfectly understandable in so many respects) the influence on Robert Wyatt of the 'Pataphysics of Alfred Jarry (see my blog post on him and his grave here). It appears that Wyatt never took LSD (he was never into illegal drugs), but then if you have Jarry in you so much who needs it? A very English musician? Well, in a few ways, but then in others not.

This is a truly wondrous book about two amazing people. And friends.

ADDENDUM: and here is Robert Wyatt, with his inimitable voice which he has described as 'Jimmy Somerville on Valium', singing perhaps his most famous song (written by Elvis Costello (lyric) and Clive Langer (music)): Shipbuilding.

22 April 2016

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cœur tambour (2016)

Plunged in Rwandan myth and legend, Scholastique Mukasonga's Cœur tambour (literally 'Drum Heart') is in three parts: 'Kitami', 'Nyabingui', and the very brief 'Ruguina'.  The events in 'Kitami' take place before 'Nyabingui', and 'Ruguina' is a question mark about how the fateful event in the first section took place.

Kitami is a singer with a band of three rasta drummers, one from Guadeloupe, one from Jamaica, and one from the African continent. She is possessed by the spirit of Nyabinghi (or Nyabinghi), queen of the kingdom of women struggling against colonialism and masculine authority. One of the drums, Ruguina, is sacred and has been saved from destruction-by-museum by Kitami herself. Her voice is enchanting, usually inhabited by the spirit of  Nyabinghi. Kitami's unexpected death is mysterious.

The second section involves Prisca and her development in Rwanda. From a gifted student she becomes a manifestation of the spirit of Nyabinghi, meets the three musicians in the above paragraph, and 'inherits' the sacred drum.

How Katami dies is an open question, although perhaps she sacrificed herself under the magic drum.

René Frégni: Tu tomberas avec la nuit (2008)

Tu tomberas avec la nuit is written with a great deal of anger because it's a true story. René Frégni is a writer from Provence who makes his living as a writer and as a teacher of writing in local prisons and to a lesser extent in lycées. He is well known locally and well respected both as a teacher and a writer. Divorced, he enjoys having his loving daughter Marilou with him weekdays while his working ex-wife takes her at weekends. The trouble starts when Karine, a young woman whose male friend is in one of the prisons he teaches at, decides (without any formalities or offers to share petrol expenses) to join René on his weekly visit to that prison.

As Karine only sees her friend for twenty minutes and René is tied up teaching for three hours, Karine just sits in the car and waits for René to finish. Or rather, she doesn't, and René discovers that she's been taking his car for jaunts while he's teaching, even though she doesn't even have a licence. That's the end of her sponging off René, or so he thinks: Karine belongs to a family of violent thugs, and they won't allow René to reject Karine without making his life a misery.

Which is exactly what they do, and along with the insults that he receives from members of her family, they also start bullying Marilou at school, which the family rules with a powerful grip. René retaliates by using violence, although violence of course breeds violence, so both father and daughter are in a very stressful situation. Time to call Max.

Max is an ex-con René has taught. A very big and powerful man who is known by many people in the area, and who is forever grateful to René for teaching him the joys of reading, the power of language. You don't mess with Max, and a few very calmly voiced threats on his part to the family from hell soon eases the situation considerably, and René and Marilou can go about their lives in peace.

It's when René joins Max in a restaurant project in Manosque that the real problems start, and we shift from the hell that one family creates to the hell that one man – an obviously psychotic judge – can cause. And this is a Kafkaesque situation in which a totally innocent person is consistently held to be guilty.

René is arrested for three days because of his association with a criminal, held in a room without toilet facilities, and where he learns to identify the unbearable smell of fear. The judge, who doesn't even look at him, declares that he can no longer use the restaurant and no longer travel beyond the boundary of the département, meaning in effect that he is out of work. His car has also been confiscated and he must report to the local police station every Friday.

It becomes obvious, through such extreme measures as the judge ordering (slightly reluctant) policemen to again search his home, and ordering him to be psychiatrically examined (twice), that the judge has personal problems which have nothing to do with the reality of René's predicament. But although murdering the judge may be a perfectly understandable reaction, the author/narrator evidently opts for the saner choice of destroying the man through the written word. Riveting reading.

21 April 2016

Daniel Pennac: La petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill (1989)

This, the third part of the Saga Malaussène, felt a little like coming back to a well-loved family: Benjamin Malaussène the expert scapegoat himself, his younger sister Clara and the older star-gazing sister Thérèse, the publisher Queen Zabo, not forgetting Julius the smelly epileptic dog, etc.

Wikipédia calls this a 'roman policier', or 'detective novel', which in a way it is, only it's comedy at the same time, but 'comic detective story' doesn't hit the right button either, as this is literary fiction at the same time: I can't imagine there's an equivalent of Daniel Pennac in the Anglophone universe.

Clara, still in her teens, is marrying Clarence, who's three times older than her and the director of a model prison based on enlightened influences of such teachers as A. S. Neill and Anton Malarenko. Benjamin is very unhappy with the forthcoming marriage and in his distraction decides to part company with Queen Zabo (who is of course based on Françoise Verny, but that's a different story). And then Clarence gets savagely murdered, and all the convicts mourn his passing.

Queen Zabo's prize author is the hugely successful J. L. B(abel), an ex-minister and writer of trashy literature he labels as a new genre – littérature libéral – and who has preferred to keep his anonymity, although Queen Zabo desperately wants Benjamin to pose as the author, an offer which Benjamin takes up under certain conditions. Until, that is, he is shot through the head at a 'coming out' (as J. L. B.) speech, whereupon he falls into a coma. More killings ensue .

Benjamin's partner, the intrepid journalist Julie, tries to track down the killer, who is none other than the real J. L. B., a convict who is killed towards the end and whose organs are used in a miraculous 'kidneys-pancreas-heart-lungs' transplant, which allows Benjamin to be reborn, and of course to continue the saga. Totally unbelievable? Of course, but the 403-page trip is certainly worth it. And this volume is, like its two predecessors, translated into English by the Oulipo member Ian Monk.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat
Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother
Daniel Pennac: Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école

Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles (2005)

This is a collection of twenty-five forgotten short stories written over some years following Agota Kristof's exile from Hungary to Switzerland in 1956, and there are a few hints here of her most well-known work, La Trilogie des jumeaux, or The Twins Trilogy.

This is no comfortable read. The atmosphere a number of the stories is often of strangeness,  surrealism, anguish, unfulfilled hopes, anxiety, the futility of life, and (desire for) murder, madness, although not suicide. There is paradox, and irony. And there is also an odd anonymity: virtually none of the characters has a name.

The back cover of this edition cites 'Mon père' as 'certainly the most autobiographical' of the collection, although there are beyond any doubt more 'hidden' autobiographical factors at work here: Kristof, for instance, didn't like marriage, and there are three marriages in three stories in particular which stand out outright failures.

Right from the beginning, 'La Hache' plunges us into a murder, in which a woman has summoned a doctor, telling him her husband has fallen on an axe at the side of the bed in his sleep, although the doctor's first thought is to send for an ambulance for the woman herself, who has obviously used the weapon on her husband. In 'L'Invitation' it's the wife's birthday and the husband says that although she'll have to wait until the end of the month to receive a present he can afford, he'll just invite some of his friends round for a meal and drinks, and he'll do all the work for a change. The wife says she'd rather he take her to a restaurant than he bring his friends round, but this is not to be: the wife does all the cooking, in fact everything while her husband and friends have a great time feasting and drinking. At three in the morning the party is over, and as the narrator ironically says, 'The chums have left, the husband snores on the lounge sofa, exhausted, poor thing.' Time for the wife to clear everything away, but before she does the washing up she takes a long look at herself in the mirror.

This is disturbing stuff.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook
Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie

18 April 2016

Tom Baker in Lincoln

Elm House, Upper Long Leys Road, Lincoln.

TOM BAKER (1911–1998)

George Boole in Lincoln

3 Pottergate, Lincoln.
LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S.
1815 – 1864

William Logsdail in Lincoln

19 Minster Yard, Lincoln.

ON THE 25 MAY 1859.
(1827–1905) HEAD VERGER
1858 – 1902'
William Logsdail spent many years in Venice the last decades of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century spent two years in Sicily before returning to the United Kingdom. One of his most famous paintings is Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (1888):
 William Logsdail - St Martin-in-the-Fields - Google Art Project.jpg

T. E. Lawrence in Lincoln

33 Steep Hill, Lincoln, with plaque to the viewer's right of the bay window.

1888 – 1935

My other posts on T. E. Lawrence:

T. E. Lawrence in Moreton, Dorset
T. E. Lawrence at Clouds Hill, Dorset

The Kinema in the Woods, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire

The Kinema in the Woods in Coronation Road, Woodhall Spa was originally a farmhouse, then a concert pavilion, and later the cricket pavilion for the nearby Petwood Hotel (then called Petwood House), and has been functioning as a cinema since 1922. Kinema Too was added in 1994. It is open every day throughout the year.

England's unique rear projection Kinema
Films have been shown
here continuously since
August 1922'

17 April 2016

Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Somersby and Louth, Lincolnshire

Saint Margaret's, Somersby.

BORN 1809. DIED 1892.
                                     "Follow the Christ, the King;
Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King."'
'With thanks to GOD, for HIS gift of song
and in Memory of the Centenary of the Birth
in the Old Rectory hard by, of Alfred
Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate, this Church
was restored and a replica in Bronze of Woolner's
Bust of the Poet was placed within on the sixth
day of August 1911 by the Tennyson Centenary
The Old Rectory is now in private possession, and trees conceal much of the front, making photography from the street virtually impossible.
A small display case in the church includes two clay pipes and a quill pen, marked as having belonged to the poet.
The tomb of the poet's father lies very close to the church, to the south-west of the tower.

'To the Memory of
The Reverend
Eldest Son George Tennyson Esq
of Bayons Manor,
and Rector of this Parish,
of Bag Enderby, and Bennyworth,
and Vicar of Great Grimsby in this County.
He departed this life
on the 16th day of March 1831.
Aged 52 years.'
The future poet underwent the harsh teaching of the grammar school in Louth for a relatively brief time, although this was not the same building as the present one.
'"An old wall covered with
wild weeds
opposite the school windows"
1809 – 1892
at Louth Grammar School
1816 – 1820'
In Tennyson's time these premises in the centre of Louth were where Jacksons, the booksellers and printers, ran their business. An old drawing of the place looks quite similar to the building today.

15 April 2016

Jean-Yves Cendrey: Honecker 21 (2009)

Jean-Yves Cendrey's Honecker 21 is mainly set in present-day Berlin, the city he moved to with his wife Marie NDiaye and children after – but not entirely because – Sarkozy was elected President of France. It is both amusing and grim, and makes a number of criticisms of a society under attack by an ethos of excessive consumerism.

The blue watering cans in suspension on the cover have no specific bearing on the plot of this novel, although they illustrate very well the surreal atmosphere in the book. Matthias Honecker is a successful employee in the mobile phone industry and his cultured wife Turid, who chose him to change him, is trying to get him to read books.

Honecker is never calm, feeling besieged from all quarters, be it from his wife, or the saleswoman who won't freely accept back his coffee machine because his guarantee's a day too late, or his highly imperfect Renault Avantime car, or his dentist (who has given a tooth a crown which is now playing him up), or his gym (whose boss he astutely realises takes money from clients to sweat for him – thus reversing the usual Marxist sweated labour relationship), or his own boss who summons employees to a New Year 'motivation dinner' at Świnoujście on the Polish border.

But then Honecker doesn't make life easy for himself by falling for the deaf and dumb girl Kubain and moving his family (which now includes a newborn baby neither he nor his wife is interested in) to the Corbusierhaus where Kubain lives: meanwhile Turid sinks into depression, their new apartment is full of the former occupants' furniture and Honecker has an appointment in Świnoujście.

Sick of his boss and on a very short fuse, Honecker drives back towards Berlin to try to salvage his marriage, picks up a couple of sinister hitchhikers, and seems ready to meet his death by being murdered or killing himself. The back cover suggests he's a Chaplinesque character, and I can identify certain aspects of the problems of modern times here. A strange book doing strange things with dialogue, and some of the content in general too.

13 April 2016

Paul Salveson: Lancashire's Romantic Radical: The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke / Teddy Ashton (2009)

The subtitle here – The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke / Teddy Ashton alludes to the fact that Allen Clarke (1863–1936) sometimes used the pseudonym Teddy Ashton, in fact it could be said that it was a form of literary alter ego: when he used his birth name he tended to be more politically serious, in fact the working-class intellectual he was; 'Teddy Ashton', though, wrote in a simpler way, often humorously.

Allen Clarke was born in Daubhill, Bolton, and died in Blackpool. His socialist message was essentially conveyed through journalism, and after initially working for a few papers he created his own Teddy Ashton's Journal in 1896, which became the very popular Teddy Ashton's Northern Weekly in 1898, selling mainly in Lancashire cotton and market towns, including Manchester: it included the 'Tum Fowt Sketches', plus a romantic serial novel, and although light on politics was of course determinedly socialist. Teddy Ashton's Northern Weekly ran into financial difficulties in 1906, was renamed Fellowship, and folded in 1908.

Clarke also wrote a number of books, notably The Effects of the Factory System (1899). Using another pseudonym, Ben Adhem, he wrote more philosophical works. He was interested in spiritualism and published Science and the Soul (1904) and What Is Man? (also 1904), tending to embrace eastern beliefs. He dabbled with anarchism and was influenced by Tolstoy, with whom he corresponded and from whom he received encouragement. But Clarke's 'Daisy Colony' experiment failed and left him in debt.

In addition, Clarke wrote plays, short stories, and Paul Salveson reckons that he wrote over twenty novels, although most of these were published as serials and never published separately. Most noteworthy are John o' God's Sending, or the Lass of the Man and Scythe (set during the Civil War, named after the famous pub in Bolton and published in 1891 and 1919 (extended form)); The Knobstick (1892, set during the Bolton strike of 1887); and 'A Daughter of the Factory', which was unfortunately only published serially but whose main character has gypsy blood and who reminds me of Nottinghamshire novelist James Prior's gypsy-like New Woman creations.

Allen Clarke sounds like an amazing person: he supported women's rights, children's rights, was anti-war (which caused a rift with Robert Blatchford), anti-imperialist, pro-animal rights and vegetarianism, and was anti-vivisection. He was also a keen cyclist and windmill enthusiast, which reminds me of course of Karl Wood (although Wood's dreadful politics were very different).

I only stumbled on the existence of this book by chance, but I'm very fortunate in doing so: Paul Salveson has done an excellent job here, revealing many things about an important literary figure who (in spite of the Little Marton Windmill memorial) is probably essentially remembered only by a limited number of Blackpool locals.

This is a fascinating, even vital book, and I have only two niggles: I noted that it's in exactly the same format as my booklet on Nottinghamshire windmills, although this 118-page book is even more uncomfortable to read because of its size; and there were a few repetitions, probably due to the different times in which the book was written.

My other post on Allen Clarke:
Little Marton Windmill, Allen Clarke and Cornelius Bagot

Antoine Blondin: Les enfants du bon Dieu (1952)

Looking at comments on this book – and there aren't many, partly I think because the writing of Antoine Blondin (1922–91) has dated so quickly, but largely (at least as far as this book is concerned) because this is so esoteric: a decent knowledge of European history is needed to understand the first part of this novel. But then even the title needs some explanation as it forms half of an expression: 'Il ne faut pas prendre les enfants du bon Dieu pour des canards sauvages' (lit. 'You mustn't take God's children for wild ducks'), meaning that people shouldn't be taken for idiots, or shouldn't be made fun of.

The (anti-)hero of the work is the narrator Sébastien Perrin, who's a thirty-year-old history teacher at a school in a well-heeled area of Paris and married to Sophie. They live in a block of flats which also houses a general and a viscount, and life is very monotonous for Sébastien, who decides to liven things up by not only changing the history syllabus but changing history itself, at least from the way he teaches it. One of the important changes he makes is not to include the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, which would also change many other things. As an example of the thinking, when Sophie and Sébastien are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary, the waiter whispers that there's no more Alsace, whereupon Sébastien looks at Sophie and declares that it's started: what Sébastien jokes has started is the messing up of history – the waiter is of course talking about wine, whereas Sébastien's talking geographical change.

During the Nazi occupation Sébastien was, like many other French workers, forced to do his STO (Service du travail obligatoire) in Germany, and on the way back home he worked as a groom and became amorously involved with Princess Albertina of Arunsberg-Giessen, although back in France he ended the relationship by informing her (ostensibly via a third party) that he had died.

However, Albertina later goes to France with her uncle and meets the 'dead' man, and of course they have a secret affair and she gets pregnant. Or at least so she thinks. I very rarely give up on reading a book, and although in the early stages I was slightly tempted to abandon this in the same way that I know others have done, I'm glad I stuck with it: the humour grows on you.

My Antoine Blondin posts:
Antoine Blondin and Pierre Assouline: Le Flâneur de la rive gauche
Antoine Blondin: Monsieur jadis ou l'école du soir
Antoine Blondin: Les enfants du bon Dieu

11 April 2016

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie (2009)

I haven't of course read this series in order, which doesn't really matter as the books can be read in any sequence: they are self-contained and were written over a number of years, and each adds different aspects to the actions of Marie and the unnamed narrator, although certainly things don't tie up neatly, and they're not intended to. This then is the third volume of the tetralogy, and it's in three parts.

In the first part the narrator is sleeping with his girlfriend, who happens to be called Marie, when he receives a phone call from the Marie of the title, the same Marie (er, yes, but...) as we have met in the other books. She has been with the man the narrator has called Jean-Christophe de G. in Nue, whom he's been secretly watching at Contemporary Art Space in Tokyo, only that doesn't seem to be his real name but it who's splitting hairs: he's died of a heart attack in Marie's room anyway.

The second part goes back in time to when Marie is leaving Tokyo with Jean-Christophe de G., who has asked her to go with him when he returns his horse Zahir. Here we learn a great deal – probably far too much – about taking horses onto planes. Zahir escapes near the plane and has to be coaxed into returning and still causes a fuss on the plane anyway. He also vomits, which of course horses don't do, but that's not the point. And interestingly enough, the narrator later sees Marie with Jean-Christophe de G. and tells us that he doesn't know him: well, different book.

In the final section, Marie, has been staying on Elba in her father's house following his death a year before – which would be baffling if the reader thought about it too much, but that of course is not the thing to do. And we hardly learn anything of Maurizio, who is supposed to be guarding the house, but anyway didn't he die? Oh, wrong book, different story. I really must read this series again some time, as Jean-Philippe seems to be one of the most fascinating writers in the French language. But then, have I ever come across a writer in the Minuit stable whom I've not liked? Rhetorical question.

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Salle de bain | The Bathroom
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: L'Appareil Photo | Camera

8 April 2016

Francis Carco: Brumes (1935)

Francis Carco's Brumes is set in a grim sea port in Belgium, with a mixture of pretty unsavoury characters and activities. There's the menacing Dutchman Feempje, who runs the bar Montparnasse and who lost his good hand over a woman, and now wears a metal hook strapped to his forearm, capable of staving anyone's chest in. Feempje lives with Flossie, who serves in the bar and also dances in a back room – until she gets pregnant and, knowing it can't be by him as he's infertile, Feempje relegates her to a cold room at the back of the bar, where she appears to be losing her mind.

Across the road from the Montparnasse is the even more filthy and sleazy boarding house belonging to Kœtge, an alcoholic wreck of a forty-eight-year-old who also dabbles in selling cocaine. Down the road a little is a number of 'maisons', a euphemism for a set of houses with picture windows where the prostitutes put their wares on display, a little like the Amsterdam red-light area. These are owned by François-le-Balafré, scar-faced as his name suggests, who pimps for his lover Lulu-la-Parisienne. While opposite is the prostitute Geisha, who plans to save money and run away with her sober Pole lover Adolf Soter. But who's this old guy Lionel Poop, who seems to be stalking Geisha?

That's a question Feempje would like to have an answer to, and he stalks the stalker. Soon, it all comes out when Kœtge takes Poop to the Montparnasse and removes some contents of his wallet to show Feempje: there's a photo of Kœtge thirty years ago, photos of other girls, and a letter from a girl who is writing to Poop immediately before killing herself over him. It seems Poop was good at making girls kill themselves, and the reader learns of two he's done this to, although Kœtge wouldn't allow him to drive her to such extremes and backed off: but not before she got the ill-famed house from her banker lover.

And now, Poop showers expensive clothes and jewels on Geisha in an attempt to lure her away with him: can his technique succeed now he's so much older? Certainly the only suicide is of Flossie, and the police appear to be blaming that on Feempje.

But there are certainly more deaths in this novel, because almost the whole (relatively short) book is played out against a backdrop of medical activity: everyone is subjected to three jabs a week as the department of health attempts to eradicate something about which no one seems to have a precise knowledge: some kind of plague? I wondered if there was a pre-Camusian element here, if the plague were a symbol or metaphor for something, but nothing sprang to mind.

So I'm not sure what Carco's up to, writing a book which has such a strange, mysterious atmosphere. I'll keep a look-out and read the next Carco novel that comes my way, as it might give me more clues.

Edward Chaney: G. B. Edwards & The Book of Ebenezer Page (2015)

Again, I'm very grateful to Edward Chaney for posting a comment on one of my blog posts and thus drawing my attention not only to The Book of Ebenezer Page but also to this fascinating biography. It's the first book from Blue Ormer, which is to publish Guernsey-related books and takes its name from a mollusc which is found mainly in the Channel Islands. It's a beautiful, well illustrated 408-page book and must surely be the definitive biography of a man who wasn't the most sociable of people and didn't make a biographer's work too easy. Edward Chaney is very fortunate in having Edwards as a friend who gave him complete rights to his work: this only novel is a work of considerable interest and importance.

This is a book in two main parts: the life of G. B. Edwards, and The Book of Ebenezer Page (which was originally the sub-title, with Sarnia Chérie the half-title). George Basil Edwards (1899–1976) was born at Sous les Hougues in the Vale, Guernsey, to a quarryman, and apart from this posthumously published novel his other published work is limited to reviews and articles in John Middleton Murry's the Adelphi, which was called the New Adelphi for three years between 1927 and 1930.

Edwards then was known to a certain extent in literary circles, and apart from Murry was well known, for instance, by Stephen Potter and J. S. Collis, who referred to him as 'our genius friend'. He was a great D. H. Lawrence enthusiast, although he never met him (only his wife Frieda), but he failed to produce the book on the man that he had been commissioned to write: instead he wrote the monograph Jesus, which was never published.

Apart from writing, he earned a living – frequently rather precariously – by teaching, producing in the theatre, and even working part-time for Mass Observation (in Bolton). Edwards married Kathleen Smith in 1926 and had two children, Adam and Dorcas, by her. During the marriage she also had two other children by different men this was of course a time of communes, Utopian societies (such as Lawrence's unfindable Rananim), and of free love. By about 1933 the marriage was over.

The shorter second part of this book is concerned with Edwards's later activities and his letters to Chaney, but above all it is about the long slog through potential publishers and their rejection slips, until, five years after G. B. Edwards's death, Hamish Hamilton published The Book of Ebenezer Le Page with an Introduction by John Fowles in 1981. It was extremely well received, with a small mark of its importance being its enshrinement in Margaret Drabble's The Oxford Companion to English Literature. It is not an (auto)biography, although a number of characters in it bear similarities to characters who lived on Guernsey, and to some extent Edwards can be seen in both Ebenezer and Raymond. There are also similarities between Chaney and the character Neville Falla, although Edwards denied it.

Edward Chaney's Genius Friend is obviously a labour of love, an accumulation of many years of research, and that research is excellently done with generous explanatory footnotes, appendices, bibliography, and comprehensive index, etc. Inevitably, there are a few essentially minor things I don't like:

––– The most important of those is the falseness of the front cover. There are obviously very few decent photos of G. B. Edwards, and the one chosen for the front cover is no doubt the best choice, although at some level of consciousness I realised that there is something odd about it: that it is slightly blurred can't be helped, but Edwards's left jacket sleeve seems to hang about him as if there's no arm in it, as if it doesn't actually belong to him, and in fact it doesn't belong to him. On page 60 there reappears exactly the same shot of Edwards, although his left arm is on the shoulder of Kathleen: there's been some photoshopping going on here, and Kathleen has been airbrushed from the cover.

––– Without Edward Chaney The Book of Ebenezer Le Page would most probably never have been published so at a pinch I suppose we can forgive him the rather self-indulgent photo of him with his young daughter in his arms and 'Aunt Jo's Upway home' in the distant background, although I can't find any excuse for the surely irrelevant photo of his wedding on the steps of the Mairie in the 5earrondissement. OK, it's interesting that the late George Whitman of the second generation Shakespeare and Company bookshop is in the photo, even that the couple stayed in the writers' room of the bookshop, but all the same, doesn't this belong in the family album only?

––– A few sentences struck me as a little odd, but none more so than a comment in a footnote on Katherine Mansfield's sexual dalliance with the French novelist Francis Carco: 'Photographs of him go some way to explaining Murry's confidence that Mansfield would come back to him.' Really? Do external appearances govern us to such an extent? If they did we'd be pretty superficial people, wouldn't we? No, this is just a gratuitous, bizarrely bitchy sentence.

I know, I've been perhaps over-critical in the last three paragraphs: this really is a wonderful book and deserves to be read by a great number of people. There, I feel better.

My other post on G. B. Edwards:

G. B. Edwards: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

4 April 2016

Élisabeth Barillé: L'Oreille d'or (2016)

Novelist and biographer Élisabeth Barillé has been deaf in her left ear since she caught an infection at the age of six. This is in many ways an invisible handicap in that its existence can't immediately be detected, and indeed it is possible to camouflage it by many inventions, strategies, and other tactics in such a way as to make her seem an ordinarily hearing person. She managed to survive school, for instance, by sitting in front of the teachers.

And yet evasion of detection isn't as easy as that, and Barillé (born in 1960) throughout her life so far has had to revert to such body movements, such techniques involving thrusting her 'good', that is her right, ear into a prominent position that allows her to catch what is being said that she comes out of this story almost heroically.

In spite of this apparent handicap, though, Barillé has made positive use of her deaf ear, even to the point of coming out of the experience enhanced: by avoiding the frivolity of social life, even if it means using what many would term anti-social behaviour, she has not so much withdrawn from life as discovered the joys of introspection, learned to think more deeply on psychological concerns that she wouldn't have realised existed if she had had normal powers of hearing.

In fact, there are many other benefits that Barillé finds: by turning her right ear to her pillow, a world of silence greets her, which is an added advantage if she happens to be sleeping next to a partner who snores; at the age of twelve, when her father crashed the car carrying the family, Élisabeth was sound asleep with her right ear to her mother's belly and really believes that she escaped death because she was oblivious to the accident until after it happened; and of course she can just shut off very easily, join another reality.

A number of figures, well known or not so well known and who had (or still have) different levels of hearing problems, are brought up here: Gabriel Fauré, François Truffaut, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, 'O', even Frank Sinatra (who appears to have played the hearing card just to escape the draft), etc.

At only 126 pages this is a brief book, but it's filled with delicious gems of thought, fascinating insights into the way a different world can be viewed. One of my favourite sentences: 'L'amour est une infidélité envers soi-même' ('Love is being unfaithful to yourself.') Egoistic this sentence certainly sounds, but then 'L'Oreille d'or' ('the golden ear') or the pun on it 'L'Oreille dort' ('the ear is sleeping') quite naturally turns a person's thoughts in on herself.

2 April 2016

Paul Salveson: With Walt Whitman in Bolton: Spirituality, Sex and Socialism in a Northern Mill Town (2008)

With Walt Whitman in Bolton? Yes, that's the Walt Whitman, and the Bolton is in Lancashire, UK. The title is an allusion to Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (New Jersey), and is a booklet that reveals a little-known (well, to me at least) aspect of the poet's life, and it also reveals the effect that Walt Whitman (1819–92) had on the United Kingdom, and English socialism in particular.

Paul Salveson has a PhD in Lancashire Dialect Literature, and this is clearly a summation of a great deal of study that the author has made into the relationship between the US poet and a group of people in Bolton (and indeed elsewhere in the country) who can collectively be called 'Bolton Whitmanites'.

'Eagle Street College' wasn't a college at all, although it was at number 14 Eagle Street in Bolton that J. W. Wallace lived for a time, and where a group of men met. There were a number of Bolton Whitmanites, although the core consisted of Wallace (the son of a millwright), cotton waste merchant Fred Wild, and Dr Jon Johnson, a Bolton G.P. The group began meeting in 1885, after the death of Wallace's mother. They began by reading several poets, although Whitman was soon singled out as the principal point of interest.

Wallace and Johnston first sent the ageing poet birthday greetings in 1887, and regular correspondence followed until very close to his death on 26 March. Both Wallace and Johnston visited Whitman, Johnston's first journey being in the summer of 1890. Salveson says that the Bolton Library archive (which  incidentally includes Whitman's stuffed canary) is one of the best outside the States.

'Whitman Day' – held on 31 May, the poet's birthday – continued to be celebrated in Bolton long after his death, and latterly it appears to have been run by the Bolton Socialist Club. However, I can't find any reference after 2014, and all links to the club seem broken: I hope it's not closed down.

A fascinating publication. Wisely, perhaps, Whitman denied his homosexuality, although there's a splendid undated photo that shows Edward Carpenter clasping Charles Sixsmith's thigh with an obvious mixture of pride and defiance!

1 April 2016

Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazar | Black Bazaar (2009)

Black Bazar (translated, unsurprisingly, into English as Black Bazaar) is about a black dandy from the Republic of the Congo who lives in a hovel in the 18th arrondissement, but who spends most of the money he earns on clothes, external things, and spends a deal of his time at the café Jip's in the 1st arrondissement, which may well remind readers of the bar in Mabanckou's earlier novel Verre Cassé. The café is frequented by a group of interesting characters such as Pierrot Le Blanc and Roger Le Franco-Ivoirien, and the narrator goes there to talk and drink Pelforth.

The narrator is only known by his nickname Fessologue, after the neologism fessologie, the study of (women's) 'faces B', or 'B sides'. The expression 'B sides' comes from the flipsides of vinyl discs which used to swing, like women's backsides, and Fessologue is an expert on those, always visually investigating them. He says 'The science of backsides has existed since the world began, when Adam and Eve turned their backs on the Lord.'

Fessologue called his former partner (by whom he has a child) Couleur d'origine: she has her origins in the Congo too, although she was born in France, but retains her 'colour of origin': colour is significant in the book, as well as buttocks, such as the narrator's implied criticism of blacks using whitening products. But Couleur d'origine walks out on him with their child, into the life of l'Hybide, a tam-tam player.

Books are important in this novel too, and many of them are mentioned, such as some by Louis-Philippe, who's from Haiti, who Fessologue meets at a book-signing session, and who is actually Louis-Philippe Dalembert, although his surname is never given here. Fessologue starts reading in earnest, and is now writing too, a book called 'Black Bazar'. He's bought a typewriter and writes everywhere he goes about his life, the things he does, the people he meets, the conversations he has, his Arab grocer opposite, Hippocrate the tenant from Martinique who thinks he's a concierge and is always watching him and complaining about cooking smells, etc.

And along comes Sarah, a Franco-Belgian girl with fine buttocks, who introduces Fessologue to Belgian culture, such as the Goncourt-winning Béatrix Beck's Léon Morin, prêtre (1952). She reads Fessologue's novel and says: 'I was waiting for you to finally finish your book to tell you that I'd like you to come and live with me.'

Highly readable.

My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:
Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass
Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine
Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy