24 February 2017

Violaine Bérot: Des mots jamais dits (2015)

Books, real books – by which I mean those not just written to make pots of money but out of a necessity to attempt to translate the writer's thoughts, evoke a vision of his or her reality – can be a source of deep revelation to the reader, an epiphanic moment. I can't remember how many such moments I've felt, and I'm not yet certain that reading Violaine Bérot's books is one of them, but it's beginning to feel that way. And there's something about the strangeness of Francophone literature that for instance contemporary English literature just can't come anywhere near to matching. Marie NDiaye, Laurent Mauvignier, Patrick Lapeyre, to name but three, have all sent me into raptures: all in their different ways are deeply concerned with (non-)communication, particularly of the non-verbal kind.

Des mots jamais dits: 'Words never spoken': yeah, that's it, we're in the realm of what it means when nothing is said. Or, how do you fill in the blanks between what's not even suggested by non-verbal means? Or, of course, how important things become if and when they're actually spoken. When we read, we are reminded (not at all necessarily intentionally by the author, who of course we've long since learned doesn't exist) of other books, or possibly words expressed in a different medium, such as song. The end of Violaine Bérot's Nue, sous la lune reminds me of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and by no means just because of Edna's suicide.

Des mots jamais dits reminds me of the expression 'Le désir incroyable de se vouloir construire' ('The incredible wish to construct yourself') written by the poet Jacques Brel in his song 'J'en appelle' (1957).) We are all constructed largely by words, although fascinatingly there are very few spoken words in the two novels of Violaine Bérot that I have read. And yet, in Des mots jamais dits the protagonist is deeply affected by words, such as Tom (the second of the narrator's lovers, and only the second of merely two named people in the novel) calling her 'la femme de ma vie' ('the woman of my life'); such as her father unsuccessfully bullying her into putting an end to his misery by euthanasia; and finally, by the cook telling her that he is there, and singing her the kind of song that she never heard in her cradle, so never sent her to sleep, and played a part in depriving her of her childhood.

In a book in which alienation plays a key role, the distancing effect of the very frequent use of 'on' ('one, 'we', 'they', 'people' (?)), etc, is remarkable.

Violaine Bérot is an extremely powerful writer. As I come to read the books that she's written in the past, has yet to write, and which I shall re-read, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I have a similar epiphanic moment.

Violaine Bérot: Nue, sous la lune (2017)

There's a little of Auguste Rodin's relationship with Camille Claudel in Violaine Bérot's Nue, sous la lune (lit. 'Naked, under the moon'), if only in that both were sculptors in a tumultuous relationship with one another, and that Claudel became psychologically disturbed.

But there are no names in the book, the events of which take place in a contemporary setting. We learn much of her relationship with her lover, who is violent, possessive, unpredictable, manipulative, dismissive of her work, uses women as playthings, and finds any pretext for an argument.

The effect the man has on her is devastating: she feels frightened, insecure to the point of hopelessness, and dreams of a lobotomy to purge herself of him. The reader knows that she has left him before, although this time there seems to be a sense of finality to the relationship as she puts her foot down on the accelerator and believes she could drive endlessly. In fact she stops in a small unknown place and goes to sleep on a bench, only to be taken in by a speechless, kindly, elderly woman. The reader feels that this is perhaps a new beginning, a therapy in which she is in urgent need.

Unfortunately this is not to be and like a magnet she seems drawn back towards her torturer. But the sense of finality is correct though, and her tormentor's indifference leads her to a place where he can no longer harm her, as she walks away naked, abandoning herself to the total oblivion of a lake.

 Nue, sous la lune is an extremely powerful read, narrated in the first person and addressed to her lover/torturer.

Michel Tremblay: Des nouvelles d'Édouard (1984)

Des nouvelles d'Édouard is the fourth volume of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal by the gay Québéquois writer Michel Tremblay, and for me it was a surprisingly fascinating, often hilarious, read. I say surprising because the initial pages about the ageing Édouard, a shoe saleman-cum-drag queen and the world of the drag queens weren't too interesting for me, until Édouard meets his death by a knife blade in a Montréal street. That's when both he and the book come alive.

Because we go back to 1947, when Édouard came into a little inheritance and went to Paris for the first and only time, when he wrote a diary about his journey and his findings, but intended it to be read after his death, a diary from the dead to be read by his sister-in-law the 'Grosse Femme'.

This is a tale of lies, masquerades, outsiders (whoever they are: aren't we all in some way outsiders?), and culture conflict. A common language links Québec and France, or maybe divides it: after all, French Canadian talk is different, often difficult to understand, laced with English therefore bastardised, but then so are all forms of speech, and who's to say which is better than another?

On the voyage across he meets Antoinette Beauregard – the name of course is an indication of the pedigree, or at least the pretension towards the pedigree – but in any case don't we all pretend to be someone we aren't, as for instance Édouard was pretending to be the Duchesse de Langeais when a drag queen? Why shouldn't Édouard lie and pretend to have read all of the books by (the incidentally gay and sort of mid-way between American and French) Julien Green, the author she's reading? Or pretending to read? And then along comes the Princess Clavet-Daudun, by which time Édouard's had just a gram of bullshit too many, and confesses – in broad French Canadian dialect, really laying it on thick – that he's really just a shoe seller and she may well not be a member of the aristocracy, etc. But she doesn't realise that he's speaking the truth, she just sees him as a brilliant actor. It's a bit like an Eliza Dolittle 'Luvaduck me beads!' moment, but Édouard really doesn't give a shit.

Until, that is, he has to have one in the (unmentioned by the same name) chiottes à la Turque in France, has no toilet paper and is forced to use his underpants. See what I mean about culture shock? That is before more dirt greets him in Paris, before he discovers the minuterie and has to scrabble in the dark, before he discovers there's a rez-de-chaussée before he reaches the first floor, and oh the smells, the lack of en suite accommodation, the crap food.

The Deux Magots café near the Café Flore isn't specifically mentioned, but that's where Édouard ends up late at night with a street map spread out before him, pretty pissed, very pissed off, but a certain Simone (who's with a certain Jean-Paul) is very obliging and tells him which métro to take home. But home is Montréal, not Paris, so after a ten-day journey and a mere thirty-six hours in Paris he's off home. And so a final lie is discovered posthumously: Édouard didn't spend all that time in Paris that he said he did.

A book to read before you die.

23 February 2017

Simone de Beauvoir: Une mort très douce (1964)

Une mort très douce is Simone de Beauvoir's account of the last few months of the life of her mother, who is in hospital after a fall in her bathroom, occasioning the breaking of her femur. I remember Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958), which I read many years ago and which I particularly remember for the strict nature in which Beauvoir was brought up, her reading habits being heavily vetted: later, on learning of Virginia Woolf having a completely free run of her father Leslie Stephen's library, I couldn't fail to think of the contrast.

But here is writing of a much later period in their lives, and although she occasionally dips into memories (such as of her father's infidelities) it is the present moment that holds precedence, and here her love for her mother and her concern for her welfare are of the utmost importance.

Terminal cancer is discovered and Beauvoir and her sister Poupette witness her dying moments. What also strikes here is Beauvoir's humanism, her anger with doctors who are forced needlessly, indeed inhumanely, to spin out a patient's misery when euthanasia would evidently have been a far better option for all concerned.

Very painful to read, but then it must have been very painful to write. However, if Sartre really did think this the best book Beauvoir had written, then I'm in absolute disagreement. Better, for instance, than Le Deuxième sexe – in it's original French form, of course, not Parshley's badly translated, heavily Anglicised, twenty-five per cent excised catastrophe? No.

20 February 2017

Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

The British government bought part of Bletchley Park in 1938.


Bletchley Park grew rapidly in size and importance
as the war progressed. What began with just a handful
of experts became a CODEBREAKING HUB on
an industrial scale, employing around 9,000 people
on site. TOTAL SECRECY remained essential.

Information supplied by Bletchley Park proved
crucial to Britain and its allies at several key points,
including the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of
Cape Matapan, Crete, North Africa, the Battle
of the Atlantic and D-Day. It is estimated that the

Codebreakers' work helped SHORTEN THE WAR
by at least two years, saving many lives on both sides.'

'THE TURING BOMBE REBUILD PROJECT'. Alan Turing (1912–1954) worked at Bletchley Park.

Turing was based in Hut 8, in which there is a reconstruction of his office.

'This statue was donated by
The Sidney E. Frank Foundation
and unveiled by
Abel Hadden
on 19th June 2007'

The slate statue of a man with a great brain but who was driven to suicide by the government's intolerance of his homosexuality. His official pardon didn't come until 2009.

15 February 2017

William Ernest Henley in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire

The impressive grave of the poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) in the tiny Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.



SEPT 4th 1888 FEB 11th 1894


Margaret Henley, known to J. M. Barrie, is said to be the inspiration behind Barrie's Wendy of Peter Pan fame. Curiously, a village just a few miles from Cockayne Hatley is called Wendy.

Henley is most remembered for his poem 'Invictus' (1888):

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul'.

1 February 2017

Thomas Inskip in Campton, Bedfordshire

Thomas Inskip (1780–1849) was a watch- and clockmaker born in Kimbolten, Northamptonshire and who died in Brighton. He was a friend of Robert Bloomfield (next to whom he is buried in the chuchyard in Campton) and John Clare, and carried out a correspondence with both rural working-class poets, some of which is available online.

Robert Bloomfield in Shefford, Bedfordshire

Bloomfield House, 17-19 Northbridge Street, Shefford, Bedfordshire.


My other post on Robert Bloomfield: