29 January 2018

Philippe Delerm: Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby (2009)

There's a French expression 'marcher à  côté de ses pompes' that could be translated as 'being in another world', or 'being completely out of it', etc, which would be an adequate description, but by no means entirely accurate: literally, it means 'walking at the side of your shoes', which puts a whole new glow on it. There is quite simply no way that I can think of in English to convey this mind/body, internal/external split in a short expression. To a certain extent, this is what Philippe Delerm's Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby is about.

Arnold Spitzweg is a very likeable character, a kind of everyman, but a loser who is not only happy to be a loser but relishes it: he's not interested in the finer things in life, he's interested in the little things that most people don't even think of, he can spend hours looking at wallpaper hanging loose from a wall, watch a crack in a wall, get his kicks out of not getting kicks. He refuses not exactly in the way that Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener refuses to accept, but just refuses to be normal, to accept conventions. His 'I'd prefer not to' is quiet, as he knows he'd get the sack from his mediocre job if he actually voiced it. Instead, he simply refuses to play the usual social games, the bits of nonsense that make up other people's existences.

If we take those shoes as life itself, he walks at the side of life without completely engaging in it. He moved from Kintzheim, Bas-Rhin, on the death of his parents: he was known by people in the small town, although he trades this recognition for the anonymity of Paris. Arnold might appear to have something of the autistic in him, maybe Asperger's syndrome, a real communication problem, but he recognises that he can't really communicate with most people, that he mainly communicates with himself, but don't we all? Isn't his way of being unconventional merely the way he copes with modern life?

Certainly his communication is virtual, but again, isn't that a manifestation of modern life today? When he lived with a woman, he disliked the way she came home and automatically switched on music, the way she'd spend hours texting her cousins in the suburbs, people she'd never actually visit, never know.

And then the anti-modern Arnold discovers blogging, a way he can say what he wants, create www.antiaction.com, which unfortunately takes off too well, people start making comments to him, many of them women, but he doesn't reply, just pretends he's talking to himself. But he's asked on a radio show, even though his face is unknown he's recognised by some, so he has to self-censor in order to conceal the identities of people he writes about: in a word he's no longer himself, society is taking over. He refuses a book contract: he isn't made to live outside himself.

My other posts on Philippe Delerm:
Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville
Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière

28 January 2018

Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert (1984)

Une ambition dans le désert is a gem from Albert Cossery, and I can only describe it as an anarchist rant thinly hidden within a kind of detective story. Not that the 'how' and the 'why' are too important here though, as the back cover tells us the basic plot before the reader begins the book: sheikh Ben Kadem is prime minister of a fictitious, poor, oil-free gulf state and wants to change things round, to make people on the international scene look to him as an important leader instead of those in the rich states. So he invents a ghost opposition by having bombs go off at unimportant targets in the hope that his people will rise up against the imaginary terrorists and make him a world hero. But, as we learn on the back cover, his son Mohi is killed in a bomb explosion.

Knowing all this already, and a whole lot more, the interest of the book focuses on the description and the activities of the characters, which is Cossery's forte here: he's far more interested in psychology and colour than plot. We know that Shaat is performing the intentionally impotent bomb attacks for Ben Kadem, and that the central character is Samantar, the 'marginal aristocrat [...] who embodies scepticism, intelligence, wisdom and phlegm, dear to all Cossery's heroes'.

Samantar has inherited a little land he's never seen (he hates cars as they're part of the modern world he loathes) and rents it out to a man who pays him regularly and also includes a chunk of cannabis in a cigarette packet when he does so: it would in any case be against Samantar's interests to enquire further into what his tenant farmer is actually growing on his land. Samantar's land interests mean he doesn't have to work, and can live a relatively poor but calm existence enjoying reading, young women, smoking, and lazing: who wants anything more.

But Samantar is even put off love-making by this wave of apparently meaningless bombs attacks on nothing, which have injured no one. He wants to know what's behind it, why the peace of Dofa (the capital, where the whole story takes place) is being disturbed. So he goes to see Hicham, whose twelve-year-old daughter has learnt to skin up a mean spiff while the men try to figure things out.

They visit one of the seedy bars where shady characters hang out and Samantar is surprised to see that Shaat has been let out of jail so soon after being handed a stiff sentence for gold smuggling. Shaat was the son of the family servant and Samantar grew up with, they became close friends and Shaat has always had similar ideas to Samantar's, which is why it's very odd that he's dressed like a spiv and arrives in a vintage car. Could Shaat be behind the jobs at all? It doesn't seem to be in his nature, although the yarn that Shaat spins him about his early release and having a new job selling household electrical goods in the villages in the north rings false: what use would any villager have for an electrical product when they have no electricity?

Gradually the truth unwinds through Ben Kadem (who is his richer cousin who likes to chew the intellectual fat with a kindred intellectual (if not spiritual) mind, but more through the town idiot Tareq, who just stands near Higazi (Shaat's apparent partner in crime) as he sits in the bar for low-life, looking towards Shaat as if pointing to a very important lead: is he an idiot savant, I couldn't help wondering?

Now, Ben Kadem has an unknown son by a poor girl with whom he had a relationship, but Mohi has always denied his father, always hated him. And things come to a head (really an end) when Mohi is found dead is the street, killed by a prematurely exploded bomb while he was on the way to kill his father and himself with him.

Samantar learns the truth from Shaat, also from Tareq (who's been setting up his own mini-bomb factory) and is also a (hidden) member of Dofa's intelligentsia, merely posing as an idiot: you can learn everything that's going on when no one cares about your presence because they think you're an idiot.

And Samantar also hears Ben Kadem's version of the truth, although he doesn't understand why he is so sad, why he will no longer be sending Shaat to make more bombs: no one will ever learn the truth of who Mohi really was.

My other Cossery posts:
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy

Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie

25 January 2018

René Benjamin: Gaspard (1915; repr. 1998 with Preface by Pauline Bochant)

René Benjamin's Gaspard was the first World War I novel and won the Prix Goncourt in 1915. Other books about the war that followed are Barbusse's Le Feu, Genevoix's Ceux de 14, and Dorgelès's Les Croix de bois. Benjamin wrote the book from the notes that he made: he was a very early casualty of the war, seriously injuring his arm in it.

The novels that followed are darker than this, much of Gaspard being amusing, playful, and full of the main character Gaspard's slang. World War I, like any war, was no joke, although his antics here, his jokes, songs, bragging, casual stealing and almost constant cheerfulness could to some extent be seen as a coping mechanism. But offsetting that idea is the fact that he seems to be this way most of the time.

So the novel follows Gaspard, a Parisian snail-seller, through the journey to Lorraine in north-east France, seeing the devastation of battle and being wounded in the backside, going to hospital and seeing three wonderful nurses there,* and then back in action only to return to civvy street with an amputated leg. Throughout there are another coping mechanisms: a lust for food, large quantities of wine and beer, and women.

But working-class Gaspard has his serious side, and he befriends Burette (a journalist) and Monsieur Mousse (an academic) in his two separate visits to the front, in which both of them die and he visits Burette's widow, and respects Mousse's wishes by handing over a letter to M. Farinet, Professor of Arts. Farinet's attitude to Gaspard is similar to Gaspard's reception at a rather plush hotel he went to for a meal on joining the outside world after his first stay in hospital – very condescending to the point of rudeness, and it's obvious that Benjamin is exercising a strong criticism of class prejudice in this novel.

This is a novel which is occasionally re-published, thus reviving the almost forgotten René Benjamin. Apart from during the war scenes and the sad scenes in the hospital, I was frequently struck by the original cartoon-like energy in the novel. Quite exceptional.

*While in the military hospital in Angers, Benjamin met Élizabeth Lecoy, a volunteer nurse whose parents owned property in Saché, and who also loved Balzac like he did. He made a marriage proposal, and she accepted.

21 January 2018

Marie Darrieussecq: Truismes | Pig Tales (1996)

The title Truismes has a double meaning: on the one hand truisms, on the other, er, 'sowisms', or what comes from female pigs. This book was a huge popular and critical success, and launched the literary career of the twenty-seven-year-old academic. The English title Pig Tales obviously doesn't quite translate the original title, but at least it makes a pun and suggests female concern in the homophonic 'pigtails'.

Truismes is about a woman who turns into a pig. There's evidently more to it than that, although that sums up the basic story. It's a kind of fairy story sometimes of the horror type, but it's very amusing at the same time. A story then of metamorphosis, although (contrary to what some critics suggested) Darrieussecq didn't have Ovid or Kafka in mind, nothing of the metamorphoses that we could mention throughout literary history.

Everyone has interpreted the narrative as they find fit, and social satire has been found by those who looked, although Darrieussecq intended it more as the story of a woman's body. A Basque magazine (from the region where Darrieussecq originates) just to mention Basque porcine culture in a review.

The protagonist graphically describes an F1 AccorHotel (although not mentioned as such) somewhere close to the périphérique near Issy-les-Moulineaux, and there may well have been or is still one there. She also speaks in polite familiar language, with frequent use of such expressions as 'pour ainsi dire' and 'comme qui dirait', both synonymous here with 'like' rather than the more artificial 'so to speak' or 'as it were'. Now, I'm familiar with Issy-les-Moulineaux, but when the narrator began to speak of coming from a crumby HLM in Garenne-le-Mouillé (suggesting something like a wet rabbit warren), I wasn't at all surprised to find that the only references to such a place on Google (just five) are to Truismes.

Truismes, as I've said, is a kind of fairy story, but of course the main fairy story is Marie Darrieussecq's sudden phenomenal success that this story brought her. This is one of those books that you can read several times and still get pleasure from.

My other Marie Darrieussecq posts:
Marie Darrieussecq: Tom est mort | Tom Is Dead
Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes | My Phantom Husband

18 January 2018

Marie Nimier: La Girafe | The Giraffe (1987) trans. Mary Feeney

This book I remember buying for a few cents at The Strand bookstore in New York some years ago, before I developed my acute allergy to books in translation, especially translations from the French, which I can read as well as I can English. But as it was sitting there on one of my bookcases and I'd not seen a copy of Marie Nimier's book in the original, I thought I'd give it a go. I shall no doubt end up reading the original anyway, as this is very intriguing, weird (well, it's French), and absorbing.

It is entirely by chance that, in the wake of Catherine Deneuve's objectionable denunciation of #balancetonporc (and by extension #metoo), I began the book on the same day that Catherine Millet (author of La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001)) was making even more objectionable comments, much to the disgust of feminists. Millet was actually saying that she felt sympathy for the métro frotteurs, men who get off on rubbing against women of public transport; she was saying how unfortunate it is that these men's sexual satisfaction is reduced to such pathetic measures. This ignores the indisputable fact that many of these men are probably in permanent relationships anyway, and that their behaviour is akin to that of a schoolboy taking risks by seeing how much he can get away with, or famous or highly esteemed personalities in some position of power taking great risks for the same reason. Frotteurs are not worthy of any sympathy, they are not guilty of harassment: sexual assault is the name of the game, and it is a serious offence. Shame on Millet.

Joseph, the protagonist (and anti-hero) of La Girafe often dares to masturbate in a quiet public place, thrilled by the possibility of being caught, and although he's no frotteur he at one time used an umbrella as an extension of his body to surreptitiously touch women's legs on public transport.

But this book isn't exactly about weird sex: there's not really any sex in it, unless you count a male giraffe mounting a female giraffe, and the zoo director secretly visiting the cashier for a quick one. It's more of an unusual love story of a young man (Joseph) and his obsession for the giraffe (Hedwige in the French version, Solange in the English) that he's in care of at the zoo where he works in Paris. Of African ancestry, Joseph is already an outsider, but he's also seriously sexually and psychologically disturbed.

Joseph really loses control at times of what are for him sexual trauma: he poisons the ostrich after it receives Hedwige's attentions, and even Hedwige herself must die after she loses her virginity to the zoo's lothario. No one suspects Joseph of anything. Finally, when Colin B. (a man) begins sexually assaulting Joseph, Joseph strangles him: well, self defence, yeah?

Often, the book is suffused with oneiric, fantasy writing, the real merging with the imaginary. A very strange second novel from Marie Nimier.

My Marie Nimier posts:
Marie Nimier: La Reine du silence
Marie Nimier: La Girafe | The Giraffe

11 January 2018

Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (2017)

This is an almost unbelievable story, although true. Christopher Smart, aged twenty, decided one day in 1986 to live in the woods in the North Pond area of Maine. And he stayed there for twenty-seven years until his discovery in 2013. His family were quite reclusive and never registered his disappearance to the police. He lived by burgling the summer residences nearby for food and other essentials. He made about 1000 such raids, before he was discovered. He didn't look like anyone might expect a hermit to look: he bathed with a sponge in cold water, buried his food packings, shaved and cut his hair. In winter he had great problems coping with sub-zero temperatures.

Slowly, Michael Finkel managed to communicate with him, first writing, then meeting him in prison and collecting information on Smart's startling activities. However, he spends pages talking about autism, Asperger's syndrome, schizoid behaviour, and people's ability to survive such situations without human contact.

But Smart also stole books and read a great deal: reading, after all, is communication, as Smart himself observed but Finkel doesn't pick up on the fact that an author is actually talking to a reader.  Smart's comment that Henry David Thoreau was a dilettante is quite perceptive, and although he may not be a literary expert – his comment on Joyce's Ulysses being highly overrated by pseudo-intellectuals is more than a little gauche – it is obvious that he has a keen intelligence.

That's the problem with this book, which at two hundred pages is read in a couple of hours with no struggle at all, there are no great insights: very simple words and apparently designed for young adults, or people who just don't read very much. When Finkel starts talking about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I was dumbfound. Christopher Smart is indeed an intelligent person, and he deserves far better than Michael Finkel to write about him.

6 January 2018

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts (1988)

No work by Bernard-Marie Koltès is a comfortable read. Here we have a sixty-three page play, or short 'story' (a questionable term in this case) which is in effect a monologue by an unnamed narrator to an unnamed and unknown person. There is just one sentence, punctuated by commas, dashes, and occasionally parentheses.

A man, possibly drunk or sobering up, possibly maddened by loneliness or fear or any other emotion, waylays another person (called by the familiar 'tu') and tries to prevent him passing by his breathless talking. The reader can have few ideas of the man's age, even of his background, although he speaks in slang, and often speaks of events in the past, recent or distant.

We can perhaps surmise that the place is Paris as the man speaks of the métro and of many bridges. He is out of work, has very little money now because he has just been robbed on the métro, helpless to shout for help because (this piece was written in 1977) his attackers have called him a 'queer'.

But he tells his listener that he's not 'a queer', that's not his reason for stopping him, he wants to sober up, or spend some time talking. And he talks of prostitutes, of women he's known (and a particular one he's had sex with on a bridge), of wanting to buy the other person a coffee: anything to shrug off the fear, the despair, the agony of being for a short time. Comforting read, no, but quite fascinating, outsider writing par excellence.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

5 January 2018

Jocelyne François: Joue-nous « España » (1980)

Another vintage gem from Jocelyne François, found in one of my favourite Paris bookshops for all of one euro. The back cover says Joue-nous « España » (lit. 'Play Us 'Spain'') is an autobiographical account of a woman from Lorraine, concerning her childhood and adolescence. Yes, this has some very vivid descriptions of the area of Nancy where François was born, including her visits to both of her grandparents in nearby Rosière-aux-Salines and Combasle-sur-Meurthe. The reader is treated to a lyrical description of the flowers*, orchards, and vines of the region, including some expressions of the area, such as mettre à parer, meaning to spread grapes on a rack until they ripen. And then World War II spreads its poison over France.

The real interest is when after the war the narrator is sent to a religious school in Mattaincourt, where she physically and mentally develops for seven years. The narrator expresses her love for Marie-Claire, or Sarah as she also calls her, a love which is extremely strong and physically expressed; when she tells a religious man she believes is sympathetic, he tells her to forget such matters: for him, there is no such thing as homosexual love, which is against nature.

The narrator's mother is of a similar opinion as the religious man, only she believes that the narrator would have been better as a sexually promiscuous woman, even as a prostitute. The title takes on a symbolic significance, and in the final paragraph the narrator rejects both her father and her mother: they used to enjoy her playing 'España' on the piano, although she didn't, but when she says 'Non, mon père, non, ma mère, je ne jouerai jamais España' on the piano they gave her, she means that she will never play the game, never play the heterosexual farce (again). She did play the game initially by marrying and had three children, and her lover 'Sarah' (in reality Marie-Claire Pichaud) had an affair with a married man. But truth (as opposed to pretense, or hypocrisy) won in the end, and the couple lived together in Provence (Saumane-de-Vaucluse) for twenty-five years before moving to Paris due to poor health.

*One flower mentioned several times is the nielle, or corn cockle, which is virtually extinct in England.

My other Jocelyne François post:
Jocelyne François: Les Bonheurs

4 January 2018

Celia Robertson: Who Was Sophie?: My Grandmother, Poet and Stranger (2008)

This is really the story of two lives in one person: first Joan Adeney Easdale, who was a promising poet in her youth; and the second Sophie (or Sophia) Curly, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent many of her years in Nottingham, UK, where she died. The book is written by Celia Robertson, Joan's granddaughter, who tries to work out the secret of what happened to her.

I read somewhere that a doctor (probably a psychiatrist) was pleased that this book is not yet another criticism of psychiatry, and yet to me it reads as just that, it's hugely Laingian. Joan moved from southern England to Australia with her husband and family, and was told by a psychiatrist to forget writing, be a good wife and get on with the housework (OK I'm exaggerating, but to prove an important point), and take up painting as a hobby.

We will never know how much the ill health of Joan's father had an effect on her, how many of her later problems were due to genetic factors, how many to psychological ones. But there are many of Joan's writings here, and it is evident that her writing was a kind of therapy, and that forgetting it would probably do as much harm as the barbaric electro-convulsive therapy she was subjected to in England for seven years from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s. (And I know what I'm saying: I once worked as a psychiatric nurse for many months, helping to administer ECT in its 'modified' form (using muscle relaxant drugs): it's not the kind of experience you forget quickly.)

And so Joan moved back to England, being financially taken advantage of by an unintelligent man called Curly, lived for a few years with him before leaving him for Nottingham and a new life as Sophie Curly.* Here she lived off national assistance, in a council house (later flat), becoming 'almost' a prostitute, getting outrageously drunk frequently in the local pubs, where she descended further into (often controlled) madness, and where no one knew of her past budding career as a poet.

Joan Easdale lived from 1913 to 1998, and three books of her poetry were published by Hogarth Press. The cover shows her as a young woman at Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Monks House, Rodmell. Her publications are A Collection of Poems (1931), Clemence and Clare (1932), and Amber Innocent (1939), the last of which is published in full at the end of the biography.

My other post on Joan Adeney Easdale / Sophie Curly is here.

*Although Celia Robertson calls her grandmother 'Sophie Curly' throughout her book, and although 'Sophie' and 'Sophia Curly' are inscribed on her grave, there are a few incorrect references online to 'Sophie Curley'.

3 January 2018

Tahar Djaout: Les Chercheurs d'os (1984)

Tahar Djaout (1954–93) died at the age of thirty-nine, one of the first victims of Algeria's 'Decade of Terrorism'. Les Chercheurs d'or is the second of his seven novels, and often features as a set book in schools as well as universities. Its subject is in so many respects the Algerian war of independence, but which is nevertheless notable by its absence in the novel: we only have before and after.

Les Chercheurs d'or is divided into three parts: firstly, the leaving of the East Atlas mountains by the adolescent narrator with his relative Rabah Ouali to bring back the bones of his brother killed in the war; secondly, there's a long flashback to the boy's memories of his brother; and finally, there is the journey back to the village with the brother's remains.

The experience transforms the unnamed boy. Are these actually his brother's bones, why has he made this mission ostensibly for his brother who hated the village, and aren't the members of the village merely trying to bury their own ghosts?

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest (1985)

Although the place is unnamed, Bernard-Marie Koltès bases the setting and the architecture on a large disused shed (destroyed in the early 1980s because of the crime associated with it) which he spent some time in in New York in 1982, a place of tramps, gays, criminals, social rejects. Here we have Maurice Koch, 60, who arrives in the shed in his car with Monique, 42. There's also a family: the husband Rodolfe, 58, his wife Cécile, 60, and their children Charles, 28, and Claire, 14. Also present are Fak, 22. And Abad who can speak but never does.

It's impossible not to see Beckett as an influence here, although the play (Koltès's first published) also mentions quotes from the Bible, Victor Hugo, Jack London and Burning Spear (Winston Rodney): an eclectic mixture to match the characters.

Sometimes Koltès's work seems like a kind of dance around dealing of some sort, exchanges of possessions, with menace, or at least uncertainty, ever present. Koltès says he's not interested in reasons, not the 'Why?' but the 'How?'. Also of interest is the meeting of two people, who might have come from two different periods of his life: in his childhood Koch, the bourgeois, military, provincial, French; as opposed to Abad in his youth, who is none of these.

Koch, who has lost his money but doesn't know why, wants to kill himself but we don't know why and of course it doesn't matter. He at first throws himself in the (Hudson) River by the shed, only to be fished out by Charles. At the end he dies offstage, and it's not clear if he dies by his own hand or as a result of Abad killing him.

Cécile also dies, after speaking in Spanish and Quechuan, which are only translated into French in the Annex to the book. Also of interest is Fak teasingly trying to entice Claire into the shed using language which is obviously sexual, although there is no specific mention of anything of a sexual nature: again, it's a kind of dance around the unspoken, which Koltès excels at. But 'meaning', symbolism? Don't even think about it: that's a world Koltès doesn't inhabit.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields