29 October 2018

Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit | Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

I read Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit many years ago, so don't remember too much of it, although as the novel is known by so many people and can hardly in any way be described as 'obscure', I shall limit my comment here. I have, also, and probably on more than one occasion, written about the odd fact that Guy Mazeline, rather than Céline, scooped the 1932 Goncourt with Les Loups.

Suffice to say that essentially the book is in four parts: the protagonist's experience of war, Africa, America, and then his experiences (partly as a qualified doctor) back in France. Throughout the book, which is only loosely autobiographical, Ferninand Bardamu has brief flings with various women, and keeps meeting Léon Robinson (who appears to have some kind of relationship to Bardamu's self), who is killed very near the end by Madelon, Robinson's jealous lover, who's shortly before suggested (anonymously) that Robinson and Bardamu are in a gay relationship, and even says that they're in a threesome with Bardamu's current lover Sophie.

But all this has been written about many times before, and the essential is that Voyage au bout de la nuit is a fierce criticism of war, of the violent and racist colonial system, and of the extremes of capitalist society witnessed in New York and Detroit. More importantly, though, it's the way these criticisms are made, because the novel introduces popular speech not only into the quotations of its characters (very frequent slang and 'taboo' words, the negative 'ne' missed as in ordinary spoken French, ellision as in 'T'as raison', etc), but this kind of language is also used by the narrator himself. Céline's writings had a great influence on a great number of people, and he is considered by many critics to be, along with Proust, one of the two greatest writers in French in the last century.

There. And I didn't even mention anything about pamphlets.

25 October 2018

Maurice Leblanc: Les Trois Yeux (1920)

This is not one of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin detective stories: it's a mixture of a science fiction novel set in the near future, a thriller, a crime story and a love story. It's full of surprises, shocks and murders, and largely concerns a scientific invention.

This invention is by Noël Dorgeroux, who has discovered how to project moving images on a screen, without a projector, apparently of the (sometime very distant) past or near present: the value of this invention is obviously enormous, which explains the desire of everyone to know the code for it.

Unfortunately, for me the interest in the book was heavily marred by the very long, digressive scientific explanations of Benjamin Prévotelle: probably very clever stuff, but I found them boring. Think I'll stick to Arsène Lupin.

My Maurice Leblanc posts:
Maurice Leblanc in Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime
Maurice Leblanc L'Aiguille creuse | The Hollow Needle
Maurice Leblanc: Arsène Lupin: gentleman cambrioleur
Maurice Leblanc: Les Trois Yeux

23 October 2018

Jean Giono: Notes sur l'affaire Dominici (1955)

In the early morning of 5 August 1952 three people were murdered near the village of Lurs in Provence: the eminent scientist Jack Drummond, his wife Ann, and their daughter Elizabeth, aged ten. Jean Giono was asked by the weekly paper Arts to cover the trial, and presumably Giono (never possessing a car) went by train from his home in Manosque to Digne in order to do so. These are notes on his findings.

Much of this concerns the Dominici family, near whose home the Drummond family – on holiday from Long Eaton in Derbyshire, near where Jack worked for Boots – had stopped to perhaps camp for the night, but who were certainly in need of water for the Hillman's radiator, tortured by the the heat in Provence.

The trial was a little crazy, but the 72-year-old Gaston Dominici – who had admitted to the murders several times but then retracted his statements – seems to be a cooked goose still in the farmyard: Giono (surely slightly exaggerating?) states that he's worked out that Gaston (who must have left school between the age of nine and eleven) has a total vocabulary of 35 French words, and even though he's intelligent, this is no match against the many thousands of words lawyers and judges make use of, especially if they choose to use them to get a trial over quickly.

Giono says he wouldn't like to be in the shoes of one of the jurors, but Gaston is sentenced to death, in spite of the unbelievable bungling of the cops, and in spite of no motive for the murders being put forward, although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and de Gaulle freed Dominici on health grounds in 1960 (five years afters Giono published these notes). Giono is uncertain of Dominici's guilt, but certain that the trial was by no means fair.

But Dominici was never pardoned, which later generations of the family have tried to achieve. A German prisoner Wilhelm Bartkowski had confessed that he was partly responsible for the murders (the motive no doubt being robbery) although this doesn't appear to have been followed up by anyone. Such is the course of justice.

My Jean Giono posts:
Sylvie Giono: Jean Giono à Manosque
Jean Giono: L' Homme qui plantait des arbres
Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit
Jean Giono: Colline | Hill of Destiny
Jean Giono: Un de Baumugnes | Lovers Are Never Losers
Jean Giono in Manosque
Jean Giono: Notes sur l'affaire Dominici
Jean Giono's grave, Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

Pierre Citron: Jean Giono 1895–1970
Jean Giono: Regain | Second Harvest
Jean Giono: Que ma joie demeure
Jean Giono: Pour saluer Melville
Jean Giono et al, Le Contadour

22 October 2018

Philippe Grimbert: Un secret (2004)

The narrator of the partly autobiographical novel Un secret was originally called Grinberg, which obviously reveals the Jewish name. He grows up a weakling at the side of his athletic parents, and as he's without a brother he obsessively invents one. His parents Maxime and Tania run a clothes shop in Paris, with Louise (also a Jew) running a shop above them.

One day Louise tells the narrator the story his parents haven't told him, what has been kept a secret from him. His mother Tania was once the sister-in-law of Maxime, who was married to Robert, and Maxime was married to Hannah and they had an athletic son called Simon: yes, the narrator had a half-brother, no need now to invent a brother.

The Nazis killed Robert, Hannah and Simon, and in time (and not without a huge amount of guilt) Maxime married the beautiful Tania: they have loved and lusted after each other for so long that, tacitly, everyone agreed it was bound to happen.

Jean Durieux: Frédéric Dard dit San-Antonio (1990)

This is, in effect, an autobiography / biography of Frédéric Dard/San-Antonio, who wrote perhaps 288  books, mostly as San-Antonio but also under many other pseudonyms. Jean Durieux tries his best to track down this great figure of French literature, interviewing him in Switzerland and Cannes, for instance, and at times it's initially difficult to figure out who's speaking, such is the resemblance between the slang of the two people. Anyway, in San-Antonio's books it's sometimes difficult to know whether San-Antonio or Frédéric Dard is speaking.

Most of this is culled from tape recordings of what Dard said to Durieux, and much of it is rambling slang. At times it's difficult to believe, as Durieux points out to him, and the bragging seems to be never-ending. But it's clear that we have a man from relatively humble beginnings, born in Bourgoin-Jussieu, who spent a part of his childhood in Saint-Chef (both in Isère), moving to Lyon where the writer Marcel Granger (born in Lons-le-Saunier) sets him on as a young writer for his paper Le Mois â Lyon.

It takes a few years before Dard's books take off, but Armand de Caro encourages his writing San-Antonio books, and he goes to Paris and has a family with Odette and sells many thousands of books and of course becomes rich. There's a great deal of name-dropping, and such people as Édith Piaf and Johnny Hallyday (spelt as Halliday) are just thrown out as a matter of course.

Then there's the failed suicide when Dard is torn between his wife and family with Odette and his new love Françoise de Caro, his publisher's wife. Eventually, he marries Françoise and they end up living in Switzerland with Fabrice (his wife's son by her first husband), Abdel (an African child they adopt), and their own child Joséphine.

And it's the kidnapping of Joséphine and its effects on Dard and his family that occupies more than 100 of the 346 pages in this book, which goes into the precise details of how it was accomplished, the extraordinary lengths the kidnapper went to, and details of his former thefts. 

Gradually, a picture emerges of Dard's life, although it's not necessarily in complete chronological order – the reader has to do a little work – but Jean Durieux has obviously made the most of a very difficult (human) subject.

(Of all the people mentioned here, one unnamed guy runs a kind of utopian restaurant in Courcheval, with a sock to put any contributions for the food consumed hanging on the door. Dard doesn't mention his name, nor the restaurant's name, but says he used to write. A little Googling proved him to be Jean Bouvet, head of 'La Soucoupe' restaurant, and author, among other books, of Billebaude dans les Alpes.)

My Frédéric Dard posts:
Joséphine Dard: Frédéric Dard, mon père: San-Antonio
Jean Durieux: Frédéric Dard dit San-Antonio
San-Antonio: Certaines l'aiment chauve
San-Antonio: Messieurs les hommes
San-Antonio: Des dragées sans baptême

18 October 2018

Félicien Marceau: La Terrasse de Lucrezia (1993)

Casually looking for a job in Rome, the young Lucezia happens to find out that one of the most luxurious hotels in Rome want a laundry maid, so her luck is in. And while she's attending to the laundry in room 504, the most luxurious in the hotel and which has just been vacated, she notices that an electrician is fixing a socket. Their eyes meet, Lurezia bolts the door, and the bed sheets are waiting for them. Later, Lurezia slightly lies about this event and calls it her honeymoon night.

This sex romp is in fact not mentioned until Chapter VI of the book, which begins with the law Professor Lamberti rather innappropriately describing the wife of the former electrician as 'piquante' at a co-owners' meeting in a luxury block of flats on the outskirts of Rome. Lucrezia and Antonio are one of four couples who have applied to live in and attend to the daily activities in the block, and, heavily supported by the Professor who is of course smitten by Lucrezia, the couple are unanimously voted in.

And so Lucrezia begins to dominate the appartment block, in spite of her inappropriate behaviour, such as delivering the co-owners their mail and telling them the contents of the postcards' contents before they've looked at them. But she doesn't get criticised for this, and even when she thinks she's overstepped the mark by opening a telegramme for Mme Soardo she comes up trumps, and even receives a gift of a seventeenth century writing desk from Mme Soardo for her troubles.

Antonio and Lucrezia are discounted from a theft from one of the rooms by the Professor, who tells the police to investigate someone else, although Antonio has been frequenting a bar where some very rough criminal types go. But Antonio is killed shortly after when he speeds round a hairpin bend into a fire engine: the ever-smitten law Professor manages to find the pompiers guilty instead of Antonio, and Lucrezia receives a huge indemnity. She can't go wrong.

Lucrezia goes on to not only pocket her own and her husband's salaries for looking after the building, but she also easily wins over the Professor by telling him that she can run the flats better than the present manager, so she also snags that job (with a 10% increase) on top of what she's already earning.

Added to this, she has two children by Antonio – Alberto (who is to become Count Alberto and maybe a famous tennis player) and Isabella (due to marry Eric, the nephew of the king of Sweden). The reader might be tempted to call Lucrezia a scheming little bitch, which may be true, but she's also highly intelligent and extremely lucky. And Félicien Marceau does humorous novels very well.

My Félicien Marceau posts:
Félicien Marceau: La Terrasse de Lucrezia
Félicien Marceau: Creezy

17 October 2018

Christian Signol: Dans la paix des saisons (2016)

The year is 1997. Mathieu is only forty and has just had an operation for a tumour on his lung, and although it will take him some time to recover, the doctor rather dismissively tells him that he'll cure if he changes his lifestyle: no more two packets of cigarettes a day, and a life free from stress. His mother lives in Paris, having to move to a city to find work, and his wife Odile is a city woman. But some time before, when Mathieu was between three years of age and eleven, he lived with his grandparents Paul and Louise near Bayac in the Quercy: Signol was born in Quatre-Routes-du-Lot in the Quercy.

To recuperate, Mathieu decides to see the grandparents he's not seen in ten years, and receives a very warm welcome. Paul is in his late seventies but is still very mobile, still making horse shoes even though he sold his last one in the 1960s, and still fishing (technically illegally). Louise was a midwife, although now that everyone goes to hospital she's found a new interest in making different concoctions from herbs: in fact, the whole book is shot through with the names of herbs, fish, birds, cooking and different smells. Mathieu's lung still hurts, he has a few funny turns, but he's re-living his youth.

All three people have deep scars: Louise, before the birth of Mathieu, lost her child and sees his new incarnation in Mathieu; and Paul bitterly regrets returning to Germany towards the end of the war and killing teenage soldiers who had no knowledge of Nazism: when his hammer fiercely strikes the metal on the anvil, he's really striking himself.

Both Louise and Paul have a different kind of wisdom: Louise is more accepting, hopeful, she can 'tame the unknown', whereas Paul is full of refusal, anger and rebellion. But they're both rebelling against the steamroller of the economic imperative, they're self-sufficient, even re-start baking their own bread. Paul is building walls for the people who'll return, and though this is not the Côte d'Azur, he really believes they will return. Forced to go back to Paris for medical tests, Mathieu feels much bettter physically, and much better mentally now he's got back in tune with his past.

I found this book much better than Au cœur des foréts, the only other book of Signol's I've read, as I understand much better now what he's doing.

My Christian Signol posts:
Christian Signol: Dans la paix des saisons
Christian Signol: Au cœur des forêts

Hélène Lenoir: Son nom d'avant (2005)

Son nom d'avant is in three parts, the second part being by far the longest. The first part is an obsessive view of a street, concentrating on a girl of about twenty who boards a bus where a man is standing and who stares at her.

In Part II the same girl appears, now a 39-year-old woman with children, and who we learn after some time is Britt Casella, married to a man very comfortably off with his own business. But, as with (all?) main characters in Hélène Lenoir's books, she's mentally asphixiated, as is quite clear from her interior monologue. Justus is employing the prominent photographer Johann Samek to photograph his building. Samek, it soon becomes evident, is the man who was standing on the bus about twenty years ago, the man who stared at the young Britt. And he's preoccupied by the photo of the older Britt in Justus's office.

Part III begins with Britt receiving two photos addressed to her from Samek, photos relating to her twenty years before, just before she took the bus. But she doesn't understand, thinks he's made a mistake. Of course, she hasn't, and she phones Samek, and what he mainly wants to know is her 'name before', which brings us to the title. She was Britt Ardell, but what the present Britt Casella is she doesn't know, and she must flee from her marriage. The conclusion is far from conclusive.

My Hélène Lenoir posts:
Hélène Lenoir: Entracte
Hélène Lenoir: Son nom d'avant
Hélène Lenoir: Le Magot de Momm

16 October 2018

Hélène Lenoir: Entracte (2005)

In this collection of five short stories by Hélène Lenoir – which make far from easy reading – there's a short but oddly immensely revealing sentence towards the end of the final story: 'La vie, la vraie, grouille autour de ce qui est tu' ('Real life swarms around the unspoken.') I think my English translation of the sentence is reasonable, although there are several problems here, the first being that although 'unspoken' translates 'tu' (the past participle of the verb taire, meaning to be silent, tu here means more than that: it refers to the intense complications of that swarming real life, not just to the fact that nothing is said. Taire is not just about being silent, it is about witholding information that could disturb, be harmful, hugely disruptive. 'Unspoken' is also a participial adjective, and only very rarely used as a noun: 'the unspoken' (apart from as the name of a game) is rarely used in English, although the French noun 'non-dit' is common. A 'non-dit' usually belongs to that category of words which dangle, swarm around the unspoken, never really said. I'm convinced that there is no proper English translation of 'non-dit', not even as 'the unspoken', and yet this is very often what Hélène Lenoir's work is about.

In the final short story here, 'L'Infidèle (lit. 'The Unfaithful Man') we don't even know that the nameless man is in fact unfaithful to the woman, but she is obsessed with it, seems a little crazy over it,  but then many of Lenoir's characters are a little crazy. The man is actually going to Switzerland on a business trip, but moving away from the bed she mumbles 'Retourne voir tes putes' ('Go back to your tarts!'). And she's said it, she's given voice to a non-dit!  This is an utterance of seismic proportions, she waits for ages for the effect, an absurd cold blade because to her knowledge he's never used a prostitute, and anyway he makes no reaction. Maybe the sentence was never heard so remains in effect 'non-dit', and the woman's internal monologue debates that this is a good thing, he's not heard the earth-shattering sentence, but on the other hand maybe if he had heard then a cataclysmic row would have been, er, therapeutic, finalising?

There are a number of non-dits in this and the other stories, then: the title story 'L'Entracte', 'Les Étrangères', 'Les Escarpins Rouges', and 'Le Verger' being the others. But also present in most if not all of the stories are preoccupations of the main characters with questions of sex, identity, ideas of flight, but most of all the stifling power of other people, particularly the family (remember Le Magot de Momm). The word L'Entracte (meaning intermission or interval: the man and woman of the eponymous story meet during a classical concert) can be used for all the stories because they happen at a crisis point in a person's life, when the character has to make an important (perhaps vital) life decision. I can fully understand why people love Hélène Lenoir's books, but feel a bit sorry for those who like a quick read, those who are impatient with the (often multiple) internal monologues of her characters.

My Hélène Lenoir posts:
Hélène Lenoir: Entracte
Hélène Lenoir: Son nom d'avant
Hélène Lenoir: Le Magot de Momm

15 October 2018

Claudie Gallay: L'Office des vivants (2001)

L'Office des vivants is Claudie Gallay's first novel, and like the other two novels of hers I've read – Les Déferlantes and Les Années cerises – is set in a very isolated place with its main characters having communication problems. L'Office des vivants reads like an epic novel, although only has 235 pages of many very short sections: but a great deal happens in them. Also, partly perhaps because of those many sections, it has an episodic feel to it, almost as if many of those sections (although written in chronological order) are short stories about the same topic.

It is certainly an epic depiction of living in a rural slum, with all its workshyness, filth, poverty, vile smells, lack of modern gadgets*, theft, casual rape, violence in general, frequent lack of food, lack of communication, lack of articulacy, lack of interest, etc. This is a kind of social horror story which wouldn't appeal to anyone who prefers feelgood fare with happy endings.

In a town up a mountain there is a farm mis-run by the mother and father of young Marc and Simone, with the grandparents (grandfather and M'mé Coche (his second wife)) living nearby –in similar squalor. The father seems not to like work much, is tyrannical and violent, and has a voracious sexual appetite, which is apparent from his regularly raping the young milkmaid Mado while she's milking a cow. The reader can't fail to agree with her when she calls the family completely mad and announces that she's leaving. Only, when she leaves she also takes what little savings the family has, and nine months later leaves her and the father's baby (whom she's called Monue) at the entrance to the farm.

Monue becomes part of the family and proves to be a revelation to Marc – a great change from his smelly one-eyed sister Simone – who's nicknamed 'Pue-la-Pisse' at school. And the lovely Monue and dreamy Marc become great friends.

The family leave the heights for the lower village Le Bas, although for reasons of space they also have to leave Monue in the care of the grandparents. But things get worse: although the father has a (very low-paid) job, he can't do it without taking a bottle of wine with him, and his drink-fuelled violence at home not only leads to him hitting members of the family but to a savage attack on the cow. Then the grandfather dies and – much to Monue and Marc's delight – the half-siblings are reunited, with Marc sleeping in the van. Later, Monue joins him in the van and the two enjoy a chaste sleeping relationship until the break comes when the unthought-of happens and Monue starts menstruating. And Marc starts going mad because his great childhood friend is not longer a little girl. Then, the blood really hits the fan, but I'll leave this fascinating (and often disturbing) novel there.

*At first the novel seemed timeless, although the existence of the petrol-driven van and mention of washing-machines set it in a more modern context.

My Claudie Gallay posts:
Claudie Gallay: Les Déferlantes | Breakers
Claudie Gallay: Les Années cerises
Claudie Gallay: L'Office des vivants

13 October 2018

Cimetière du Montparnasse revisited #13: Yann Andréa

Oddly, in spite of going there each year, I'd not before taken a photo of the inscription on the grave of Marguerite Duras/Yann Andréa.

My Marguerite Duras posts:
Marguerite Duras: La Pute de la côte normande
Marguerite Duras: L'Homme assis dans le couloir
Marguerite Duras: Agatha
Marguerite Duras: Emily L.
Marguerite Duras: Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs
Marguerite Duras: L'Amant | The Lover
Marguerite Duras: Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein
Marguerite Duras: L'Amante anglaise
Laure Adler: Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Marguerite Duras: Un barrage contre le Pacifique
Marguerite Duras: L'Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas
Marguerite Duras: Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia
Marguerite Duras: Le Marin de Gibraltar | The Sailor from Gibraltar
Marguerite Duras: La Douleur | The War: A Memoir
Yann Andréa: Cet amour-là
Marguerite Duras and Xavière Gauthier: Les Parleuses
Marguerite Duras: Savannah Bay

Marguerite Duras: Détruire, dit-elle | Destroy, She Said
Marguerite Duras: L'Amour
Marguerite Duras: Dix heures et demie du soir en été
Marguerite Duras: Le Square | The Square
Marguerite Duras: Les Impudents
Marguerite Duras: Le Shaga
Marguerite Duras: Oui, peut-être
Marguerite Duras: Des journées entières dans les arbres
Marguerite Duras: Suzanna Andler
Marguerite Duras: Le Vice-Consul | The Vice Consul
Marguerite Duras: Moderato cantabile
Marguerite Duras: La Vie matérielle
Marguerite Duras: La Vie tranquille

Cimetière du Montparnasse revisited #12: Nardo Zalko

Nardo Zalko (1941–2011) was born in the San Cristobel area of Buenos Aires (an area noted for the tango dance) of Lithuanian parents. After living in a kibbutz and being a parachutist in the Israelian army, he moved to Paris and gained French nationality. He is noted for his work on the tango, particularly with the tango's relationship to Paris and Buenos Aires. He wrote two books on the tango: Un Siècle de tango : Paris-Buenos Aires (1998), and Le Tango, Passion du corps et de l'ésprit (2001).

Cimetière du Montparnasse revisited #11: Jules Hetzel

The publisher, writer and translator into English, Pierre-Jules Hetzel (1814–86), wrote as P.J. Stahl, which explains the second name on his tomb. He wrote an enormous number of books.

Jean de La Fontaine in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais (62)

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95).

2018 brought the twelfth 'edition' of the jardin éphémère, dedicated this year to the Fables of La Fontaine. Eight illustrations of his Fables are on display  in the old town in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, just in front of the mairie. 2018 marks the 350th anniversary of the first edition of the Fables (1668). The illustrations are also inspired by the engravings of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755). The Fables are in verse, often modelled on Aesop's Fables, and are often criticisms of the court of Louis XIV, with animals usually serving the allegorical function.

'Le corbeau et le renard'. Here, the fox sees the large chunk of cheese in the crow's bill, and tells the animal how fine he looks. Unable to resist squawking about the compliments, and crow of course drops the cheese and the fox snatches it. The moral is a lesson to the crow as well as the reader: don't listen to flatterers or you'll regret it.

'La Grenouille qui veut se faire aussi grosse que le bœuf'. So the frog is envious of the ox and tries to puff itself up to be as big, but in the process explodes. The moral: don't try to do things that aren't in your nature, be content with your limitations.

'Le rat et le lion'. A rat escapes from the ground and the lion spares him. Then the lion is caught in a trap and struggles madly and roars in its attempts to escape. The rat slowly gnaws into the rope to free the lion. The moral: well, there are two here: be as obliging as you can to everyone; and don't go at everything like a bull at a gate, just be patient.

'Le pot de terre et le pot de fer'. The iron pot asks the earthenware pot to go out walking with him, but the earthenware pot is frightened because he might smash. The iron pot eventually persuades him that he'll protect him, so they go out and the earthware pot gets smashed to bits. The moral: keep to the company of your equals or you'll suffer the same fate as the weaker pot.

'Le rat de ville et le rat des champs'. The town rat invites the country rat to a meal in town, where ortolans (a kind of bunting once considered a delicacy in France) are on the menu with all the trimmings of a royal feast. But they're interrupted and have to hide for a while. They return when the coast's clear, but the country rat has had enough and invites the town rat to his place the next day where (the moral) things are very quiet, no interruptions, and no fears as in as in an urban environment, and you can be yourself without all the fancy stuff.

'Le renard et les raisins'. This looks a little like 'Le corbeau et le renard', and it is and it isn't. The fox is starving and sees the bunches of grapes on the tree, but there's no way he can get at them. In the end he decides that they're not ripe enough, too green, not fit for the likes of him. The moral: there's a bit of pre-Freudian rationalisation here, as you shouldn't complain about what it's not possible for you to have. (This is the shortest of La Fontaine's 240 Fables.)

'Le renard et la cigogne'. The fox invites the stork to dinner, but only serves it on a plate, which the stork can't manage to eat a crumb of, so the fox eats it all up. Then the strork invites the fox to dinner, which smells delicious. However, the stork serves it in a long-necked jug, meaning the fox has to go home hungry. The moral: expect to receive as much as you give – in other words, if you deceive people they'll in turn deceive you.

'Le chêne et le sureau'. The oak tree, being very important, is tremendously haughty, and pities the humble reed. Whereas the reed gets tossed about all over the place with the slightest wind, the oak tree stands firm. The oak tree monopolises the conversatsion, the reed says little but is content with its flexibility. There comes a storm and the oak tree is uprooted, dead. But the reed lives on. The moral: death is the great leveller, and a little humility doesn't go amiss.

9 October 2018

Patrick Modiano: Chien de printemps | Afterimage (1993)

There surely can't be many marks of similarity between San-Antonio's and Modiano's work, although both write detective stories. But whereas San-Antonio is obsessed with playing with language, Modiano plays with identity and memory.

Modiano is concerned with scraps of memory that can't be moulded into a whole, and sometimes the reader is reminded of Sartre's La Nausée, with the protagonist striving to hold the internal and the external together. One example of this is when the narrator visits the village of Fossombrone (Seine-et-Marne) in vague hopes of visiting the Meyendorffs, former friends of the photographer Francis Jansen whose life he's trying to retrace thirty years on. Meyendorff was once a doctor, and his American wife a spiritualist, trying to bring back the dead (which the narrator is probably doing). Adrift in a place he doesn't know, and desperately aware that his search here is no doubt fruitless, he reads the headlines of a newspaper he's bought in an attempt to put himself back in touch with some kind of reality.

Another example of existential crisis is on the last day the narrator ever saw Jansen in 1964, when the photographer briefly leaves him outside the Café de la Paix near l'Opéra. The narrator checks if the weighing machine is still in the nearby hotel entrance, where he and his father regularly went to weigh themselves. It is, so he takes a coin and repeats the same action. Then he feels strange and has to sit down at a table on the crowded café terrace, the only thing holding him to the external world being the pink ticket giving his weight. Jansen joins him, concerned about his young friend's problem, which he dismissively says he too has, and calls them 'black holes'.

Jansen has to leave Paris with the huge collection of photos the narrator's been cataloguing, but about which the photographer seems little concerned. Yes, Jansen too has an existential problem, and people and things are losing there distinctness for him.

Such is the nature of this slight book, a quest for a person who's gone without a trace: perhaps there would be no trace today, in a world where it has been said (obviously incorrectly) that if it's not on the internet then it doesn't exist. Télérama, in a sentence on the back cover, says that with this book Modiano has re-found the strength and profundity of his best works. That's quite possible, as I thought that Chien de printemps is quite a fascinating book.

My Patrick Modiano posts:
Patrick Modiano: Rue des boutiques obscures | Missing Person
Patrick Modiano: Les Boulevards de ceinture | Ring Roads
Patrick Modiano: L'Horizon
Patrick Modiano: Chien de printemps | Afterimage
Patrick Modiano: La Petite Bijou

8 October 2018

San-Antonio: Certaines l'aiment chauve (1975)

My second San-Antonio, and certainly not my last. Yes, of course San-Antonio (Frédéric Dard) churned out several books a year, of course they all have impossible plots, unbelievable sexual feats, and make the eponymous hero look superhuman.

This is the tale of an impotent, but theoretically conventionally married, actor who's insured his life for one particular day – the coming 2 June – for a huge sum and his unwitting insurance agent employs the private dick San-Antonio to look out for problems and look after the safety of Christian Bordeaux.

Obviously things go wrong, Bordeaux is almost attacked by a bomb under San-Antonio's own nose, a couple of potential murderers arrive on the scene, Bordeaux kills them, but is himself poisoned by someone changing his normal medication  for cyanide.

Or is it anything like as simple as that? It'll take a great deal of investigation on San-Antonio's part, including a visit to Bordeaux's wife's tropical island haven – in drag – and a trip to the US before things are sorted out, but then what do you expect?

This was written some twenty years after the first San-Antonio novel I read – Messieurs le hommes – and of course it is packed with imaginative slang expressions (many of Frédéric Dard's own invention), plus some (often self-mocking) footnotes and asides, the sex is a little more explicit, but what ever is the M.... instead of Merde doing there in 1975? Was he frightened of putting off his older readers? Most odd.

My Frédéric Dard posts:
Joséphine Dard: Frédéric Dard, mon père: San-Antonio
Jean Durieux: Frédéric Dard dit San-Antonio
San-Antonio: Certaines l'aiment chauve
San-Antonio: Messieurs les hommes
San-Antonio: Des dragées sans baptême

Marcel Pagnol: Le Schpountz (1938)

Yet another Marcel Pagnol book (in fact a play) that was a film as well. You won't find schpountz in any dictionary as far as I'm aware, but it means 'idiot' here: it's used as idiolect, film language to describe a wannabee film star who has no chance. And of course Fernandel (Irénée Fabre here) plays the spountz in the film of the same year.

Irénée is the nephew of a hard-working but relatively poor grocer Baptiste and his wife, who have pledged to bring up Baptiste's dead brother's sons Irénée and Casimir, in the hope that they'll one day take over the business. Casimir welcomes it, but Irénée is useless, full of ideas that he has a gift for the cinema, and confident that one day he'll be a rich and famous actor. 

Irénée tags onto a film crew passing through the Marseilles area, who quietly make fun of him by giving him a 'film contract' which isn't worth the paper it's printed on, as his uncle knows. In spite of Françoise, a member of the film crew, trying to persuade him that the whole thing is a joke at Irénée's expense, Irénée spends his savings on a train to Paris only to be thrown out of the studios as one of the many wannabee clowns.

However, the schpountz isn't such a schpountz as he initially seems, and due to a number of circumstances turns the tables on those who mock or doubt him.

My Marcel Pagnol posts:
Marcel Pagnol's Birthplace, Aubagne
Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol, Aubagne
Claude Berri's Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources
Marcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon père | My Father's Glory
Marcel Pagnol: Le Château de ma mère | My Mother's Castle
Marcel Pagnol: Marius
Marcel Pagnol in La Treille, Marseille
Marcel Pagnol: Le Schpountz

3 October 2018

GiedRé: 21st century dadaist?

Doesn't she look a lovely cute singer? So wholesome she seems on the cover of Ma PReMièRe CoMPiL' (she likes to play randomly with upper and lower cases). In photos, we can see her adorned in flowers, surrounded by cuddly toys, as if she's about to burst into syrupy song. Far from it: note the 'PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT' towards the top right, and the booklet containing the words of her songs show her hands describing what she told an interviewer is a symbol for 'trou du cul'. And what of that brown pile in front of her? There's more here than initially meets the eye. On On n'est pas couché (ONPC)', a late Saturday night discussion program, she appeared much like this, only along with flowers attached to her hair, there was also a tampon. Aymeric Caron described her songs as straight out of secondary school: GiedRé immediately responded that he is a victim of social codes. Natacha Polony, though, saw something of a contemporary convention-busting dadaist in her and mentioned her 'fausse naïveté'. The show host Laurent Ruquier asked her if she saw herself singing scatological songs for years, and she drew a number of laughs when she asked if he meant when she reaches maturity.

Oh, yes, those songs. There are far more here than when she appeared on ONPC, and there are more instruments now than a simple acoustic guitar, but the subjects haven't changed. There's 'On fait tous caca' (lit. 'We All Poo'), 'Ode à la contraception' (which doesn't need translating), 'Pisser debout' (in which she wishes she were a man, although she sings that her mother says that she has both sexes in her, as she swears like a guy). And she seems to have really gone out of her way to discover deviant sexual habits: although 'Les croûtons' doesn't mention the word croûtenard – how many French people would understand the meaning? – it's nevertheless about one, who has a wife, but chokes on the urine-soaked bread in his rush to get home.*

GiedRé has sold 20,000 records: OK, her albums can be found in the 'independent' music section, but it's still quite a number of sales for records that surely only appeal to the French-speaking market. Even if her songs were translated, I don't think England would welcome her: they'd see her as too extreme. But maybe Ruquier is right: how long before her audience tires, and how long before she runs out of subjects to sing about? (All the same, she is very unusual, very clever, and not without brilliance.)

* The 'glory days' of the smelly, green, male-only vespasiennnes, named after the Roman emperor Vespasien – who introduced a urine tax on the then highly valuable commodity for its dyeing and bleaching properties – have long gone, replaced in favour of the self-cleaning sanisettes.

Charles Aznavour: One of the greats of French song

As the world now knows, Charles Aznavour (1924–2018) died at the age of ninety-four on Monday morning. A Guardian headline calls him France's Frank Sinatra, which is a huge insult to Aznavour, who has nothing to do with easy listening, and many of whose songs contain a refreshing edginess.

The three-CD compilation of mine (great to listen to in the car) was bought last year at Montesson's Carrefour for a whole five euros: now, though,  I note that budget CDs are being replaced there by, er, budget vinyl albums. It's a weird world, but then what of 'Ostalgia', the huge nostalgia for East German culture?

I digress. Many papers have tried to find his best songs, but I prefer the five chosen by 20 minutes. 'Je m’voyais déjà' (1960), sung in the first person, is something of a self-parody: it's about a failed singer, and Aznavour certainly had a difficult beginning to his career. 'Emmenez-moi' (1967) tells of the joys of living at the other side of the world, a world where even the poor can take solace from the sun. 'La Mamma' (1964) was written by Robert Gall – France Gall's father – as a tribute to his own mother. Like a number of Aznavour's songs, 'La Bohème' speaks of passing time, particularly here of a long-gone period. And Aznavour had a great sympathy for the marginalised, in his own song 'Comme ils disent' (1972) for gay people, and (the gay) Charles Trenet went to congratulate Aznavour in his dressing room, jealous that he hadn't written it himself.

'Comme ils disent', though, wasn't banned from being played as the post-coital 'Après l'amour' was. My particular favourite is 'Tu t'laisses aller', a man singing about his once lovely wife in curlers, her stockings round her shoes, letting herself go and criticising him in front of his friends, etc: it has a rather more upbeat ending, but not before a great deal of drink-fuelled venom is employed. Easy listening, Charles Aznavour? No way.