31 October 2020

Djaïli Amadou Amal: Les Impatientes (2017 (in Cameroon)); repr. (in France) 2020

It's worth quoting the back page of this very powerful book – the first of this Cameroon author's to be published in France – and this is my translation of that page:

'Three women, three stories, three linked fates. This polyphonic novel traces the fate of the young Ramla, torn from her loved one to be married to Safira's husband, while Hindou, her sister, is forced to marry her cousin. Patience! That is the main piece of advice given to women by them by those around them, as it's unthinkable to go against the word of Allah. As the Peul proverb has it: 'At the end of patience is heaven.' But heaven can become a hell. How will these three women manage to free themselves?

'Forced marriage, marital rape, consensus and polygamy: this novel by Djaïli Amadou Amal breaks taboos by denouncing the female condition in the Sahel and gives us a staggering novel on the universal issue of the violence perpetrated on women.'

Munyal is a key word in the novel, which is based on Amal's experiences, and the word means 'patience', but as it's patience founded on violent coercion, suffering and mindless duty to the husband god, the title Les Impatientes takes on a whole other meaning to 'The Impatient women': disobedience, revolt, in fact rebellion.

Ramla comes from a large family, her father's four wives having given him thirty children. But she has always been different, viewed by her mother almost as a being from another planet: unlike the women around her, she was interested in study, wanted to have a profession, but was told to return to the 'real life', meaning lifelong subservience to men. She wants to marry Amidou, studying to be an engineer, she wanting to be a pharmacist, but... Hyatou, her uncle and the richest of the family, decrees that his biggest partner, Alhadji Issa, wants to marry her: Ramla isn't just her father's daughter, but a daughter of the extended family. Amidou is sent away and Ramla feels dead inside. She is forced, at the age of 17, to marry a man of 50, who has a co-wife, Safira, aged 35. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. As regards Ramla, we don't know yet.

Formally, Les Impatientes resembles Mairie DNiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes, and to some extent thematically too. Hindou is Ramla's sister, and they are both married on the same day. Hindou envies Ramla marrying the rich Alhadji Issa because she has to marry her cousin Moubarak, the son of her father's brother, an unemployable wastrel, an alcoholic, a chaser of women and a drug taker. Moubarak is also a violent rapist husband, but then he can almost escape with impunity for beating his impatient (meaning his disobedient) wife. Tacitly, the whole insane extended family (even the local doctor) has to agree that the male is always right. Until, that is, Moubarek is almost ready to kill Hindou for her 'impatience', in fact almost kills her, in spite of her futile attempts to escape the inescapable. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. In Hindou's case, it seems to be via madness.

The third section of Les Impatientes comes from the words of Safira, for twenty years the only wife of Alhadji Issa, but now to be his co-wife as her husband has decided to marry a younger model: Ramla. Like many other co-wives in this devastating novel of familial insanity, Safira is jealous of the new intruder, jealous of her youth, of the fact that Ramla will make her a second-class wife, even though she in theory is to some extent in control of Raml baecause she knows the ropes and is (again to some extent) in charge. Insanity begets insanity and Safira's wholly understandable jealousy triumphs in the form of stealing a large amount of money from her husband (partly to pay for the 'skills' of witch doctors) getting people to falsely claim Ramla's adultery, etc. Alhadji discovers the theft which hardly makes a dent in his wealth, but he rashly repudiates both of his wives, and then relents. Safira learns that Ramla had no interest in him anyway, and Ramla is not long, on her (forced) return to Alhadji, to walk out on him with her computer on which she has been having contact with her brother, the friend of her (unrequited) lover Amidou. 'How will these three women manage to free themselves?'. In Safira's case, freedom is a long way away, as her husband is preparing for another wife. But as for Ramla, her forced marriage is now annulled, so she is truly free.

This novel made it to the Goncourt final in 2020 but is very highly unlikely to achieve final success: Hervé Le Tellier's L'Anomalie is the probable winner, although when the announcement will be is at the moment anyone's guess. Covid-19 rules, OK?

24 October 2020

Fanny Martin (Marie Françoise Bertrand) versus Claude Bernard

Oddly, there seems to be as much if not more information on Fanny Martin (Marie Françoise Bernard (1819-1901)) in English than there does in French. She was a militant animal rights defender in strong support of the Société Protectrice des Animaux (SPA) and in time established an anti-vivisection society. Her daughters, Marie-Claude (1849-1922) and Jeanne Henriette (1847-1923) never married and espoused the animal rights cause.

The problem: her marriage of convenience (in 1845, the same year as the foundation of SPA) was to Claude Bernard (1813-78), who would become the father of experimental medecine and whose ideas would influence Émile Zola, who wrote Le Roman expérimental in 1878. And not only did Fanny's father's money go towards Bernard's experiments on the vivisection of animals, particularly dogs, but he carried out some of his experiments in the family home. Fanny tried her best to counter this by rescuing stray dogs. The very strained marriage came to an end in 1868, and they were officially separated the following year.

Poor before his marriage, Bernard originally went to Lyon to work in a chemist's and had the idea that his vocation lay in writing. At twenty he'd written a play, Arthur de Bretagne, although it wasn't published until 1887, some years after his death. It contains a truly awful and heavily biased Preface by a certain Georges Barral, who accuses Fanny and her daughters of deserting Bernard. Needless to say, the above shows that their attempts to destroy the book were fruitless, although the latest publication appears to omit the Preface. No, I haven't read the play, and certainly never will.

It would be interesting to see what the Musée Claude Bernard in his native town of Saint-Julien-en-Beaujolais says about Fanny Martin, who has become a recent martyr to the animal rights cause.

21 October 2020

Samuel Beckett: Play (1964); repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

The heads of two women and one man each appear above 'identical grey urns about a yard high' and tell of unfaithfulness on the part of the phallocratic male. James Knowlson draws our attention to the real triangle between Beckett, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and Barbara Bray.

Images of Ireland are here in the mention of Ash and Snodland, but Beckett also remembers his stay in London (where he was receiving psychiatric therapy under Wilfred Bion), lodging with the Frosts and drinking Lipton's tea.

Samuel Beckett: Come and Go (1967); repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Flo, Vi and Ru are the protagonists of indeterminate age in this short play, three women sitting on a bench, each one leaving the bench for a short time in which one of the remaining women tells the other a secret about the woman's who's left, and the listener responds with shock. It isn't known if any of the women know of whatever terrible thing secret that's been mentioned is aware of it. The play has a stange mechanical, geometrical nature to it as seen by the women's behaviour.

Again, there is intertextual material, notably in the first (independently) complete sentence 'When did we three last meet?', which recalls Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which the First Witch, in the first line of the play, says 'When shall we three meet again'. And again, Ireland indirectly appears as a memory of Beckett's childhood: the mention of 'the playground at Miss Wade's recalls a former school in Dublin.

Samuel Beckett: Rockaby (1981); repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Rockaby is another short play where a dying woman simply rocks in a chair which is moved without the woman's own effort, with a recorded voice poetically and somewhat repetitively speaking, urged on by the woman with just one word: 'More.' In the end the woman presumably dies: 'Rock her off / Rock her off' says the voice at the end.

Knowlson gives several sources in Beckett's life (including paintings) which may have inspired the play, which he wrote for Billie Whitelaw to perform.

Samuel Beckett: Footfalls (1976); repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Footfalls is a short play centring on May, a woman in her forties almost constantly pacing up and down, and her elderly bedridden mother in darkness in the background. The first part (called the 'dying mother scene' by Beckett) is a conversation between the two; the second is the mother's voice saying that (the obviously seriously disturbed) May has not been out since she was a young girl; in the third section May speaks of herself in the third person and introduces the subject of a Mrs Winter and her daughter Amy (which of course is an anagram of May).

James Knowlson, in his Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, says that Footfalls 'grew out of Beckett's long-standing interest in abnormal psychology', and that May's pacing is an 'externalisation of inner anguish': Beckett had visited a psychiatric hospital in Beckenham in 1937, and two years before writing the play the daughter of a friend had told him of making similar pacing movements. But as Knowlson also says, there is more to this work than can be reduced to autobiographical instances, which of course holds for all of his works.

19 October 2020

In Memory of Samuel Paty, Teacher

Following the tragic assassination by beheading in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Yvelines) of the teacher Samuel Paty, who had been threatened for several days for showing a few satirical cartoons from Charlie Hebdo in a lesson about freedom of speech, a French female Protestant pastor, Sandrine Maurot, has called on people of ALL beliefs to publish satirical portraits of their belief. I really like this one, an imagined assault on a (real) religious paper by an atheist maniac, screaming 'God doesn't exist!!', 'You're insulting my beliefs!', 'I want everyone to believe that they must not believe!!!'. 'Gloire à queuedalle!!!' (a distortion of 'Gloire à que dalle!!!', meaning 'Glory to bugger all!!!') is a hopeless misunderstanding of atheism, but then this is satire, and in any case we live in a very imperfect world. France is determined to make the name of Samuel Paty live forever, and the world should support that.

17 October 2020

Samuel Beckett: Breath (1972; repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Beckett's Breath, lasting about forty seconds and with no plot, no words and no characters, is theatrical minimalism virtually at its most minimalist, and was written as a contribution to Kenneth Tynan's Oh! Calcutta!* 'circus' (as Beckett described it). It consists of a pile of unidentified rubbish with a faint brief cry, then an intake of breath with light slowly increasing. This is followed by expiration and slowly decreasing light, ending in another brief cry. It was first performed in 1969 and first published in 1972.

As James Knowlson says, Beckett's intention was that this was an ironic comment on what followed, although someone had added 'with naked people' in the rubbish, and Beckett was very far from happy. The sequence was withdrawn from the London production of Oh! Calcutta!.

Breath is generally seen as a blurring of the difference between theatre and other art forms.

*This is a pun on Clovis Trouille's 'Oh quel cul t'as' ('Oh, what an arse you've got').

Samuel Beckett: Krapp's Last Tape (1959; repr. with Preface by S. E. Gontarski, 2009)

Krapps' Last Tape was first published in Evergreen Review in 1958, but not as part of a book until the following year. Here we have a 69-year-old man at the end of his life, making his last annual tape and listening to one he made thirty years before, when he was a person he hardly now recognises.

Light and darkness (the colours black and white), youth and age, reality and fantasy, all play a part here, but certainly the most important are light and darkness. Krapp (what a name!) has 'rusty brown' trousers and waistcoat, but a 'grimy white shirt' and a white face; the stage is in darkness apart from the lit desk; the thirty-five-year-old Krapp lived with Bianca in Kedar (Hebrew for 'black') street; the younger Krapp remembers seeing a woman, 'all white and starch' with a 'black hooded' pram; the white dog has a black ball, and so it goes on, with the light and the dark sometimes blended, as with the younger Krapp shielding his woman from the the sun.

The eyes of women are a theme too: Bianca's are 'incomparable'; the woman with the pram has eyes 'like chrysolite' (recalling a word used in Othello); the eyes of the woman Krapp shields were 'just slits' in front of the glare of the sun, although they opened in shadow; Krapp's last tape records 'The eyes she had!'. In such a short play there are a number of characters, but all come from only one man.

This is a book of memory, therefore time, and we can feel it in the movement not only of the tape spool revealing the past but also, in its unwinding, Krapp's delight in saying 'Spooool', his joy of words in themselves, another example being him forgetting the meaning of 'viduery', searching in the dictionary, finding the word and also the name of the 'vidua' bird, the sound  of which he relishes.

8 October 2020

Charles-Emmanuel Borjon de Scellery, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Charles-Emmanuel Borjon de Scellery (1633-91) was born in Pont-de-Vaux and became a lawyer who wrote a number of books on law, although he is perhaps better known for his interest in music, particularly for his Noels Bressands pour Pontdevaux et les paroisses circonvoisines. (Painting from the Musée Antoine Chintreuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

Benoît Textor, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Benoît Textor (approx. 1520-56) was born in Pont-de-Vaux and was a doctor, naturalist and ornithologist and the author of several works on the plague and the canker. He was a friend of Calvin and Pierre Viret. (This is a painting from the Musée Antoine Chinteuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

L'Abbé Pierre-Philibert Guichelet, Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (01)

Pierre-Philibert Guichelet (1736-1830) was a priest and writer of fables who was born in Pont-de-Vaux. Originally expected to work in business, his parents agreed to him entering the church. Two fables he wrote are 'L'araignée et le ver a soie' ('The Spider and the Silk Worm') and 'Le Singe et les deux chiens' ('The Monkey and the Two Dogs'), which the bishop Jean-Irénée Depéry (1796-1861) mentions in his Biographie des hommes célèbres du département de l'Ain (1835), where several pages are devoted to Guichelet. (Painting from the Musée Antoine Chinteuil, Pont-de-Vaux.)

7 October 2020

Silver-Washed Fritillary Butterfly, Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire (71)

Memories of summer. Will we be allowed to have one in another country in 2021? There is a buddleia bush in the shadow of the Château Pontus de Tyard, Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire, teeming this July with scarce swallowtail (flambés in French) butterflies, and also silver-washed fritillary butterflies (tabacs d'Espagne in French), so easily confused with the pearl-bordered fritillary (grand collier argenté).

Michel Déon: Un taxi mauve (1973)

Michel Déon's Un taxi mauve is a strange, and strangely haunting, novel. Set in his beloved Ireland, where Déon died, we have a motley group of characters, many of whom seem traumatised in some way. The American Kean siblings, from a very wealthy family, and who have Irish ancestry, are prominent, although only the young Jerry Kean lives there, albeit apparently only temporarily. He carries the guilt of his Iranian girlfriend being accidentally killed during an opium-smoking session in the States, and seeks something by moving to Ireland. His sister Sharon has married into the German aristocracy and is a princess, although many of her tastes are down to earth, and when she briefly visits Ireland she stays with Jerry in his primitive cottage without electricity, while her servant Li stays in a plush hotel. Jerry's other sister, Moïra, is a Hollywood film star and also makes an appearance. The final member of the Kean clan, Terence, is an astronaut who's only seen via the television.

We don't know the name of the narrator, although he had a son who's dead, and he has come to Ireland to live in peace, shoot game, read and listen to music. The presence of Sharon will disturb him, and she soon develops a liking for him, although the novel has nothing like the strong sexual hints of Yves Boisset's nevertheless well directed film with Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Noiret, Peter Ustinov, Fred Astaire, etc.

The strongest character in the book, which would be much diluted without him, is Taubelman, a huge guy who's a bit like, as the front flap of this France Loisirs (picked up in Bissy-sur-Fley, Saône-et-Loire) suggests, a mixture of Rabelais and Tartarin: he eats and drinks enormous amounts, and his stories are wildly exaggerated if not outright lies. He lives with his daughter Anne (who may or may not be his daughter), and (with the help of her) cheats at poker and wins a large amount of money from the players. Jerry, of course, is bound to fall in love with her.

All this is played out against an Irish backdrop, with the social centre being the pub with its rustic locals (plus a gay couple|), and the narrator's friend the supposedly retired Dr Scully, who drives the mauve taxi and views the natives affectionately and philosophically. An unexpected delight.

Samuel Beckett: More Pricks than Kicks (1931; repr. with Preface by Cassandra Nelson, 2010)

More Pricks than Kicks was, after his idiosyncratic booklet Proust (1930), Samuel Beckett's first published book, being a collection of ten short stories but without the additional 'Echo's Bones', which Chatto & Windus editor Charles Prentice had initially welcomed as the eleventh story, and over which Beckett spent some time and effort, but which Prentice had to reject as a 'nightmare' that gave him the 'jim-jams' and would certainly cause Beckett to lose a number of readers. As it happened the book only sold 550 over a few years, so the unsold books were pulped. Only after Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 was there renewed interest in More Kicks than Pricks, much to Beckett's displeasure because he now saw the book as a part of his juvenilia.

In itself More Pricks than Kicks is what Beckett called 'self-plagiarism', the best kind of plagiarism to him: much of the material came from his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which Prentice (among others) had previously rejected and was only published in 1992, several years after Beckett's death: the title is in part a play on Tennyson's A Dream of Fair Women, and with the colloquial (working-class?) expression 'fair to middling' included, is perhaps an indication of the poly-linguistic nature of the work, which ranges from foreign, esoteric, learned, slang, and taboo expressions (included in later editions, but left as in the original 1934 edition here): 'arse' is left as 'B. T. M.' and 'Flitter the fucker' as 'Flitter the --', for instance.

The protagonist Belacqua Shaua is taken from Dante's fourth canto of Purgatorio, which is the second part of his La Divina Commedia (written from 1308 to 1320). The name is (coincidentally?) a reversal of Beckett's own initials, and Dante's Belacqua was a lute-maker, lazy like Beckett himself at the time of publication, and the name indicates 'beautiful water', but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Intertextual references abound in all of the stories in the book, often to Dante, the Bible, but also to many other books Beckett was reading at the time: there's a surviving manuscript (usually just called 'Dream') in which he noted any interesting expressions of sentences he met, along with autobiographical notes. More Pricks than Kicks is in many ways an autobiographical work.

'Dante and the Lobster' is the first story, set in 8 December 1926, in which Belacqua has three obligations, although not necessarily in the order given (this is Beckett, let's remember, and narrative sequence is of minor value): there's lunch, the lobster, and the Italian lesson. Lunch is a 'nice affair', with 'nice' meaning 'subtle' or 'exacting' rather than 'pleasant', so he locks the door so no one can 'come at him'. The most interesting thing here is that the bread is personified, it '[i]s spongy and warm, alive', and even has a 'face' which he'll soon remove. Why 8 december 1926? Well, the morning after Henry McCabe (mentioned several times in this story) was hanged then for the murder of the McDonnell family and servants (six in all) in their home in Malahide, Dublin. Beckett, who was far from sure of McCabe's guilt, was in any way against the death penalty. The destruction of the food in some way feeds into the story, and this is followed by the boiling of a living lobster. Beautiful water

'Fingal' is the second story, which Mary Power calls a 'Modern contribution to the duinschenchas tradition of place in Irish literature' (Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1981-82), pp. 151-156 (151). Belacqua walks in Fingal with Winnie Coates: the name is one of Beckett's jokes, as Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst. They are near where what was then called the lunatic asylum at Portrane, where Winifred knows the psychiatrist Dr Sholto, whom she meets. Belacqua then steals a bicycle and goes back to Dublin, where he happily goes to the pub.

'Ding-Dong' is the third story, in which Belacqua 'enlivened the last phase of his solipsism, before he toed the line and began to relish the world, with the belief that the last thing he had to do was to move constantly from place to place'. His movements are confined to going from pub to pub and in the end is conned into buying seats in heaven by a woman in a pub.

'A Wet Night' is the fourth story, and like Joyce's 'The Dead' has a festive Christmas setting with a number of people involved, although of course Beckett (like Belacqua) hated social gatherings. Of note are some of the characters, such as Caleken Frica, who represents Mary Manning (Howe), Beckett's friend who he helped with her play 'Youth's the Season'; the Alba, who represents Ethna MacCarthy, an unusually liberated woman Beckett met at Trinity College, and with whom he was obsessed; the Syra-Cusa represents James's Joyce's highly disturbed daughter Lucia, who was infatuated with Beckett although he did his best to avoid her; and 'Chas': Jean du Chas was Beckett's fictitious poet born on the same day as him, and with whom he took pleasure in introducing in a lecture to the Trinity Modern Languages Society. The party represented here (in a very distorted way) really existed, and was given by Susan Manning, Mary's daughter.

'Love and Lethe' is the fifth story, which concerns Belacqua picking up Ruby Tough from her home at her parents and driving off to a mountain where they have made a suicide pact, either by bullet or poison. Ruby accidentally fires the gun which doesn't find a target and as she has tempted him they have sex: love and death are much the same, aren't they? Dante's Purgatorio is an obvious reference, although there are biblical references, such as to Perugino's Pietà, as well to the temptation of Christ, with Ruby seen as Mary Magdelene, for instance: we have woman seen as both the sacred and the profane. More obscure references as to Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy’s fairy tale princesses Florine and Truitonne in L'Oiseau bleu, and Knowlson has also discovered an allusion to Tasso's Aminta.

'Walking Out' is the sixth story, the title referring to an expression of courtship, and sees Belacqua riding horseback in the countryside with his fiancée Lucy, only when Lucy discovers that her fiancé has gone there to spy on a German couple having sex (voyeurism isn't uncommon among Beckettian heroes) she leaves quickly, gets hit by a car driven by a drunken lord and spends the rest of her time in a wheelchair (again, a means of transport not unkown in the Beckett canon). Meanwhile Belacqua, unaware of the accident, is caught by 'the Tanzherr' (the male spied on) and beaten severely. Belacqua marries Lucy. 

'What a Misfortune' is the seventh story, referring to Voltaire's eunuch's comment on Cunégonde's beauty in Candide: 'O che sciagura d’essere senza coglioni ! (Oh quel malheur d'être sans couilles !)': both the Italian and the French are given in Voltaire, meaning 'What a misfortune not to have balls'. This story is a satire on the bourgeois Irish Protestant family. Two years after his marriage to Lucy, she dies. The narrative very much concerns Belacqua's and his wedding (plus reception) to Thelma bboggs [sic], who's the daughter of Otto (in, ahem, toiletries) and Bridie, who's been sexually serviced by Walter Draffin, with the full approval of Otto, who doesn't have to bother with the chore: so Walter (as the cicisbeo) receives a wedding invitation, which he accepts. The friendless Belacqua co-opts 'Hairy', or Capper Quin, into being best man. We learn in the final chapter that Thelma dies on the honeymoon night.

'The Smeraldina's Billet-Doux' is the eighth story, and is based on a love letter that a cousin of Beckett's, Peggy Sinclair, written to him. She had left with her family for Germany when young and had an affair later with Beckett, who several times visited her in Germany, although she died in 1931, when Beckett was in hospital in Dublin. Peggy's parents were angry with Beckett's mention of her letter to him, in which he parodies Peggy's poor English.

'Yellow' is the ninth story, which sees Belacqua in hospital for operations on his neck and toe (like Beckett). His reference to being frightened of 'wet[ting] the bed' is probably an allusion to Jules Renard's writing, which was a great source of pleasure to Beckett. Beckett too had been in hospital, although unlike Belacqua he survived: Belacqua's anaesthetic was too strong.

'Draff', which refers to dregs, is the tenth and final story, and concerns the Smeraldina (Belacqua's third wife) handling his funeral. The unnamed groundsman drinking his Guinness will becaome Doyle in 'Echo's Bone's'. There's a suggestion that the Smermaldina and Capper 'Hairy' Quin will become a couple, and as Hairy drives to Belacqua's former house the gardener has set it on fire: another reference to the Malahide murders.

Much ink has been spent on More Pricks than Kicks and no doubt will continue to do so, as stories in it seem endlessly re-interpretable.