30 November 2020

François Ozon's Potiche (2010)

Potiche is often called a camp, over-acted film set in the seventies and has a whiff of Douglas Sirk's melodramas, etc, and I have to accept these criticisms as they are true. But, as most reviews of the film (professional or amateur) say – that is one of its delights, and perhaps its major strength.

We have something of a starry cast with an ageing and apparently devoted Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) as wife of Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), who is her husband and the head of the Pujol-Michonneau umbrella factory, which of course reminds us of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy's celebrated camp film starring Deneuve. Suzanne's dead father is the Michonneau in the title of the firm, and the ageing Pujol is messing around with who he can, but particularly his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard).

But then there comes a strike, and the greedy Maurice's heart can't take it. He can survive, but Suzanne is forced to take over, but then she has a way of dealing with people that is far superior to Maurice's. This is women taking the upper role in the 1970s, and she goes on to achieve great things, with Ozon developing from Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy's play of the same name, although in English I'd prefer 'Figurehead' to 'Trophy Wife'.

Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu) – the communist mayor who's long ago had a one-off fling with Suzanne – doesn't make it to a second helping, although Suzanne makes mincemeat of both him and her husband to become a député MP: this woman is definitely on top.

29 November 2020

Professor Harald Stümpke: Anatomie et biologie des Rhinogrades (1962; repr. with additions 2012)

This is in fact a translation by Robert Weill  from the original book published in German in 1961 and it's probably a good idea to translate the back cover of this first:

'In 1962 the scientific world learned with astonishment the existence of a new order of completely odd mammals, named rhinogrades. This extraordinary discovery was described and analysed in detail in a small book of about one hundred pages.

On reading this book, anyone with a little knowledge of zoology or biology couldn't fail to be gripped by a feeling of stupefaction mixed with wonder.

Since then research has contined and Professor Guillaume Lecointre, of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, details the present state of knowledge. He reveals the discovery of three new species, which could well have played a role in La Pérouse's mysterious shipwreck.

Be careful: the rhinogrades haven't yet finished making news!'

But I'll start at the beginning, which is in a poem by the German writer Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), who first wrote about a creature called the Nasobēm, which could walk on its nose: these in fact were rhinogrades. But as far as anyone knew, Morgenstern had never been near the South Pacific. Perhaps he's heard of the story from someone else? Anyway, it was enough to spark Dr Gerolf Steiner's interest, but we'll leave that one for a second.

In 1941 the Swedish Einar Petersson-Skämtkvist escaped from captivity by the Japanese and landed on Assaa-Lor, one of the Hi-Iay Islands in the South Pacific. The group of islands at the time only had a population of 700, although within several months Petersson had inadvertently wiped them out as they succumbed to the cold he had. But at least he'd made the discovery of rhinogrades to tell the world about. 

Dr Harald Stümpke and a number of researchers were working on the rhinogrades in the Hi-Lay Islands in the 1950s when the entire archipelago was submerged as a result of nuclear testing. The only fortunate thing is that Stümpke had given Steiner his initial writings on the rhinogrades, so the book could be published.

And so we have the result of Stümpke's work on rhinogrades, of which there were 15 families and 138 species, 10 of the families having a single nose  and 5 more than one nose (either 2, 4, or 38). Rhinogrades varied even more radically from each other, some being able to take on the attributes of flowers (their noses serving as petals), a variety could fly using their ears, another fished with their (single) nose, and so on. The book is obviously fully researched with everyday and Latin names used, footnotes, scrupulous bibliography, etc.

The update is fascinating too, as it reveals that three new species were found in 2006 on Espiritu Santo island 400 miles away in Vanuatu, all having a powerful drill for a nose, all boring skilfully into wood. The writer of this is Guillaume Lecointre, who asks himself what the rhinogrades are doing there: they've not been known to exist anywhere else. Could it be that at the end of the 18th century  when Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse left Brest on Louis XVI's orders on a diplomatic and scientific mission – that Lapérouse's ships called at the Hi-Iay Islands to stock up on wood? And that, unbeknown to them, some rhinogrades were carried as stowaways? And that the mysterious sinking of both L'Astolabe and La Boussole was the work of rhinogrades?

This brilliant book – which feels like one of the most amazing I've ever read – is of course a magnificent hoax: Morgenstern was a writer of nonsense verse who gave Steiner the idea of the rhinogrades, Petersson is an invention, the Hi-Iay Islands are fictitious, and Harald Stümpke is a pseudonym of Gerolf Steiner. But Lecointre is real enough and he's moved the hoax forward: in fact, some museums still carry the story to show they have a sense of humour too.

This book doesn't appear to have been re-published in England as the only copies available are from 1967. But then the English title The Snouters – is hopelessly stupid and virtually gives the game away.

28 November 2020

Daniel Auteuil's La Fille du puisatier (2011)

This is a fairy story, the flipside of Frédéric Mistral's tragic Mireille, and a remake of Marcel Pagnol's film of the same name starring Raimu and Fernandel (which I've not seen). The prince is Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a guy born into wealth, and the princess is Patricia Amoretti (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), the well digger's daughter.

This is set slightly before World War II breaks out, Patricia is pregnant with no hope of marrying the future father, the parents of Jacques won't entertain the thought of their son Jacques being the father, and anyway he's gone off to fight and is soon killed. Meanwhile, Patricia's father has to disown her because of the shame of having an 'illegitimate' child in the family. (We'll forget the sub-plot of Félipe (Kad Merad) wanting to marry Patricia so as not to complicate things.)

Anyway, Jacques comes back from the dead and wants to marry Patricia, which will be done as soon as possible, Jacque's parents are very pleased to be grandparents, and all things are resolved: a real fairy story with a happy end. The Mazel parents live in Salon, although I thought it a rather long way for Patricia (from a neighbouring hamlet) to go to Meet Jacques (before he went to war), but then this was called 'La Chapelle Saint Julien' so made out to be somewhere else, although the chapel shown in the still below is in fact the Chapelle Saint Sixte in Egalières, as shown on the cover of Maurice Pezet's book Egalières-en-Provence (1970):

27 November 2020

José Luis Guerin's Dans la ville de Sylvia (2007)

A young man returns to Strasbourg to find a girl he met six years before, has several beers in a café terrasse just looking at every female, sees Slyvia, follows her for a long time, loses sight of her, sees her again boarding a tram, gets on it too, finds it's a different girl, goes to the bar Les Aviateurs to find her but doesn't, starts again the next day sitting on a bench at a tram stop, and still doesn't find her. The end.

It seems like so little, but it's not. In the 84 minutes the film has lasted, in spite of the apparent lack of events, in spite of the virtual absence of dialogue, we have been treated to a large number of things: the slow pace as the man watches, the sights of the city, the psychology of the timid, anxious man, the repeat of features already seen which creates an odd but comforting idea of familiarity: the same streets, in particular the Place Saint-Étienne with its Meiselocker statue; the appearance (at least three times) of the black guy with the parasol selling cigarette lighters for 5 euros; the corner with the bottles where the old alcoholic woman sits, the seemingly desperate 'Laure de t'aime' written on so many walls, etc.

Long before the end I realised Sylvia would never turn up, but then I started to wonder if she's like the rhinograde in the Musée Zoologique in the city: non-existent. A brilliant film.

25 November 2020

Christophe Honoré's Dans Paris (2006)

Dans Paris is Christophe Honoré's third feature film and is something of a remembrance of Nouvelle Vague movies, in particular those of Truffaut, but there's also a hint of Godard. The film stars two brothers: Paul (Romain Duris) and Jonathan (Louis Garrel, the director Philippe's son). Paul is depressive after having split up from his long-term partner, and has joined his sex-crazy student brother at their father's flat overlooking the Tour d'Eiffel.

The father is the Italian Mirko (Guy Marchard), who reads La Repubblica and was the husband of their mother (played by Marie-France Pisier), who has a fleeting bit part in this. Mirko does his best to console Paul and control Jonathan.

Paul seems suicidal: he films himself with a mouthful of pills, only to spit them out; he appears on his father's balcony on tiptoe, as if about to join the mobile phone he has sent, splintering, to the pavement below; and, on the only 'trip' he takes out, he jumps into the Seine but survives: just before Christmas this seems unlikely, but then his brother will later do the same and survive too.

Johnathan (casting himself as the narrator and looking directly at the camera like a Truffaut character) is a very different personality: while Paul spends his time in his dressing gown and underpants crying in the room and listening and singing along to Kim Wilde's 'Cambodia' (on an old 45 rmp), Jonathan is out in Paris, wandering around much like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in the streets of Paris. In a day Jonathan beds three women and returns to his father's in the early hours of the morning to find some rapport with Paul, looking through a child's picture book about a wolf and a rabbit, which they knew by heart as children.

Samuel Scott Sudlow (1865–1951), Artist, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

I last mentioned Samuel Scott Sudlow in April 2015, although it wasn't until a few days ago that Stewart Sudlow, Samuel's grandson, contacted me with these photos of paintings by his grandfather. I have copied the contents of the original post below, thank Stewart for sending me these, and look forward to receiving more, which shall be added to this post. These are Stewart's recollections of his grandfather:

"As a young boy together with sister and younger brother, every Sunday our parents took us to Belmore where my grandparents lived for Sunday dinner, sometimes when we arrived my grandfather would be in the front garden doing some weeding in a collar and tie and waistcoat, you can’t take England out of an Englishman. There was sign by the front door, saying Delamere, which in later years I learned that it referred to Delamere forest. My brother had it on his house in Tasmania.

My grandmother would be in kitchen, and more often than not we would find my grandfather in his studio at the end of the shed. There would be my grandfather seated in a lounge chair in front of his easel painting. He was also a carpenter and joiner by trade. He made all of their furniture. Now and again he also played the piano.

I recall racks against the wall where he stored his finished paintings. I do remember a painting of a dog probably a neighbour dog. I was 12 when my grandfather died I don’t Know what happened to most of the paintings, but I know my grandmother got rid of all his oils,  watercolours and brushes. I think she was annoyed that he spent more time in his studio than in the house. That’s about all I can remember of my grandfather."

'Across the Park Early Morning 1950.'
'Cloud Effect, Cronulla NSW.' My original post on Sudlow:

In Poets, Poems, and Rhymes of East Cheshire (1908) Thomas Middleton devotes a few pages to the forgotten Samuel Scott Sudlow (1865–1951), who was born in Delamere Forest near Frodsham in the west of Cheshire, and moved to Hyde (probably with his parents) in 1881. His father was simply named Samuel Sudlow (1838–1914), who is the first named person on the grave here, followed by his mother Fanny (c. 1840–1920).

As the sentence states above in Hyde Cemetery, 'ALSO SAMUEL S[COTT], THEIR SON, DIED IN AUSTRALIA, SEP. 17TH. 1951, AGED 86 YEARS.' Middleton says that Sudlow hadn't published much, although he prints his 'To the Blue Bell' in full and says that it will 'take a high place in local verse'. At the time that Middleton published his book Samuel Scott Sudlow was about 43 and had yet to leave Hyde for Australia, although he appears to have published nothing at all there. But he was obviously a little more successful in another field.

Samuel Scott Sudlow was a joiner by trade, although Middleton speaks more of Sudlow's artistic education and of his local fame as a portrait and landscape artist. He says '[h]is work is highly spoken of by those competent to judge, and he is one of the few local men who have been successful as a portrait painter'.

And interestingly, a little Googling tells me that 'S Scott Sudlow' was several times one of the finalists for painting prizes in Australia, including one called Self Portrait.

24 November 2020

Cédric Klapisch's Casse-tête chinois | Chinese Puzzle (2013)

So, the third part of Cédric Klapisch's film trilogy, following on from L'Auberge espagnole and Les Poupées russes, with Xavier (Romain Duris) once more in the lead role, with the faithfuls Wendy (Kelly Reilly), Martine (Audrey Tautou), Isabelle (Cécile de France), but this time based in New York. Again, Xavier is in a mess (but much more unbelievable this time) but he's helped out by, er, Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Isabelle has moved to Brooklyn, where she lives with girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt), and Wendy is leaving Xavier (with their two children) for the American John (Peter Hermann), one of the reasons for the separation surely being that Xavier has agreed to trying (by artificial insemination) to get Isabelle pregnant so that she and Nancy can have a child. The almost penniless Xavier (who is nevertheless now a published novelist) decides that he must leave for New York too as he wants to be closer to his children. One of the more subtle jokes is that Xavier initially stays with Isabelle and Ju, although he's looking for a flat; Nancy asks where, and Xavier says he wants to be near to his children, and Wendy lives on 6th avenue near the main entrance to Central Park: he doesn't have a clue why Isabelle has a strange look, but he'll no doubt find out, and anyway Ju finds him a crummy place in Chinatown.

At less than two hours this movie moves really fast, also pulling in Xavier playing hero to an ever-grateful Chinese cab driver who rigs it up for him to marry Nancy (Li Jun Li); two visits from Martine from France; Xavier's father trying to find a symbol of his wife's and Xavier's mother's love in a paving stone; immigration officials questioning Xavier and Nancy not unlike Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu) in Peter Weir's Green Card (1990), and pursuing Xavier and Nancy to his flat when Isabelle and a young female baby sitter are having sex: the escape of the two naked women onto the roof recalls the naked Xavier chasing a naked girlfriend in Les Poupées russes; and so on.

In the end Martine agrees to move from Paris and live with Xavier in New York. Yes, with her two kids in a crummy flat with no fear of immigration officials returning? Pure fantasy, as the computer graphics have suggested, but an adorable film.

Cédric Klapisch's Les Poupées russes | Russian Dolls (2005)

This is a few years on from L'Auberge Espagnole, the first part of Cédric Klapisch's trilogy, and again we have Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), Wendy (Kelly Reilly), Martine (Audrey Tautou), Isabelle (Cécile de France) and William (Kevin Bishop) plus two new characters of significance: Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova) and Celia Shelburn (Lucy Gordon). A number of things have changed, and instead of the setting being Barcelona, Les Poupées russes is set in Paris, London and Saint Petersburg, with probably more dialogue in English than French.

This second part is a little more episodic, played more for comedy, and contains some flashy experimental camera work. The main interest is again Xavier, who not only has trouble finding a permanent job but has temporarily shelved his plans to write a novel for more pragmatic writing – such as being ghost writer for celebrities, and in addition he's found work writing the screenplays of a slushy TV mini-series. At thirty he still has no steady girlfriend, only a succession of brief flings (including with model Celia Shelburn, who's biography he's helped her with), but then a stable love life demands a stable personality, and he doesn't seem to have one yet.

Xavier still sees (even sleeps with) his ex, Martine, who is now a single mother; and he also sees a great deal of his lesbian friend Isabelle (cue for transvestite humour, etc). In London he runs into William, who's wildly in love with Natacha, has learned Russian, and is going to be married there shortly. Oh, and he also comes to meet William's sister Wendy again, kicks out her abusive boyfriend and, well, takes his place.

All the group meet up at Natasha's parents in Saint Petersburg: cue for local colour, dancing, drinking, use of various languages, etc. But then Celia, who's in Moscow for a few days, calls him up and asks him to join her. As he's taking the train Wendy – who's seen through his lie and knows he's meeting Celia – tells him he's the love of her life. But he still takes the train, realises Celia's as childish as him, but it seems too late and Wendy feels she can no longer trust him.

But then the wedding – slowly – eases them back together. And that's how they'll have to take it: easily.

Claire de Duras: Ourika (1823)

Claire de Duras (1777-1828) is an almost forgotten name in French literature, and yet the few novels she wrote, being concerned with difference, disclose an almost modern theme. Olivier ou le secret (written in 1822 but only published in 1971), for instance, is concerned with male sexual impotence, and Ourika with the problems of a black woman brought up in France during the revolutionary period.

Ourika begins with an introduction by a doctor brought to a convent to see the black nun Ourika, although the bulk of the novel is taken up with Ourika's story. At the age of two she was about to depart from Senegal to be taken away as a slave until the governor of Senegal bought her and left her in the care of Mme la maréchale de B. in Paris, where she was brought up in the same way as any white person.

That, as her benefactor recognises towards the end, was the main problem: paradoxically, she was killing the girl with kindness. Ourika is educated to a high standard and grows up for several years with Mme de B.'s grandchildren, the younger of whom – Charles – she becomes very attached to until he leaves for college at the age of seven.

Several years later Ourika discovers her fate through overhearing a conversation: being black, she faces an extremely lonely future because no suitable man will be willing to marry her. She removes all mirrors, tries as much as possible to hide her black skin from others, and dreads meeting new people. But all the time she tries to hide her feelings from her benefactor.

When Charles returns her interest in him is renewed, and she delights in conversations with him until he leaves to marry the wealthy heiress Anaïs de Thémines, with whom they soon have a child. A child she can't have, and she begins to regret that she has been taken from the slave ship, feels  that she could have been 'happily' married with a child in the slave cabins. She begins to waste away and Mme de B. realises what it took Ourika so long to understand: that she is in love with Charles.

And so Ourika finds that her only choice is to devote herself to God. This brings us to the end of her story and the doctor reveals in the final paragraph that Ourika then dies in front of him.

23 November 2020

Cédric Klapisch's Poisson rouge (1994)

In 1993 '3000 scénarios contre un virus' (lit. '3000 screenplays against a virus') was launched as a cultural educational preventative measure against AIDS. In fact over 4000 short screenplays were received from students in lycées as possible ideas for film shorts, of which 31 were used by directors, mostly working on a voluntary basis, with the actors doing the same. To a background of first Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf' and then of The Breeders' 'Noaloha', Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi acts. She is walking away, carrying a minimum of her belongings, which include a bowl with a goldfish in it. She is obviously distressed, but even more so when in the busy traffic she receives a jolt, drops the bowl, and retrieves the goldfish from the edge of the road. Dashing into a chemist's across the road, she jumps the queue and – desperate – explains the situation, that the fish is dying without water. The chemist produces a condom which a customer blows up, water is poured into it and the goldfish too. The motto: 'Un préservatif peut sauver la vie': 'A condom can save a life'. In just over three minutes, Cédric Klapisch has done more than many filmmakers take hours to say. The idea was from Jérôme Bettochi (aged 19) of Bessoncourt (90).

Cédric Klapisch's Ni pour, ni contre (bien au contraire) | Not For, or Against (Quite the Contrary) (2003)

This was a surprise film release from director Cédric Klapisch, as it is a film policier, but what surprises me more is the title, faithfully translated in the same way in English, although surely this must be one of the most clumsy titles on record, particularly with its words in parentheses? OK, the title alludes to the dilemmas of the protagonist, but relevant or not it's still a mess as a title. The film itself though, in spite of a number of professional critics writing otherwise, certainly isn't a mess.

Katy (Marie Gillain) works as a television camera operator but lives in a faceless HLM with little success of escaping her relatively poor surroundings: pathetically, she buys scratchcards in the very slim hope of improving her material situation. Until, that is, she chances upon the crook Jean (Vincent Elbaz), who wants her to film a hold-up for him. At first dubious, as she's entering a milieu foreign to her, she rapidly succumbs to the lure of potential wealth from illegal acts.

So she's introduced to the rest of the gang, a motley bunch aspiring for riches by whatever violent means they get them: there's the Armenian Lecarpe (Simon Abkarian), running a kebab house with his wife; there's Mouss (Zinedine Soualem), an aspiring choreographer working on strippers in a nightclub; and then there's the rather disturbed young Loulou (Dimitri Storoge): not exactly too promising a mob.

But Jean manages to seduce her with his apparently easy gunpoint hold-ups of jewellers and she soon fits into the scheme of things. More importantly, she performs her own hold-ups of jewellers on the quiet. Then comes the final raid, which will pay enough money for them all to live luxuriously for the rest of their lives. But it depends on her playing prostitute to the director of the bank, and she doesn't do prostitution: yeh, she's being used.

She does kill the director though, but fails to have the alarm silenced. However, an amount of money is salvaged from this, although (through her cunning, her intelligence and her betrayal) Caty manages to escape to an American 'paradise', the gang either dead or (in Jean's case) inside. Trouble is, that last long shot of her in her penthouse reveals that she has no idea of where to go from then on. Earlier in the film she mentions the word 'L'argent' and one of her new buddies adds '...ne fait pas le bonheur' ('Money doesn't buy you happiness'). So where is there to go now?

22 November 2020

Marie Susini: Je m'appelle Anna Livia (1979)

Marie Susini (1916-93) is a surprisingly little known writer. She was born in Corsica, a place that had a very profound impact on her, although most of her life was spent in mainland France. Jean Daniel (1920-2020) of the Nouvel Observateur was a very important man in her life.

Je m'appelle Anna Livia isn't easy to understand: the time sequence is very scewed, personal pronouns are frequently used in place of actual names, the first person mixes with the third (especially with Anna Livia), but perhaps most of all the language is often just not quite within the grasp of comprehension: as I've mentioned before, I'm reminded of E. M. Forster's comment in Arbinger Harvest of Virginia Woolf's writing seen as a pen lodged in a coat lining: 'So near, and yet so far!'

The first sentence is 'Ainsi.', suggesting that the reader has missed what hadn't gone before: 'Thus'?, 'In this way'?, 'So'?, etc. The first paragraph, as I translate it, reads: 'So it was always there. It was there before it existed. As if drifting towards the surface of a black dream. Even before she could think. One day perhaps.' The back cover suggests a Greek tragedy, and this beginning seems to back that up: everything has been set up, there's an inevitability written into the text.

Gradually, the reader pieces together the characters and the elements in their story, which I briefly mention here in chronological order. The setting, the back cover suggests, is in Italy, although Corsica could also fit into this dreamy, anguished, timeless novel. A young girl from a modest but large family is chosen by a moderately more wealthy man at the age of 16, the bride price is paid and they live together for a short time until the wife leaves the family, leaving a small child behind. This is Anna Livia, who will live on her father's farm and mix with his employees Josefino, his wife Madelena and their son Francesco, who is the same age as Anna but will die at an early age. At 16 Anna Livia has sex with her father, and such an act seems so unstoppable that she first draws the curtains and undresses for him. He later hangs himself and her mother Elizabeta visits her as a ghost.

The fourteen cypress trees close to the horizon are almost characters in the novel, and are constantly counted by Anna and Francesco, and they often fail to reach the same number, which recalls Anna's grandmother counting her children as they sleep. Cypress trees can represent death. Here, Anna and Francesco see the trees frequently merge into a haze, wonder what lies beyond, and envisage a timeless future, the unknowable, the oneness of it all.

17 November 2020

Antoine Chintreuil (revisited) in Pont-de-Vaux, Ain (1)

Precursor to impressionism, the painter Antoine Chintreuil (1814-73) was born in Pont-de-Vaux and died in Septeuil (Yvelines). Born into a modest family, he moved to Paris at the age of 22. He was advised by Corot and received support from the chansonnier Béranger. The Musée Chintreuil in Pont-de-Vaux is named after him and holds a permanent collection of his paintings. This is Chintreuil by Eugène Villain (1821-97).

La Ferme de Courgent, still a small village in Yvelines.

Bruyères et gênets en fleurs dans le bois d'Igny (Essonne).

Bois de Boulogne, long before tourists and night-time activities changed it.

Chemin à travers bois.

12 November 2020

Patrick Lapeyre: Paula ou personne (2020)

Take two people like Jean Cosmo and Paula Wilmann – meeting quite by chance at a wedding reception – although Jean doesn't really know the bridegroom and suspects he's just been invited to make up the numbers on the groom's side, and Paula doesn't really like the bride (her cousin) and has only come because she was asked. In fact, neither Jean nor Paula would have been there under normal circumstances, it's just chance that brings them together. In addition, they met nearly twenty years before, as Jean recognises Paula as the younger sister of Alicia, whom he used to go out with when she was just thirteen. So they have something to talk about and agree to meet at a future time.

Jean is really excited about meeting Paula because it's a long time since he's had a date. But then, so many things separate them: she is a schoolteacher of German, whereas he works in a sorting office in a large post office and comes from a very humble family which didn't have a bathroom or have any books; she's a Catholic in a Catholic school, married to a German with a comfortable job; he lives in a lousy flat in 93 (in Montreuil), and she lives in les Invalides in the centre of Paris. On the other hand, he spent two years at university before leaving at the age of twenty and married a mythomaniac aged thirty for a few years; Paula loves her husband, but her sex life with Andreas is very poor and she has a separate flat near les Invalides where she can be herself. Plus, she doesn't see eye to eye with the other teachers, and the self-taught Jean can bowl her over with his philosophical ideas, particularly Heidegger's. Their impending fusion is a forgone conclusion.

And although it takes over five weeks for them to end up in bed, the wait (and Patrick Lapeyre's books are full of waiting) takes far less time than the central characters in his other books. But needless to say, waiting being something of a religion almost in Lapeyre's novels, it still exists in the time it takes Paula to turn up on a date, in the of number of days Jean has to spend until Paula comes back from her holiday with Andreas, etc. Waiting is desire, and desire is everything here.

The couple have taken a risk and both are aware that their time as lovers is limited: Andreas will inevitably be called back to Germany, and Paula will follow him: there is no way that Jean can support her, even if she wanted such a relationship. In any case, Paula tires in a year of leading a double life, and Jean's insatiable desire for sex is exhausting. But even as they part, Jean refuses to see Paula ever again, doesn't answer any of her calls, and just disappears.

Jean is a misfit, he didn't fit into university, he doesn't fit into his job, and most people don't talk to him at work. Even Jean's surname Cosmo suggests he's on another planet; but he thinks ordinary people are on another planet; he calls a disturbed co-worker who accuses him of sexual harassment a 'sexual' UFO; Reynaldo, a friend of a friend, looks like an extraterrestrial, and so on. Is Cosmo from some other place or does he dream other people are? As Paula puts it: 'You've invented a marginal, persecuted character for yourself and you enjoy him: you're his prisoner.'

At over 400 pages this is no doubt Lapeyre's longest novel so far, and is certainly the best I've yet read.

10 November 2020

Monique Wittig: Les Guérrillères (1969)

I could write a great deal about Wittig's revolutionary feminist utopia, but much has already been written about the theories involved. Suffice to say that this novel shows its revolutionary colours very positively by taking the female plural 'elles' and using it at a default pronoun instead of the usual masculine singular 'il': not only are women being foregrounded, but collectivism as opposed to individuality.

The structure of the novel of course couldn't have been conventional: between the usually small paragraphs there are large white spaces, and every five pages a page is taken up by female names in large capital letters, always forenames, never surnames (or patronyms).

There are three roughly equal sections, each beginning with a huge circle in thick black: zero? vagina? Yes, but most of all the absence of linearity, the emphasis on continuity, a reinvention of time, and we think of Mary Daly and her expression 'the archaic future' in the title Quintessence... Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto (1998).

8 November 2020

Ronald Firbank: Prancing Nigger, aka Sorrow in Sunlight (1924)

The original title of Roland Firbank's short 1924 novel, Prancing Nigger, has today been politically corrected to Sorrow in Sunlight. Partly written in Havana, this book – written by a person with much obvious affection for black people – contains a great deal of conversation, mostly that of the kind we would normally expect to find in fiction about the slave plantations. The narrative is equally colourful: there are not only references to exotic flora and fauna, but the language itself is strange and exotic:

'One evening, towards sundown, just as the city lifts its awnings, and the deserted streets start seething with delight, [Charlie] left his home to enjoy the grateful air. It had been a day of singular oppressiveness, and, not expecting much of the vesperal breezes, he had borrowed his mother's small Pompadour fan.'

This book is not set in the US but on an unnamed Caribbean island, where a family – Mrs Mouth and her husband (whom she calls 'Prancing Nigger') and their children Miami (or Mimi), Charlie and Edna. Mrs Mouth has decided that they are to move from the small village of Mediavilla to the city of Cuna-Cuna, where her children can be educated, where the family can 'enter Society': yes, it's a form of social improvement, where they will be wearing dresses, shirts and trousers instead of leaves and loincloths.

So they move to the bright lights but university isn't ready for the children, although (passing through an earthquake and a religious revival) two of them find an unplanned future: the younger Edna starts living in style with Madame Diaz's son (although probably not for long), whereas Charlie is 'fast going to pieces, having joined the Promenade of a notorious Bar with its bright particular galaxy of boys.'

Firbank's writing is delightfully odd, even when he occasionally seems to be slightly mis-translating from an unknown foreign language.

7 November 2020

Lotfi Akalay: Les Nuits d'Azed (2016)

Lotfi Akalay (1943-2019) was a journalist who, for instance, published a short story in installments in Charlie Hebdo. Les Nuits d'Azed is his first novel, although he's perhaps better known for his work on Ibn Battûta (1304-c.1368), a pioneer world traveller born in Tangiers.

What we have here is a mise en abyme, or story within a story, and that mise en abyme, although rambling and seemingly losing the plot (what plot?) fits together nevertheless, but then the real meaning is the message, which is essentially feminist.

This is Morocco, and everyone, including the women, are sex-obsessed, yearning for more and indifferent ways (including homosexuality), maybe particularly sodomy whether hetero or homo, and yet this isn't a novel of sixties or seventies experimentation. And almost everyone (and not only but especially the law) is corrupt.

This is a kind of take on One Thousand and One Nights, with Azed, the narrator of the tales, fending off having sex with Kamel – who has just fucked his many wives and then divorced them, cast them adrift into a male-dominated, virgin-worshipping phallocratic society – where perhaps their only future is to be prostitutes. But why did she agree to marry Kamel? 'For the [sake of the]  women', she says.

Many authors are discovered quite by chance, such as browsing in libraries, bookshops – especially disorganised second-hand ones, in my experience: the important thing is the randomness, the lack of alpha order – but perhaps above all in France because of its huge numbers of boîtes à lire. I got this one from a boîte à lire, although I can't remember where, which is annoying as I like to know the provenance of a book, to have at least an inkling of its history. But nada – particularly frustrating as this is one I'll keep and mentally note the author. In an odd way, it's rather special.

6 November 2020

Pascal Boniface: Léo Ferré, toujours vivant (2016)

And so we see the back of the hirsute Léo Ferré (at the PSU celebration on 30 May 1973). Many books have been written about Ferré, and this is by a writer who has also been a fan of Ferré for many years. It may not add anything to previous knowledge of the singer, but it certainly serves as an introduction to the man.

Boniface gives the main biographical facts about Ferré: his birth in Monaco in 1916 to a loving mother and a very strict father who wanted his son to be a dentist; his schooling in Italy with friars who permanently erased any sympathy he would ever have for religion; his initial lack of success with the female sex, initially leading him to use prostitutes; his three marriages: the first brief one to Odette, who was no encouragement to his work, and in the early years he lacked professional success; his second marriage to Madeleine, who helped him in his success for many years but became an alcoholic and destroyed his 'ménagerie'; his final marriage to his much younger employee Marie-Christine, who carried the torch for him many years after his death in 1993.

Ferré bought the tiny Gueslin peninsula, to which he brought the very young female chimpanzee Pépée which outgrew the island. Extending space, he then bought the Château de Pechrigal in Le Lot, then the end of the world in France. It became a hell perhaps in proportion as the chimpanzees, a goat, a pig, numerous cats, etc, were added.

Ferré's musical life grew from not being recognised, to success, a leader of the 1968 revolution, criticisms for being what some considered an 'anar à la Rolls' (for which read 'champagne socialist', although he never had a Rolls-Royce), to being accepted in the canon of 'chanteurs à textes'. Many of his songs he wrote himself, although (another delight) he gave music to such writers as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Villon, Aragon, fostered a knowledge of Rutebeuf, and so on.

Most of all, Ferré is seen here as an anarchist and an advocate of free love: someone who loudly proclaims 'NO!' to all religions, all politics, all educational systems. all judicial systems, in  fact all systems because they imprison people, enchain them, indoctrinate them, torture them, force them into believing that their maniacal and brain dead ideas are the only systems we can pursue. More than ever, we need to listen to Léo Ferré's words. Ni dieu ni maître.

3 November 2020

Hervé Le Tellier: L'Anomalie (2020)

Imagine Blake, or whatever his name is at a particular time, or rather whatever his many names are, who is a hired killer, or rather he owns a thriving international vegetarian cooking business (yes, the irony!) with his wife as he has a double life. But then along comes a double. Of himself that is, a REAL double, as this person is actually himself, as if carbon-copied in three dimensions, totally identical, living, breathing, feeling, etc: the same person in fact. When the two meet, he (that is the first Blake) must kill him(self) because how can two such individuals exist? Hardly credible, hardly bearable.

And then there's Victor Miesel, an unsuccessful author of his own books, but who makes his money translating other authors. He kills himself though, but as a result (sort of) becomes a posthumously well-known writer, ripe for publication in a number of languages. What a pity he's killed himself! Although he's not, or rather the Victor who's killed himself has called himself Victør in the new book, incidentally titled L'Anomalie the same as this, Hervé Le Tellier's book – not that that matters a jot though because they're the same person (and not, sort of).

Just to end a very short list of the many characters who have identical characters (and there are over 200, but we don't meet them all), there's Slimboy, the Nigerian singer who's always (sort of) denied he's gay but at the same time always (sort of) hinted that he is gay. He gets on well with his identical Slimboy, and they make a great musical duo. (Of course the same can't be said of all the other identical couples, as jealousy, incomprehension must exist in spite of the existence of psychologists who are really needed in certain situations.)

What situations? Oh, I didn't mention that one. You see, there was a plane (on which the above characters were travelling from Paris to New York) which landed in March 2021, but then there was an identical plane three months later carrying identical people with identical histories wanting to land in New York too. The pilot (who had died of cancer three months before and will die the same death later) doesn't understand (after considerable turbulence) why he is forced to land at a US air force base: after all, not passenger plane has done so before. What is going on?

Le Tellier, OuLiPo chief, is what's going on. This novel is not science fiction but, er, partly extra-dimensional, a kind of 'what if...'. What if what? Well, what if beings existed with far superior intelligence to ours, what if there were far more dimensions than our perceived four, what if – and let's be honest here – we are just products in a computer program, not the 'real' people we think we are?

When it happens a third time though, POTUS has had enough and just zaps them out of existence. We can't allow this thing to proliferate, can we? (Although surely POTUS would have gotten on really well with himself? Uh, maybe not.)

L'Anomalie is an engrossing and provocative novel, pulling mathematics, philosophy, psychology, literature, and many more subjects into its compass. It's a brilliant novel, and I can fully understand why it's the favourite for the Goncourt (whenever that will be announced in these bookshop-closed times).

Just three thoughts:

1. There's a small section called (in English) 'THE PEOPLE HAS THE RIGHT TO KNOW'. I agree, they certainly has: at the end of the book Le Tellier thanks a number of people, although unless this is deliberate for some reason, I fail to see why an apparent grammatical error (singular in French but plural in English) passed proof reading. Can an enlightened person explain? Thought not: it's just an error.

2. Less seriously, the section 'Recontre du deuxième type' (yeah, Le Tellier's novel is full of quotations and allusions to both academic and popular culture) speaks of the 'second' Blake (rather like Beckett's Murphy) tied naked to a chair, although four pages later the 'first' Blake undresses the corpse! Another error the proof reader missed?

3. The novel is set in 2021, mentions coronovirus in the past, but still gives words by a completely stupid 'POTUS'. Now, I write this on the eve of the US election result: I can understand that Le Tellier had to move the scenes on a year because he thought Covid-19 would be short-lived, but predicting the US election? Wow! Some things in the novel just haven't been thought out.