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28 February 2015

François Gravel: Benito (1987)

I was finding this book particularly interesting, especially up to the first half. Benito Brouillard (the thirteenth – or fourteenth if you include a miscarriage – child of the family), as his surname name suggests, is something of a foggy character. As a child of such a large family even his parents don't recognise him, although he does his best to hide himself away in any case.

Benito has something of the Forrest Gump in him, an innocent in a world he doesn't understand, or maybe understands too well. He decides to skip school as it's of no help or interest to him, and it's particularly maths that he's bad at: he has an almost total block on numbers. In his truant wanderings he's welcomed by the kindly Adrienne, the local brothel keeper who sees his very young eyes are aimed at her prostitute Nancy, and imagines him as a future customer.

This is not to be, though, as Benito has no interest in sex. He sees his future as designing plaques for trophies, walking in his father's shoes, although his father takes to the bottle big time and dies, leaving Benito with debts that his brothers and his mother are only too willing to have the clueless young man sign as his own. So they leave as soon as the deed is done, with Benito rattling around a huge house, with many demanding letters that he can't understand so ignores.

But Benito has a gift: he can listen. And many people come to tell him their problems. He listens, but doesn't advise, although he's seen by many people as being extremely wise. (There's an obvious criticism of psychiatrists being paid for nothing here.) And his clients pay him with a great deal of food and alcohol (although he doesn't drink), and even pay him money (which he doesn't understand the meaning of). He gives much of the food and alcohol away.

And then Nancy needs somewhere to live and she moves into the Brouillard home on a strictly platonic basis with her daughter Éléonore, whom she's protecting from the life that Nancy's had as a prostitute, and even tells her daughter that all men are out for only one thing and must be avoided, with the single exception of course of the sexless Benito. And Nancy doesn't take financial advantage of this (somewhat autistic) kindly man, becomes his unpaid secretary, regulates his appointments now that he's a kind of professional advisor, and looks after the money for him that he can't look after himself.

Then along comes the sexually innocent middle-class Raphaël who's fallen in love with the lovely innocent Éléonore who now works in a chocolate factory, and initially there's embarrassment all round, but the story still seems to work fine, although... Although the centre of gravity has shifted, the fascinating Benito now takes a back seat in the novel, in fact it's no longer his novel, and the impression I'm left with is just disappointment: what started out as a really promising book just drifts into, er, fog, just implodes. Which is a great shame considering that it started out so promisingly.

26 February 2015

Dominique Fernandez: La Gloire du paria (1987)

Dominique Fernandez's La Gloire du paria (lit. 'The Glory of the Pariah') is set in 1986, at about the time when AIDS was creating havoc in the developed world but also when very little was known about it. Wildly distorted media scares called it a 'plague' and perhaps inevitably represented the gay community as largely responsible for the phenomenon.

Bernard Morin (45) is a novelist from a staunch middle-class background: his father is a teacher of French in a lycée, and his mother is a well-read worker in a bookshop in the quartier Latin. For three years he has lived with in Paris with Marc Lavergne (25), a law student from a more modest background with a father who works in an office and a friendly Sicilian mother.

Marc has grown up in an era of tolerance whose his parents have – although certainly not as readily as he thinks – accepted the fact that he is gay. Bernard, though, has grown up in an age when homosexuality was taboo, something to hide, but essentially something illegal.

It is the difference between the two main characters' background experience of homosexuality which creates the tension and the interest in the novel, which begins at the time of the death of Jean Genet. Genet's death is symbolic, being the end of the days when homosexuality was associated with the outsider, the outcast, the criminal, the worship of the underworld.

It is just such a backcloth from which Bernard comes, and which he misses with considerable nostalgia. His partner Marc never knew the days of the thrill of illegality, never experienced the multiple revolutions of Paris (and beyond) in 1968, never enjoyed the casual sex of the period. Because of this, Marc accepts that Bernard regularly feels the  need to go out at night, to experience vicariously – on the street, in the metro, etc – the closeness with other men that he once enjoyed much more directly: this is a monogamous relationship.

And then Bernard (against the advice of his friend Xavier Laronde) decides to write a play about AIDS, but before it's completed he is diagnosed as having the disease, and can't complete it. Suddenly all his friends – with the exception of Laronde (and apart of course from Marc) find petty excuses not to visit Bernard on his deathbed.

Bernard's mother has previously visited Marc when her son was well, and reveals that she has known all the time that he is gay, that she pointed him towards Proust and works by Gide, although very near the beginning of the novel the reader knows that Bernard has written off imaginary attempts to question his parents (for instance) about the nature of Balzac's character Vautrin. It is almost as if he wanted his parents to disown him for his sexual persuasion. And sure enough the near-blind mother doesn't want to see her son again, although not because of any disgust but because she realises that Bernard is actually happy being a pariah.

When Bernard is diagnosed as having AIDS and close to death, Marc wonders – not with retrospective jealousy, as he's not that kind of person – if his partner had in fact been unfaithful during his night-time journeys. Then  Nicole, the former wife of Robert – the 'friend' of Bernard's who deliberately avoids sitting in the front rows at theatres to miss any (imagined AIDS-related) spittle hitting him, and who for the same reason has his wife sit between him and Bernard at Les Deux Magots – tells Marc she's discovered the truth.

Some years earlier Robert had badly injured Bernard's thigh in an accidental shooting incident, and Bernard as a result had to have two blood transfusions: one of which was contaminated with the AIDS virus. All of Bernard's friends have been deserting him, but this of course 'proves' that he was 'innocent', doesn't it? Marc, Nicole insists, must reveal this evidence to Bernard, as the friends who've deserted him will realise he's not a screw-around gay, won't they?

Well, perhaps, but that is the worst possible scenario, as Marc – unlike Nicole – knows Bernard and how he has always prided himself on his pariah status, knows how the re-demonising of homosexuality has brought a kind of fresh blood into his veins. Marc has also discovered about friendship, about the nature of hypocrisy, and prefers to give his dying lover the lethal injection, and knows that there's just enough poison in the syringe to take them off together at exactly the right time.

La Gloire du paria is an original novel about the nature of friendship and love, and the ugliness of the hypocrisy that so often rears its head when things get difficult.

24 February 2015

Naomi Wood: Mrs Hemingway (2014)

'Mrs. Hemingway'. With a full stop. Naomi Wood is English with an MA from the UEA Creative Writing school, with a PhD to boot, and this fictional work is based on true events and archival research. The full stop is there, I think, not just because Americans still use it but also because it fits in with the use of the time, like the 1920s swimming costumes worn by Hemingway, Hadley and Pauline on the cover above.

Obviously Ernest Hemingway's work is not the central interest, in fact it's of little interest at all, merely serving as a backcloth to the five characters: Hemingway himself and the generic 'Mrs. Hemingway', who is actually four people – Hadley, née Richardson (1921–27); Pauline (here 'Fife'), née Pfeiffer (1927–40); Martha, née Gellhorn (1940–45); and Mary, née Welsh (1945–61), 1961 being the year of Hemingway's suicide.

An omniscient narrator relates the stories of the four Mrs. Hemingways, each wife being presented in order of her existence in Hemingway's life, although there is frequently a great deal of playing with different periods of time: the end may be related at the beginning of a section before backtracking, for example.

A little of Hadley's tale is told in Paris, although almost all of it takes place in Antibes, France, and it is very much a story of a threesome: not sexually (at least together, that is) but of Hadley and Fife sharing Hemingway until the very tolerant Hadley declares a one hundred day moratorium on the Fife/Hemingway relationship but concedes defeat long before and 'gives' her husband away to his lover.

Hemingway and Hadley went through some tough financial times, although life is made much easier now that one of Fife's relatives gifts them the house in Key West, Florida, where much of this section is set. But then Fife discovers that her husband's frequent trips away are due to his wanting to be with his new girlfriend Martha, a reporter who delights in writing about war.

But marriage to Martha is destined to be relatively short: sick of living in the peace of Havana, Cuba during the war, Martha makes a potentially hazardous journey to report on the war in Europe. And not too long after that Mary comes along.

Mary and Hemingway settled in Ketchum, Idaho, and Hemingway was already beginning to see himself as an old man. Certainly he had health problems, as the ever-loving Fife discovered on her visit to the couple: not just the pills in the cabinet, but the knowledge that he had had EST (ECT) therapy at a sanatorium. Hemingway had quite a family heritage to try and cope with –  mainly the suicides of his father and a brother and sister. His alcoholism obviously made matters worse, and in the end he blew his skull away.

I'm left with the impression that it can't have been easy at all being any 'Mrs. Hemingway', and even though the man may have been to some extent fighting a genetic legacy of mental illness, he comes across as egotistical, frequently callous (both to women and animals), and a braggart.

A fascinating character he may have been all the same, and an important writer too, but I find it very difficult to like him as a man. Naomi Wood has done a pretty good job here.

22 February 2015

Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie (2003)

There are superficial similarities between Philippe Besson's Un garcon d'Italie and Linda Lê's Lame de fond (2012), mainly that the novels have three narrators, one coming from the grave.

In Un garcon d'Italie, though, each narrator has no more than three pages in which to tell his or her part of the story, almost always the 29-year-old Luca first, then his girlfriend Anne of the same age, followed by the twenty-three-year-old (but younger-looking) Leo.

The drama, which is very much a detective story, begins to unfold when Luca is found dead in the River Arno in Florence, where the whole story is set. He briefly describes the events after his death up to being buried and adding a few comments on this permanent location, and says that no one will know what has happened to him – although he neglects to say that his readers will find out in the end.

The autopsy reveals that sleeping tablets were in his system, which might suggest suicide or murder rather than accident: this is for the efficient if slightly unpleasant Inspector Tonello to discover, if he can.

Although the relationship between Anna and Luca has existed for a few years and although the couple are obviously in love, Luca has never wanted to live with Anna and has remained a little aloof, only seeing his girlfriend three or four days a week.

Anna begins to discover something of the truth when she lets herself into Luca's place and discovers the existence of Leo Bertina, whom the police know as a rent boy with a criminal record working around the train station restrooms and whose existence is known to Luca's uptight middle-class parents who reveal almost nothing to her about the affair.

The truth is a little less sordid than it appears because Luca has lied by omission to Anna and has been having a non-paying, loving sexual relationship with Leo, and been the only person ever invited to Leo's hotel room. But Luca had had sex with Leo on the same night that he died, he fell to his death just an hour after he left Leo, and Tonello asks himself if he was stuffed with tablets in an act of murder for which the motive isn't clear.

The third section of the book is short and just told by Anna and Leo, when they meet at his place of work at the station. Here two opposite worlds stumble towards mutual understanding, both obviously intelligent people with a strong understanding of psychology, but Leo to some extent hampered by his inability to translate his eloquent thoughts into eloquent words.

I doubt that any reader suspected an unreliable narrator, and indeed there isn't one. Both Anna and Leo return to their respective haunts to cope as they can with their loss of the same – but very differently perceived – person, and it's left for Luca to give the last voice, to reveal the truth.

He'd had a lot of wine that night with Leo, but he didn't think it would help him sleep, so he buys sleeping tablets from a chemist, doesn't realise he should have taken one instead of four, so feels wonderfully light-headed and starts playing on the bridge parapet, doesn't know it's slippery, and falls. So, verdict never recorded: accidental death.

At only 220 pages in largish print, this is a quick read, but a very fruitful one: once again, Philippe Besson shows he's a powerful writer.

19 February 2015

Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass (2005)

Is this a novel or a runaway train? Although there are no paragraphs in the novel, there are a number of breaks here in the form of white spaces, and although there are many commas where commas would normally be expected, and capital letters for proper names, the narrative (as with the breaks) begins with a lower case letter and there isn't a single full stop, period, point final, call it what you will, this is just one continuous sentence for 248 pages, as if these were the ramblings of a drunk in a pub, or the rants of a madman. I suppose they could be both.

The narrator here is a guy called Verre Cassé (or Broken Glass), and almost from the beginning of his narrative he gives the Republic of Congo's Minister of (Agri)culture's 'J'accuse' as nothing so elevated as Zola's accusations related to the Dreyfus case, but just someone defending the attacks levelled at the 'Le Credit a voyagé' bar and its boss L'Escargot entêté (lit. 'The Stubborn Snail'): the name of the bar (one meaning being something like 'This bar doesn't accept credit') is a reference to Louis-Ferdinand Céline's two novels Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à credit, and this underlines the nature of a novel that is resolutely literary, although also resolutely experimental as opposed to conventional.

L'Escargot entêté is also – no surprises – the title of a novel by the Algerian author Rachid Boudjedra. L'Escargot entêté (the character in Verre Cassé the novel) wants Verre Cassé the man and regular of his bar to write about the characters in it, to preserve the bar for ever. Verre Cassé takes L'Escargot entêté's notebook and starts casually interviewing the bar regulars, although he makes it known to the readers from the beginning that this will be no ordinary, ass-licking account.

But then the characters, the regulars in the bar, are far from ordinary. There's 'le type de Pampers', for a start, who wears four layers of adult diapers because of the homosexual abuse he suffered at the, er, hands of prisoners when he was unfairly jailed as a result of his wife's lies about him.

And then there's L'Imprimeur (the printer), who is accused of paedophilia by his wife, and is sent to the bin for it. Of course, his future is ruined.

Women aren't exactly seen as friendly partners in this book about failed, drunken males, but then there's Robinette (a female version of 'robinet' meaning 'tap'), who can piss for two whole minutes. But when she challenges newcomer Casimir to a pissing contest with the prize of him screwing her whenever and wherever he chooses, he wins genitals down, even 'writing' a map of France including Corsica into the bargain.

And we mustn't of course forget Verre Cassé himself, who has a serious drink problem, which is made worse by him losing his position as school teacher, as well as his wife ditching him. That's probably why in the end he decides, at the age of 64, to drown himself and join his mother in the River Tchinouka. But has something been lost by way of unreliable narrative? We'll never know.

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, there are many literary references in this book, which in fact includes a huge number of titles, the vast majority of them not indicated as titles but playfully embedded in the narrative, and of which the following are just a small number, and I've added the name of the author in brackets: Je m'en vais (Jean Echenoz); Apprendre à finir (Laurent Mauvignier); Orange méchanique (Anthony Burgess); Les Mains sales, Les Chemins de la liberté, and the expression 'l'enfer c'est les autres' from Huis Clos (Jean-Paul Sartre); Trop de soleil tue l'amour (Mongo Beti); L'Enfant noir (Camara Laye); À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Marcel Proust); Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (Ousmane Sembene); La Cantatrice chauve (Eugene Ionesco) – also, like L'Escargot entêté, a character in the book; Journal d'un curé de compagne (Georges Bernanos); Chronique de la dérive douce, L'Odeur du café, and Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (Dany Laferrière); Les Particules élémentaires (Michel Houellebecq); Requiem pour une nonne (William Faulkner); On ne badine pas avec l'amour (Musset); Le Paysan parvenu (Marivaux); Tartuffe, Le Malade imaginaire and Le Misanthrope (Molière); Vipère au poing (Hervé Bazin); Belle de seigneur (Albert Cohen); La Porte Étroite (André Gide); Les Enfants terribles (Jean Cocteau); La Vie devant soi (Romain Gary as 'Émil Ajar'); Querelle de Brest (Jean Genet), etc, etc. In addition, Mabanckou claims that Frédéric Dard (or San Antonio if you prefer) said 'Il faut battre le frère quand il est chauve' – meaning 'You've got to strike your brother when he's bald', instead of the traditional proverb 'Il faut battre le fer quand il est chaud' (or 'You've got to strike when the iron's hot'): this is a pun that just doesn't work in English, but gives some idea of the literary games in this book. Oh, and there's even a reference to Georges Moustaki with 'ma gueule de métèque'.

Oddly, I didn't notice a single reference to a female author, but surely there must be some? Still an amazing, hilarious book in spite of the lack of women, and surely worthy of the prix Renaudot that it won.

18 February 2015

Michel Houellebecq: La Carte et le territoire | The Map and the Territory (2010)

Finally, Michel Houellebecq won the Goncourt in 2010, with a book that doesn't contain graphic sex scenes, that doesn't really contain anything controversial, but it's his longest novel to date and contains just two central characters: the artist Jed Martin and the writer Michel Houellebecq.

Apart from a brief (kind of) introduction and a slightly longer 'Epilogue' (actually named so),  La Carte et le territoire is in three unnamed and almost equal parts: the first deals with Jed Martin's photographic career, the second his career as a painter and his relationship with Houellebecq, and the third is essentially a digressive detective story about the murder of Houellebecq and the solving of its mystery. Particularly in the first two parts, there are references to a number of people both real and imagined.

Jed Martin then is a the main character in the first part, which traces the artistic ascent of the single Jed Martin, who initially makes his name as a photographer of Michelin maps, in the process becoming the lover of the beautiful Russian girl Olga, who works for Michelin and both the girl and the company give their full support for what Jed is doing. When Olga decides to return to Russia for a much more remunerative post Jed declines to leave with her, although both parties are obviously upset by the split. And so ends what we might call the first part of Jed's artistic career.

The second part traces Jed's career as a painter, which is when he becomes associated with the self-confessed non-intellectual but entrepreneurial galeriste Franz: their partnership will bring in megabucks that allow Jed to retire as a near-recluse. Olga returns to Paris, but Jed considers that she will be better off without him. A vital element in the second part is Jed managing to secure Houellebecq's agreement to write the Introduction to Jed's forthcoming exhibition programme. This is where some of the book's amusement lies: in the exaggerated, self-deprecatory descriptions of the alcoholic Houellebecq, who lives as a virtual recluse in rural Shannon. Five to ten pages are all that are needed and the difficult Houellebecq has the choice between a lump sum of ten thousand euros or a painting by Jed. A portrait of the writer is decided on, which involves re-visiting him and taking many photos of this man who now glugs down Jed's four hundred euro wine as if it were plonk and is clearly not in an altogether sober or coherent state. But the exhibition proceeds after the writer puts together fifty pages, Houellebecq gets a painting worth very much more than the original fee in euros, and that's, well, not exactly the end.

The third part could have read as a straightforward detective story, only there are digressions that certainly wouldn't have been out of place in David Foster Wallace's fiction or non-fiction. There is a horrific murder of Michel Houellebecq, beheaded at his home along with his dog, and anatomical pieces are spread about the room as if they are art exhibits. (This means it's time for the reader to be told about the cop Jasselin's oligospermatic problems, and an explanation of the meaning, and the fact that he and his wife choose to have a dog instead, but although they succeed in getting their dog Michel to mate and produce Michou, they could no longer have a dog of the same family after that as Michou's testicles won't descend because his dad is too old. Ahh.) Anyway, the crime has no apparent motive, until towards the end a versed-in-art cop realises that a collector of rare insects as well as art has the portrait of Houellebecq, worth by that time maybe twelve million euros. Retirement time for Jed.

As so often with Houellebecq, there are a number of references to what it is like to live in the modern world of capitalism-gone-mad, of which these are only too examples: Jed listening for ever to the phone 'music' as he waits to put in a request for someone to service his heater, when the Croatian guy a few blocks away can do the job much faster and no doubt much cheaper; and the ludicrously cheap airline company that's not so cheap after various bits are added to the bill.

Right at the beginning of the novel we have the failed portrait of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst that Jed is forced to slash in frustration at being unable to get Koons' face right, although the painting of the meeting between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs is a highly lucrative seller. There are several references to writer and critic Frédéric Beigbeder, whom I'm sure Jed didn't paint, although there's mention of him as a Sartre for the 2010s. Well...

Well, the above comment may require absolutely no thought, or a great deal of it, although it takes me no thought at all to see this as the best novel by Houellebecq I've yet read. Which makes me feel a little squeamish about attacking Soumission too shortly – I have a few (maybe unfounded, admittedly) doubts about that one.

14 February 2015

Marie Ndiaye: Trois femmes puissantes | Three Strong Women (2009)

I've read a few non-professional reviews of Marie Ndiaye's Trois femmes puissantes written by French people of course reading the book in its original language but who have just been forced to abandon it at quite an early stage. But I didn't get the impression that these are readers whose normal staple diet consists of works by, say, Marc Levy, Guillaume Musso or Katherine Pancol, and I have an understanding of the problem: Marie Ndiaye is not an easy writer to read by any means, but reading this Goncourt-winner slowly has proved quite a revelation: Ndiaye may well be difficult, and I've by no means got to the bottom of what she's up to, but (unlike shall we say Alexis Jenni?) she is well worth the effort.

Trois femmes puissantes involves three apparently loosely related stories concerning three women: the first section (about one hundred pages) concerns Norah, the third (about ninety pages) concerns Khady Demba, and the largest (central) section (about 160 pages) has Fanta as a kind of permanent backcloth to her husband Rudy's thoughts. All three stories are told by a third person narrator who has omniscient access to Norah's, Rudy's and Khady's thoughts. But the thoughts aren't necessarily always reliable.

Norah's story takes place in Senegal, where her father whom she has not seen for many years has summoned her from France. Their relationship has never been warm, and he has always been arrogant and distant towards Norah (now a lawyer in France), although she is shocked by the fact that this once-prosperous man is now relatively poor, and even more shocked to learn that her brother Sony is in prison awaiting trial accused of strangling his step-mother, by whom Sony has twins. But Sony informs Norah that his father, who wants Norah to defend Sony, is the real murderer, who holds his dead wife (as opposed to Sony) as the real guilty party: OK, it's the age-old double standard egged on by blood relationship.

Rudy Descas's story is related to Fanta's. Following the murder of his father's associate by his father Abel, the French Rudy is for very indirectly related reasons dismissed from his prestigious lycée in Dakar. He takes his teacher wife the Senegalese Fanta and their child Djibril back to France, although Fanta's teaching qualifications aren't recognised there and Rudy is reduced to selling kitchens for his boss Manille, who may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Fanta. But the humiliated, suspicious, jealous and in many ways guilt-riven Rudy is frightened Fanta will take his son from him and his impotent envy even leads him to consider killing the successful sculptor Gauquelan.

Finally there is Khady Demba's story. Having lost her husband, Khady goes to live with her in-laws, although her presence is resented by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, largely because she is not a direct relative but also because she has been unable to produce a child. Her mother-in-law grudgingly gives her a pittance and tells her not to come back. This story is the most harrowing of the three, involving Khady becoming destitute, injuring her leg on a nail when escaping from a boat, being forced into a horrific life of prostitution, robbed by Lamine whom she believed to be her only friend, and eventually falling to her death in an attempt to flee to Europe.

The obvious links between the three stories are that Norah's father made his fortune through the holiday village Dara Salam, which Abel has built and in which the young Rudy and his parents lived for some time; and Khady is Norah's father's servant, and a cousin of Fanta's sent by her in-laws on the extremely hazardous journey to Fanta's home in France, where they believe that Fanta is rich and will send them money.

Why Ndiaye is difficult to understand is because she makes no compromises, she makes the reader work, and this is surely part of her great strength as one of the (if not the) most important living writers in French. Khady's story is straightforward, told in consecutive (and much more physical and graphic) terms than the other stories: in Norah and Rudy/Fanta's stories, we are slowly – often drip by drip – fed stories out of sequence, we are left to piece together the information to form an idea of a picture.

This is apparently Ndiaye at her most 'realist' so far, largely abandoning the 'fantastic' of previous books, although there's still a deal of what seems to be symbolism here, and that largely comes from the birds mentioned, and Ndiaye is a Hitchcock enthusiast. Norah's father regularly perches bird-like in the flamboyant tree; the dying Khady believes she sees herself reincarnated as a grey bird; but most prominent of all  – sent by Fanta, or is that part of an over-active imagination/possible psychosis? – a buzzard seeks to attack Rudy. I'm sure Marie Ndiaye didn't intend (even the same) birds to represent one particular thing, but that only makes reading her all the more interesting. There's a great deal to chew on here, and I shall in future be re-reading this book and certainly more of hers, and no doubt adding to and altering this post, thinking what a fool I've been to miss the obvious.

At one point, the narrator says of Rudy: 'soudain il discerna sans erreur possible ce que ses yeux s'étaient contentés d'effleurer tout à l'heure sans l'interpréter', or 'suddenly he saw beyond any possible error what his eyes had previously been content to glaze over without interpreting'. (My translation.) Yes, I think that neatly sums up what a careful read of Marie Ndiaye can bring out.

10 February 2015

Lemn Sissay's 'RAIN', Manchester (UK)

I'd looked for Lemn Sissay's wall poem 'RAIN' several years ago, but it may have been the foliage in front of it that prevented me from seeing it. With no foliage, though, it shows itself, although this wasn't where I'd originally thought: it's nearer to Manchester than the poem on Hardy's Well wall, and just before the Curry Mile on Oxford Road.

You have to read it from up and down each line to see the sense:

'When the rains falls they talk of Manchester but when the triumphant rain falls we think of rainbows it's the Mancunian way'

Marcela Iacub: Belle et Bête (2013)


Let's get one thing clear from the start: this book is not the product of a fame-struck bimbo, but of a very intelligent woman with a doctorate in Social Sciences and twelve serious publications behind her before this one. Why she became so emotionally involved with such a monster as Dominique Strauss-Kahn – better known as DSK – she tries to explain in Belle et Bête, although the essential mystery to me is what the above inserted leaflet could possibly be expected to achieve.

DSK wanted to ban this book, although he only succeeded in forcing the publishers Stock to include this leaflet in each copy of Marcela Iacub's book. But although the leaflet announces in huge letters that DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN condemns it, and although in smaller print it announces that 'Dominique STRAUSS-KAHN' is (through a legal process) informing the reader that he considers this book an attack on his private life, there is virtually nothing in this book that associates DSK's name with it.

Marcela Iacub's book is in many ways very restrained: not one name is mentioned in the book itself: no mention of Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself, nor his (now ex-)wife Anne Sinclair, nor the domestic Nafissatou Diallo he was accused of raping in the New York Sofitel. Sofitel is briefly mentioned, as is Lille, but not the Lille hotel itself which is the centre of controversy there. If a person picking up this book knew nothing of DSK, they wouldn't learn anything of his actual existence from this book. In fact, Belle et Bête could be pure fiction, so what exactly was DSK worried about to suggest that it is not?

Belle et Bête is the story of someone who is half-man, half-pig, although the narrator doesn't realise this until she meets him at the Dali in 2012 and he wants to lick off her eye makeup, and as the relationship continues he pours liquid in her ears and sticks his tongue right in, and then at the end – months after – he eats her ear and she lies to the doctor that her dog has bitten her, so the doctor advises her to have him put down. Hmm. At least that ends the relationship, but these eyes and ears are surely not about what they appear to be? We're talking metaphor, aren't we?

DSK's career as head of the IMF and probable future president of France were swiftly demolished, but his credibility was no doubt unaltered by this book, although the future – which includes his Carlton Club case – remains to be seen. This is a fascinating book in its own right: what has DSK to do with it, apart from his name on the inserted leaflet?

9 February 2015

Chloé Delaume: Le Cri du sablier (2001)

Chloé Delaume was born in Versailles, of Franco-Lebanese origin, in 1973.  She spent her early years in Lebanon, but returned to France with her parents. When she was nine she witnessed her father killing her mother in the kitchen at point blank range before turning the gun on himself. She later changed her name from Nathalie Dalain, taking her new name from two fictional works: her forename from Boris Vian's L'Écume des jours, and surname from Antonin Artaud's L'Arve et l'Aume.

Le Cri du sablier (lit. 'The Cry of the Hourglass') is the story of what happened before the violence, as well as the unravelling of the heritage left by her family situation. The novel is a kind of catharsis, essentially 'killing the father'. As she says, using the metaphor of the hourglass: 'I will empty myself of the father. Grain by grain.'

This is autofiction rather than an attempt at straight autobiography, which Delaume finds is a very useful tool for experimental writing, and she partly weaned herself on Oulipo. This novel contains neologisms, sometimes strings of words with no commas, although the comma is her preferred means of punctuation, so no colons, semi-colons, she hates question marks, so there isn't a single one, and sometimes there aren't even capital letters following the ends of sentences. The writing is often impressionistic, as in:

'Because always on Saturdays the cars were waiting in front of the school entrance car doors ejaculating parental effusions the mummies smelling good their salivary kisses the daddies smiling rosily tweaking moustaches.' (My translation.)

The mother doesn't come out of this well either: she neglects the child and the narrator suggests that on being left alone her mother was disappointed that during that time she hadn't stuck her fingers in a plug socket or played with the iron that had been left on.

But of course most of the venom is left for the father, the man who is a sea captain and often absent, who is abusive to the child, strangles the cat and serves the hamster as an hors d'oeuvre. When she was standing in the kitchen with bits of her mother on her clothing he pointed the gun at her after but then turned it on himself and a part of his exploded head touched her cheek. It was several months before the child could speak again. (A few years after this book was published Delaume learned from her grandmother that the man wasn't actually her father, but that's irrelevant here.)

Surprisingly – or maybe amazingly is more appropriate – occasional humour pokes through the gloom. The narrator is obviously fascinated with words, and the child looks up things she doesn't know, and after she hears a young guy call his moped an 'enculé' – 'fucker' is the best translation, although literally it means someone who is fucked up the ass – she looks up the word in her illustrated Larousse, but doesn't find it. Her mother tells her it's for 'queers' who do it the other way round, although the word for 'queers' she uses is 'tatas', which is also a children's word for 'aunts', which is the meaning the girl understands. So next time her aunt comes she says 'Bonjour enculée': the mother sees the funny side of this, but the aunt doesn't.

This is not an easy book to read for a number of reasons, but it is wholly original, and I'll have to find out what some of Chloe Delaume's other books read like.

6 February 2015

Jean Echenoz: Ravel (2006)

Jean Echenoz's Ravel is the first of a series of three biographical novels, which were followed by Courir (2008) about the Czechoslovakian athlete Emil Zátopek, and Des éclairs, about the Austro-Hungarian inventor Nikola Tesla. The novel covers the final ten years of composer Maurice Ravel's life, from 1927 to 1937.

The book begins when the meticulous Ravel is taking a bath at his house in Monfort-l'Amaury (now a museum) before being driven by the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange to the Gare du Nord to take the train to Le Havre and board the liner for the United States. Before embarking across the Atlantic, though, the boat makes a stop in Southampton, where Ravel briefly meets his friend the translator Georges Jean-Aubry, who gives him a copy of his translation of Joseph Conrad's La Flèche d'or.

Echenoz is noted for his preoccupation with movement, and the book lists the places visited by Ravel to perform, such as New York, Boston, California, Toronto, Montréal, and back to New York. When he returns home to France he goes off touring Europe, etc.

The friends and colleagues he meets along the way are mentioned, although Ravel was a solitary man who was troubled by, for example, insomnia, and various exercises he tried out are mentioned. There is a brief mention of Ravel with prostitutes, although this could be one of his jokes, but the novel stops short of any suggestion of homosexuality: a number of websites seem very keen to co-opt him into the gay community, although he was never associated with any sexual partner at all.

Ravel became unable to recognize his friends, his music, or even put a letter together without tremendous difficulty, and following a brain operation 'he dies ten days later, they clothe him in a black outfit, white waistcoat, stiff wing collar, white butterfly tie, light gloves, he leaves no will, no filmed image, not the slightest recording of his voice'. (My translation.)

5 February 2015

Albert Cossery: Mendiants et orgueilleux | Proud Beggars (1955; repr. Joëlle Losfeld 1999)

Préface de Roger Grenier
Nouvelle édition augmentéé et enrichie

This book is something of an Albert Cossery feast because Mendiants et orgueilleux (Proud Beggars in the English translation), in its 234 pages, contains much more than the novel itself: there's also a Preface by Roger Grenier; there are several photographic plates of Cossery, including one of him with Lawrence Durrell, one with the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki, and one of Cossery in 1995 looking at Golo's illustrated version of his book at the salon littéraire in Vienne; there are the first pages of an unfinished novel; there's a Preface of Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu by Edmont Charlot; there are some quotations from prominent people about him, including even a passing mention by Patti Smith; there's an obituary by Christophe Ayad from Libération; there's a note by Moustaki, who worked on the film in Tunisia with Cossery (when Cossery could tear himself from the beach), and states that he recognised in him 'a childhood friend met later in life'; and so on.

A cynic might argue that Cossery wrote the same book all the time, but although his worldview is unchanging the stories – virtually always set in Egypt, never France – are always very different from each other, and always very engrossing. This one, which is a rather black comedy, is also much funnier than the short stories in Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu and the other two novels I've read: Un complot de saltimbanques and Les Couleurs de l'infamie.

The tone of the book is set by a joke that Gohar, the philosopher lecturer-turned-beggar, hears from an acquaintance: in an election in a nearby village almost everyone votes for a donkey, but the vote is rejected because the officials don't want a four-legged ass but a two-legged one. Cossery is always anarchic, always anti-political, and always anti-authority – in many ways he was ahead of his time.

In Albert Cossery's world it is the underclass who rule, who have the last laugh, who run rings round the establishment. The laziness card always trumps the go-getting one, the beggars are always praised and the capitalists mocked, those who work for government are scorned in favour of those who refuse to work. In this particular book, even a man with no arms or legs ('un homme-tronc') is seen as more sexually desirable than a fully-abled man: wonderfully seditiously, Cossery subverts all the norms, all the niceties of respectable society.

As in Les Couleurs de l'infamie, a police officer and a brothel play an important part in the story. Gohar wakes up to find that the 'mattress' of newspapers he sleeps on has been soddened because his neighbour's relatives who have been washing her dead body. Gohar at first worries that the dead woman may have had an awful illness that he might catch from the water, but his concerns melt away as he realises that he must have his daily blast of hashish, which instead of smoking he rolls into a small ball and sucks, anaesthetizing the horrors of a world ruled by madmen and idiots.

The trusty, faithful Yéghan is his supplier, and he tracks his last sighting down to the local brothel, where as a former academic his writing and intellectual skills are regularly used for paperwork, etc. But there he learns that Yéghan has left and everyone else has gone on a day out apart from the new prostitute Arnaba, who is as illiterate as the others: what is the point of reading and writing when you are a good looker and can use your body, she argues. But she wants Gohar to write her a letter to her uncle and promises him that she will repay him.

Gohar isn't too certain how a prostitute would write to her uncle, and initially becomes distracted by Arnaba's shapely naked body under her dressing gown, but this quickly gives way to a strong craving for his daily dose of dope. Arnaba thinks he's excited by her body, but another thing has excited him far more: her gold bracelet, which Gohar mentally tries without success to convert to specific quantities of dope, plus emigration to Syria, where the substance is legal. The letter finished, Arnaba presents his payment by spreading out on the bed, whereupon Gohar falls on top of her and strangles her and then realises that of course the gold is fake.

All of this takes place within the first forty pages, and it's certainly not my intention to relate the full story, but let's just say that also deeply involved in the novel is the obnoxious, concupiscent homosexual cop Nour El Dine, who towards the end strongly suspects that Gohar is the murderer, and that Yéghan knows the killer's identity. Gohar has indeed told Yéghan that he's responsible for the murder, although the small time dope dealer has already decided that he won't grass Gohar up, not even under torture.

Sure enough, the cops start meting out the blows to Yéghan's head, but then Yéghan hears midday being announced far away, so he suddenly announces that it's lunchtime, Nour El Dine concedes defeat and has Yéghan thrown out, then decides that the best thing he can do is hand in his notice and become a beggar himself.

Classic Cossery.

My other Cossery posts:

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Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy

3 February 2015

Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

One of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the US. She is most remembered for Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is set in different areas in Florida and was written in Haiti. When it was first published the novel received some criticism within the black writing community for her interpretation of black speech, even of Uncle Tomism, although there has been much favorable critical revisionism since.
 
Their Eyes Were Watching God strongly strikes me as a feminist novel in which the main character – Janie Crawford Killick Starks – comes to realise herself, her desires and her integrity as a human being, only with her experiences with her third husband.
 
The narrative is told by Janie and framed within a modern setting in which she relates her story to her friend Phoeby. Janie was brought up in north Florida by her grandmother Nanny, who was originally a slave made pregnant by her owner, and who escaped with her child Leafy, who is raped by her school teacher and consequently gives birth to Janie. Because of Nanny's experiences, she is determined that Janie should be saved from the problems she and her daughter had, so she marries her grandchild off at the earliest opportunity.
 
Janie comes to hate her grandmother for the arranged marriage, and her husband is the older Logan Killicks, a farmer who disappoints her greatly because she feels that marriage should be about love, and yet she doesn't feel it. Janie's disillusionment increases, and she readily runs off with the misleadingly enticing Joe Sparks.
 
The couple marry and move to the embryonic black township of Eatonville, where the entrepreneurial Sparks buys up some land, sets up a general store and soon becomes mayor of the town. Again, Janie is disappointed because she doesn't get the partnership she craves for but just becomes a trophy wife to a jealous man who considers it unbecoming for her to have a joke with her customers. Their relationship becomes aggressive and Sparks hits her, even displaying his anger in public. But Janie is saved by Sparks's untimely death, which leaves her a reasonably well-off widow.
 
Janie becomes the object of town gossip when after a while she meets Tea Cake Woods, an amusing man twelve years her junior: he doesn't have any money but is keen to work, although inevitably the townsfolk think he's just a gold digger. But Tea Cake makes Janie laugh, he introduces her to games and shows that Sparks would have considered beneath them, and although this was written in 1937 and obviously Janie can't breathe a word of what happens between the sheets, it's pretty obvious that Tea Cake is giving her a good time in bed: in a word, Janie for the first time in her life now feels like a woman, and feels on equal terms with a man. And not once has Tea Cake asked her for money as all their outside amusements are paid for by Tea Cake.
 
They marry and leave for the Everglades, where they can earn money from the rich soil, planting and harvesting beans around Lake Okeechobee (called 'Lake Okechobee' in the novel). However, they are hit by the 1928 hurricane, and although both survive Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog. It is only discovered some time later that he has contracted the disease: crazed and terminally ill, he tries to shoot Janie, whose only recourse is to kill him. An all-white jury find her innocent, and Janie returns to Eatonville, where the novel began.
 
Hurston herself returned to Florida and died in 1960 in Fort Pierce, where she is buried.

2 February 2015

Michel Houellebecq: Platforme | Platform (2001)

I read Michel Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte (bizarrely translated as Whatever) some years ago, and recently re-read Les Particules élémentaires and still couldn't really see what all the fuss is over the writer. After reading Platforme, though, I'm starting to come round.

Houellebecq of course triumphed in 2010 (in spite of Tahar Ben Jelloun's great animosity) by winning the Goncourt with La Carte et le territoire. A number of French writers and critics call him a 'great' writer; Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, 'secrétaire perpétual' of the Académie française,  expressed her support for Houellebecq as a future member; and Frédéric Beigbeder claims that he is France's greatest living writer by far – Houellebecq, that is, not himself!

Some journalists have noticed that Houellebecq appears to have aged about twenty years since his Goncourt victory, although to my knowledge no one has suggested why this is. Certainly if his new book Soumission – whose publication was completely submerged by the Charlie hebdo tragedy on the same day – is anything to go by he hasn't lost his love of controversy.

But to return to the subject, as I'm saving the reading of Soumission until I've read a few more of the earlier books: this is definitely the best Houellebecq novel I've read so far. And another brief mention of Beigbeder – who in 2011 rated this as Houellebecq's best book – he also rates it as the eighth best book published in the last hundred years. (Beigbeder also mentions a great number of other things in Premier bilan après l'apocalypse, some of which are eccentrically idiosyncratic, so we'll move on.)

As Camus's L'Étranger begins with the protagonist Meursault's mother's death, so Plateforme begins with a sentence about protagonist Michel's father's death a year earlier. And like Meursault, Michel is something of a nihilist: as is Houellebecq? Well, Michel is a character in a book, so let's not jump to hasty conclusions.

The novel is easy to sum up: reasonably comfortable single civil servant (in the culture sector) goes on holiday to Thailand, enjoys the sex on offer, then returns and immediately forms the relationship of his life with Valérie, who was also a single on the same holiday but whom he largely avoided. Coincidentally, Valérie works in the tourist industry but earns much more than Michel: she's a go-getter and climbs the capitalist tree very rapidly. Then Michel – who really isn't into capitalism – suggests that her very slightly underachieving firm branches out into sex tourism, which it does, and with great success. But by then Valérie has fallen in love with Thailand as well as with Michel, and she's prepared to take a huge drop in salary to work for the company there, continuing to live with Michel. But then terrorists strike, killing over 200 people, one of whom is Valérie, and again Michel is alone with his nihilism, but this time permanently in Thailand.

Obviously, my above paragraph leaves out a great deal. It leaves out the controversies: Houellebecq's real criticism of Islam came from his remarks made after the publication of the book; his apparent advocacy – sorry, the narrator's apparent advocacy – of sex tourism was bound to offend many people; and certainly, his insults about the Guide du Routard offended the makers.

It leaves out the love story, and this is without doubt a love story. Valérie and Michel may have other partners, but this is a free-thinking couple and they share partners with each other at the same time on a one-off basis. The essential issue here is their love, which transforms them both, and which existentially destroys Michel when his lover dies.

It leaves out all the sex, and there is much of it, some of it often very graphic.

It leaves out the comic parts, and there are many of them. I particularly liked 'Living without reading is dangerous, you have to put up with life, which can lead to taking risks.' But much of the amusement in this novel comes from situations, such as the barman-cum-waiter in Cuba in his swimming trunks shaking his 'three-piece kit' at the Québecan widows as he serves their dinner and makes them quake with sexual excitement.

It leaves out the satire, for instance, of the art world in the form of Bertrand Bredane, who appears to be a Damien Hirst-gone-mad with his installations of young girls with rotting meat in their underpants, and flies bred from the excretions of other flies and let loose on the spectators.

It leaves out the ideas, such as the decline of sex in the modern world, and sex between two people who love each other degenerating into sex between two people who dislike each other, and perhaps this leads to sado-masochism? Unless capitalists can find a rare way of making money automatically then they'll always be at war with others, vying to make more, and this is beyond any doubt a criticism, a break with the nihilism, but there's no point at all in voting, and politicians are only good for laughing at on television.

Most of all, it leaves out the fact that Houellebecq is constructing a picture – distorted, but maybe not terribly so – of the modern world, of how we live, of how we are torturing both ourselves and each other in pursuit of the unattainable.

I'm sure many people hate Houellebecq, but many love him, although it seems unusual to feel about him the way he – or should that again be his central character – feels about life: a shrug of the shoulders, a je-m'en-foutiste attitude. I loved it.

28 January 2015

Stephen Crane: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was born in Newark, New Jersey and died of tuberculosis in Badenweiler, Germany at the age of twenty-eight. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was his first book and published in 1893 under the pseudonym Johnson Smith, and his brother lent Stephen the money to finance the first impression.

Crane is associated with naturalist writing, and the novella clearly illustrates this. It is set in the slums of the Bowery in Manhattan in the late nineteenth century, where lack of education, multiple childbirth and the inability to break free from the resulting cycle of ignorance, violence and decay are endemic to the social network. The violence perpetrated on young Jimmie at the beginning is an everyday part of the environment he was born into, and a central part of his family life: virtually everyone in the family is violent towards the others, and it is evident that the violence is self-perpetuating. As is the alcoholism which fuels much of the violence.

Jimmie's sister Maggie initially seems to be a big exception: she's a very pretty and virtuous girl who goes to work in a shirt factory for poverty wages and seems to accept her lot. But then she runs into the trap of falling in love with Pete, who is a worldly wise, violent but smooth-talking spiv who wheedles himself into Maggie's life and eventually into his bed. As a result of the hypocritical double standards of the day, spending even a short time living with Pete – who has no interest in her whatsoever after the sexual spark has worn off – Maggie is disowned by her family and equally scorned by her neighbors.

Desperate, Maggie seeks help from a man of religion, who shuns her. Inevitably, the only recourse she can have without dying of starvation is to turn to prostitution.

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In 1895 Crane had a great success with his novel The Red Badge of Courage.

He was traveling as a war correspondent in 1897 on a ship destined for Cuba when it was wrecked off the coast of Florida near Daytona: his short story 'The Open Boat' is based on his harrowing experiences of this accident. The boat had left from Jacksonville, Florida, where Crane had met Cora Stewart, a brothel keeper who was married but separated from her husband. Cora became Crane's companion until his death, still married but calling herself Cora Crane. Cora Crane herself was also a writer, although after her partner's death she returned to Jacksonville and her main income (initially at least) appears to have come from the management of brothels.

27 January 2015

Jean-Paul Clébert: Paris insolite (1952; repr. (with photos by Patrice Molinard) 1954)


I sometimes think the internet – and I frequently ask myself how we previously managed to live without it – has made digression not only an art form but a necessity: the trouble is, how do you avoid infinite digression? I have no answers, it's just a query. After reading a relatively recent online article on the Nouvel Observateur website about the artist-tramp Marcel Bascoulard from Bourges – whose life was traumatised by his mother shooting his father dead and whose own life ended in his murder for reasons that still appear to be far from clear – I clicked on a link related to the (to me at least) unknown Jean-Paul Clébert, in which I read an obituary of the writer.

Above is a photograph of Clébert (1926–2011) from the cover of his first book, Paris insolite (1952), which surrealists apparently called a 'roman aléatoire', or 'aleatory novel'. This edition, though, is from Attila (2009) and based on the 1954 edition, which was published by the Club du meilleur livre, which was greatly enhanced by the 115 photos by Patrice Molinard. Clébert dedicates the book to the photographer Robert Doisneau, the writer Robert Giraud, and Patrice Molinard.

Clébert – until he reached almost thirty – lived the life of a tramp, which made possible the many realistic descriptions in this work, which appears to be the result of numerous scraps of paper such as the backs of cigarette packets and on toilet paper. This no doubt explains the desultory, digressive, repetitive nature of the book, but make no mistake: this makes Orwell's incursions into the world of the tramp look positively weak and even rather silly. But Paris insolite is of its time and obviously a great deal of self-censorship was involved: although the book isn't so much liberally sprinkled with street slang (some inevitably now old-fashioned) as it is stiffened with it in virtually every sentence, the reader is spared any 'strong' language that now gaily adorns many perfectly 'normal' reads. In fact Henry Miller's claim that 'Après avoir lu votre livre, j'ai les tripes remuées' ('After reading your book, my guts turned over') seems a wild exaggeration.

Admittedly, towards the end there's a description of the disinfection of tramps' clothes in which the smell emitting from them being washed reads a little uncomfortably, although – squeamish readers may now wish to skip to the next paragraph – Clébert glides quite smoothly (and non-explicitly) over a paragraph where he says that 'sexual perversion knows no limits'. Here he's talking about the practice of some people dunking pieces of bread into the troughs of vespasiennes: the former men's toilets that have long since been replaced by the sanisettes designed for both sexes. Clébert doesn't even mention what the men did with these soaked pieces of bread a few hours later when they came to collect them, although wouldn't 'gustatory perversion' be more appropriate than 'sexual perversion'? Clébert was no doubt living at a time when these people didn't actually have a name, and although the current Petit Robert, reverso.com and Wiktionnaire don't list the term, I'd previously seen it in a recent online article on Les Inrocks website and promptly verified that this wasn't some kind of joke by checking it out on several other places online: they're called croûtenards.

But let's return to (relative) sanity. I couldn't understand what possessed Clébert – born of a comfortable family – to decide after the war, when he was in his very early twenties, to live among a number of tramps in and around Paris. Initially he says he isn't a tramp, that you have to be over forty and not own a toothbrush to be a tramp, but a little later much more of his truth comes out: freedom is choosing where to live, not throwing your life away working forty-eight hours a week to keep yourself and your family happy. No, that's not living.

And so he chose to live in squalid conditions, very occasionally earning a little money as a métreur-appartments measuring flats and occasionally getting a bite to eat from the tenants but no sexual treats as he had to work with a partner; selling newspapers; and perhaps making a little win on the lottery. He sleeps outside, in squats, flop houses, flea pits, friends' slummy rooms, anywhere he can. He eats unsellable or waste food products from Les Halles and other markets; from dustbins; he scrounges from friends who have a little money; and drinks a great deal, mainly cheap wine in grungy cafés where he can talk to his mates. But he never allows them to think for a second that he's writing a book, as they'd see him as an intellectual, and he doesn't see himself as such; worse still, he's not an existentialist, and he's absolutely categorical about that. He is of course right about concealing the fact that he writes: he'd be torn to pieces if not literally then certainly verbally, and no one would ever be candid with him again. Best just to be as he looks, one of the lads, and there aren't a great number of women in la cloche.

The earthy, honest, largely candid rather than posed photos of Patrice Molinard (taken a few years after Clébert wrote the book) don't merely decorate it but complement it, they often underline the comments that Clébert is making. And even though it was written long before the masses of tourists came, Clébert mentions with scorn the American tourists, along with for instance the bouquinistes who've put up their prices greatly to meet the new money. But essentially of course we are seeing here the flipside of a beautiful city as it was in the late forties: the miserable wooden shacks and houses in la zone, the faubourgs built on wastelands around the old fortifications of Paris; the brothels, and the street-walkers who work for less and less money as they age; the alcoholism, the drinking for the sake of drinking in the bars where the tramps were once welcome and could afford to drink.

Not, certainly, a book to view with nostalgia, but depicted here are Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité within a world excluded from the tourist, where there are many immigrants – mainly arabs but also Jews and other Europeans – who form a part of the multicultural society within a society where there is not a word mentioned of racism.

A book of rare poetic beauty, a gem.

21 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps (2012; repr. with additions 2014)

Daniel Pennac's Journal d'un corps is exactly what it says: the life story of a person's body, concentrating far more on the bodily functions of a man's life than his life story as such. And it's really very clever, but... I find the 'but' part very strong not just because all of this is leading to an inevitable conclusion but because the reader can guess many of the stages in between, no matter how well or how originally they're done here. The result for me was frequent boredom – which partly explains why I took a few days over it – and an increasing feeling of depression as D-day draws nearer. Nevertheless there are many things here to alleviate the boredom.
 
As I mentioned in my previous posts on Pennac's books, persecution is a common theme, and whereas most of the persecution here comes from the narrator's own body, the diary proper begins at the age of twelve, when he's been tied to a tree by a rival boy scout group during a game. And he sees a nearby ants' nest and fears they'll eat him, so he shits himself. His terrible experience is made worse by the fact that there is more persecution to come instead of the sympathy he deserves when l'abbé Chapelier and his mother start bullying him.
 
The diary takes the narrator up until a few weeks after his eighty-seventh birthday – presumably the day of his death – and as this is a 434-page book there are many stages leading up to the end which deal with various states of the body developing and degenerating in between. And many of the descriptions are inventive and amusing, such as men comparing parts of their body as they go through life: in youth, it's muscle size; 18-20, it's the bulge in swimming trunks; 30 to 40, it's density of hair; in your 50s, it's (preferably lack of) paunch; in your sixties, it's your teeth.
 
And of course there are body fluids and solids and sounds, so we're told about not being taught how to piss properly instead of dribbling by pulling back the foreskin; we learn what a perfect turd is; about how having your first wet dream is seen by some guardians as a rite, as a mark of maturity; and then there's vomiting, farting, belching, etc. Even female bodily processes are slightly touched on, as in when the young narrator can't understand why a sign in the toilet warns not to throw sanitary towels down the pan: now who in the world would throw towels there? Inevitably some things would be lost in translation: 'miction impossible' is a good pun on the film title, but in English 'micturition impossible' just gets lost.
 
As in the other novels below, Pennac's love of language shines through, and this to me is the most interesting factor. The narrator finds the expression 'va te chier' (lit. 'go shit yourself') very strong, and states that the verb 'chier' in the reflexive pronominal sense is a deadly weapon,  reducing the adversary to his own excrement: in French, the expression means what it says quite literally – you are in effect telling the person to do the impossible, a literality only someone like Pennac would notice.
 
Again, I was reminded of Queneau – surely the baby question used when seeing chimpanzees de-flea themselves: 'keskifonpapa ?' ('Qu'est-ce qu'ils font papa ?') (or 'What are they doing dad?') is surely too much like the first word of Zazie dans le metro – 'Doukipudonktan' (translated by Barbara Wright in the English version of Queneau's novel as 'Howcanaystinksotho') – to be a coincidence.
 
In the name of delicacy, I won't move on to prostate operations or impotence, but just leave this blog post on a joke, and there are many of them in a book that in the main I'm certainly pleased was written rather than not written. There are several jokes by the character Tijo here, and I think this is the one I prefer, and which I translate so liberally that I leave quotation marks out:
 
A man has a pain in his little finger that moves to his shoulder, down his sternum and to his knee, and it's becoming unbearable. He goes to the doctor, who tells him that the only cure is to have a testectomy. The guy has to think a little about this, but the pain is so unbearable that he just has to have his balls cut off. Some time later he goes to the tailor's for a new suit and the tailor asks him on which side he dresses, and the man of course isn't too sure what to say. But the tailor says the answer's important because if the suit is made the wrong way the client'll have a terrible pain starting in his little finger, moving up to his shoulder, down to his sternum and to his knee.
 
Yeah, I know.

17 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother (1987)

La Fée carabine is the second part of Daniel Pennac's 'La Saga Malaussène', and like the first novel is also translated by Ian Monk, this time with the amusing title The Fairy Gunmother. Some sources also refer to this as a crime novel, and that tag would certainly have more credence over Au Bonheur des ogres as a crime novel, although again this novel is also a kind of comedy, if a little darker.

In the previous post I mentioned Pennac's use of slang, which evidently exists not simply to give the book a crime genre atmosphere, but because Pennac is obviously preoccupied by the use of language, as might be expected of an author whom an Oulipian has chosen to translate. At one point in the book Bernard Malaussène's mother mentions Verdun, who has been staying at their house, and Bernard's thought patterns are displayed: 'Je pense d'abord à la bataille. [...] Je pense "Verdun", "Verdun d'un", "Vert daim", et ce putain de mot ne veut pas me donner son sens. "Ça doit être un sacré problem pour les étrangers"'. In other words Bernard tells the reader that he thinks of the battle of Verdun, then of possible groups of words that the two syllables can signify, but it won't immediately yield up its meaning, and Bernard thinks this kind of thing must be a real problem for foreign speakers.

Power relationships are of central interest in Pennac's books too, individuals wielding power over others mainly in a working environment but also outside it. But whereas Au bonheur des ogres concentrates on the pecking order within a department store, in La Fée carabine the emphasis is on cops and villains, both against each other and amongst themselves. Interestingly, Bernard seems to more or less have the upper hand in his work situation with his new boss Queen Zebo, who significantly is only heard over the phone as Bernard is hardly ever 'on the job', either as an official scapegoat or incidentally with his girlfriend Julia, but that's another story, and this book – as the reader might expect after the first volume – is full of stories.

The novel is best summed up by Chief Inspector Coudrier, who, unable to understand what he calls 'fin-de-siècle paradoxes', thinks the time for his retirement has come:

'... a world where Serbo-Croatian Latinists create female killers in catacombs [at Montrouge rather than Denfert-Rochereau], where old ladies kill cops who are charged to look after them, where retired booksellers slit throats at the drop of a hat in the name of Literature, where a bad girl throws herself out of a window because her father is worse than her...' (My translation.)

This is the world of Daniel Pennac, and although there's not too much about the Malaussène family itself this time, both cops and family are joined in two ways at the end: retired cop Van Thien – who's been doing volunteer police work posing as an 'innocuous' Vietnamese woman – is finally forced to take a job telling stories to the family's kids in his Jean Gabin voice; and – it had to happen to some guy – Pasteur runs off with Bernard's mother.

Bordel de merde!

15 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat (1985)

Au bonheur des ogres (1985) is translated into English by Oulipo member Ian Monk as The Scapegoat, and this is the first of the 'la Saga Malaussène' series, which also includes La Fée Carabine (1987), La Petite Marchande de prose (1989), Monsieur Malaussène (1995), Monsieur Malaussène au théâtre (1996), Des chrétiens et des maures (1996) and Aux fruits de la passion (1999).
 
Some have called Au bonheur des ogres a crime novel, which for me doesn't really hit the descriptive spot: I'd hesitantly call it a superior comedy within the framework of a crime novel, or maybe a crime novel lost inside a comic novel.
 
Descriptions are therefore not easy for this book, which has a multitude of characters and of course bows to Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des dames, set in a large department store in the late nineteenth century and pointing to a future when the small shop will almost be swallowed up. But Au bonheur des ogres is set at the end of the twentieth century, and although the plot involves a series of bomb attacks on the department store Magasin, a great deal of the interest is on the dysfunctional  Malaussène family.
 
Bernard  Malaussène is the narrator, who works at Magasin and lives in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, earning enough money to keep his brothers and sisters alive: in fact they're half-brothers and sisters because the absentee mother spends most of her time with a different partner and seems to return home pregnant at the end of each amorous adventure.
 
I was in some doubt as to whether Bernard's sexual equipment was also dysfunctional because in his first sexual adventure with the very big-breasted and highly desirable 'Aunt Julia' he only has a 'mollusc between two sea shells', although he fully rises to a later occasion.
 
Aunt Julia isn't an aunt at all but a journalist he caught shoplifting and rescued from the store detective: the aunt tag could be seen as a compensatory device because he has unexercised incestuous desires towards his beloved sister Clara, a girl who photographs everything she sees and has her bac exams coming up soon.
 
Of the other siblings there's Louna, who's pregnant by a doctor, decides not to have an abortion and gives birth to twins at the end, causing potential strain on the Malaussène budget; Thérèse who can predict the future and works out that the people who died in the bombings had it coming astrologically; Jeremy is twelve years old and experimenting with explosives; le Petit, as his name suggests, is the youngest and draws ogres. I mustn't forget the remaining member of the family: smelly Julius, the epileptic dog.
 
Bernard's job is in the complaints department, although he describes himself as a professional scapegoat: he's really good at sending customers back home after they are emotionally blackmailed into withdrawing their complaints about faulty goods – Bernard feigns really wild panic attacks, pretending to have the threat of dismissal hanging over him, leading to poverty for his large family.
 
I could go on about the riot of characters who work in the shop, or the murders that aren't quite what they appear to be, but this is probably enough to give more than a sprinkling of an idea of the novel's content and its style, which is by the way breakneck because all the characters and the events are shovelled (I think that's an appropriate term) into under three hundred pages.
 
I'll probably not make it through all the seven novels of the saga, although I'm certainly giving myself a clearer idea of what Pennac is up to by reading the second volume next. Au bonheur des ogres is very liberally peppered with various slang words, and there's a slight feel of Queneau (à la Zazie dans le métro) to it, although Pennac's main intertextual reference – apart from Zola – is Carlo Emilio Gadda's Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1944), which is translated into English as That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, and into French as L’Affreux pastis de la rue des Merles.

13 January 2015

The Voice of Charlie Hebdo (and J.B. Bullet, and Renaud)

The full-page announcement in the press reads 'Ils veulent nous réduire au silence. Ils n'auront obtenu qu'une minute' ('They want to reduce us to silence. They only got one minute'.) In smaller writing underneath are the words 'Nous sommes Charlie' and 'Reporters sans Frontières: Pour la liberté de l'information'.

Below, a link to J. B. Bullet singing 'Je suis Charlie', a protest song that has gone viral. Two chorus lines read:

'Un coup d'Kalach pour un coup de crayon
Tu salis ta religion'

This refers to the work of a pencil being replied to by a Kalashnikov, and states that the perpetrator is soiling his religion. The music recalls a much earlier song: Renaud's 'Hexagone'. This was a very different kind of protest song though: on Sunday the police were applauded as their vans went carefully  through the crowd, whereas Renaud's protest was very different indeed. Times change. (Renaud, incidentally, once declared that Charlie Hebdo is the first paper that made him laugh.)

Links to both songs:

J. B. Bullet: Je suis Charlie
Renaud: Hexagone