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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.


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, 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

12 January 2015

Dany Laferrière: Pays sans chapeau (1996)

As I wrote in the blog post below, Dany Laferrière left his native Haiti in 1976 after the murder of his fellow journalist Raymond Gasner, and Tout bouge autour de moi is an account of his return to Haiti in 2012. Pays sans chapeau, however, concerns an earlier return he made: his first in twenty years, in 1996. But this time it's a semi-fictionalised account.

Pays sans chapeau (lit. 'Country without Hat') is a Haitian name for death, a place where a person's hat is never worn. And death is very much part of this novel, as indicated by the local painting Enterrement à la compagne ('Burial in the Country') by Jacques-Richard Chéry on the front cover.

Laferrière's novel describes the exile, the narrator (Vieux Os ('Old Bones')) getting together his mother Marie and aunt Renée (who both appeared in Tout bouge autour de moi), re-joining his friends Philippe and Manu and his former girlfriend Lisa, whom he learns has always loved him.

But the 'real' events described between family and friends are interspersed by dream sequences, so that the novel largely consists of relatively small sections which happen in a kind of dream or subjective world where zombies or Haitian gods exist, and larger sections in the 'real' world divided by smaller labelled ones. But there is a certain amount of merging, of confusion between the 'real' and the 'dream' world. The final section, where Vieux Os visits the other world and meets some gods, is logically called 'Pays sans chapeau' after the title of the book, and the final section is a one-page resolution of both the dream world and the real world.

10 January 2015

Dany Laferrière: Tout bouge autour de moi (2011)

Once – on a twelve-night stopover between Miami and Belize – I went to Haiti, staying most of the time in the capital Port-au-Prince ('t' unpronounced). It was a tremendous experience, and has left me with memories as vivid as if it were yesterday. It has also caused me to follow later events in the history of Haiti, including its literature. Before saying a few words about Dany Laferrière's memories of Haiti, I speak here of my own.

My visit was shortly before the fall of the horrendous dictator Baby Doc (who died last October), when the radio jolted you into wakefulness with a military chant in which the words 'Vive Duvalier, Président à vie' are the most memorable. In the heart of the capital the dreaded tontons macoutes policed the streets. And although the people I met openly expressed their hatred for them, I otherwise found very little evidence of open political dissent: indeed, and as Dany Laferrière notes, the people in this desperately poor country were proud of the contradictory opulence of the presidential palace.

The poverty is perhaps the first thing that I noticed on arrival in the city. Tourists have never flocked here, and a white person is a rare sight, a symbol of wealth therefore a potential source of revenue, and I met a number beggars who approached me with highly elaborate tactics, although those offering to be my guide were more common. I saw wooden shacks that were homes for so many people, and saw a whole family batheing in muddy rain water that had collected in a hollow at the side of a street-cum-dirt track.

I also encountered hostility that was sometimes casual, sometimes malicious: the girl in a slum area in Cap-Haïtien who laughed when my foot got stuck in a gutter and said 'C'est bien fait pour toi' ('It serves you right'); and the guy way to the back of me on the empty road to Pétionville who yelled 'Branleur!' ('Wanker!) at me: I turned to look and he verified the exclamation with 'Ouais, toi!' ('Yeah, you!').

These of course are just isolated incidents, and my memory leaves me with far more positive things. The people smile brightly through their pain and their poverty. If you're lost or in difficulty they'll help you and expect nothing in return. I went on a long, gloriously noisy bus ride to Cap-Haïtien, a sleepy adolescent girl lolling her head on my shoulder, her mother next to her bouncing about with the rough ride and to the sounds of the local Tabou Combo band on the bus cassette, all the time chewing on a huge stick of sugar cane. In the hotel in Port-au-Prince a businessman  from Harlem introduced me to la caille, the local name for the mancala board game: he was wearing a tee-shirt with the logo 'Why worry? Play warri' (another name for mancala), but went cold on me when I bought a far superior mahogany version near the central market for $4, whereas he was selling his boards for $10.

I don't think I need to mention the tap-taps because if anyone knows anything about Haiti at all it's the crazy form of transport there. Dany Laferrière, though, does briefly mention them in Tout bouge autour de moi (lit. 'Everything Around Me Is Moving'), his description of the earthquake in Haiti, which took place on at 16:23 on 12 January 2010: the exact time emblazoned on Haitians' minds. Estimates of deaths vary wildly, but perhaps 160,000 lives were lost.

Laferrière was born in Haiti and had left it long before my visit: he worked on the 'opposition' paper Le Petit Samedi Soir, but emigrated to Québec in 1976 following the assassination of his colleague Raymond Gasner. Tout bouge autour de moi was written from the time that Laferrière returned to Haiti for a Haitian-Canadian literary conference, and just after he'd ordered lobster at the Karibe hotel in Port-au-Prince and started on the bread the world moved and Haiti was thrown into chaos.

The book doesn't attempt to be an account of the earthquake, but simply describes the state of the capital of the country as Laferrière witnessed it at the time of the catastrophe. It is related in episodic form in over one hundred different sections which are not necessarily linear and include his return to Québec, then his return to Haiti again not long after due to his aunt Renée's death, and there's even a short piece about a woman in her sixties greeting him in Montréal after recognising him from television.

I know what Laferrière's talking about here, know both the places he mentions and easily recognise the Haiti he depicts, and I'm fascinated when he describes seeing such Haitian writers as Frankétienne and Lionel Trouillet, although I doubt that a great number of people can get a deal from this, and I'm left with an impression of messiness, lack of coherence. That may be because I've read this short account over four days in between which I've been following the insane activities in Paris. Dunno, but I'm now starting to read Laferrière's Pays sans chapeau, which is a fictionalised version of an earlier return by Laferrière to Haiti. It's described as a novel, and I'm hoping to be more enthusiastic about this one.

7 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Michel Houellebecq

As the world now knows, the four cartoonists Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, also the director), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Wolinski (Georges Wolinski) and Tignous (Bernard Verlhac) were assassinated by terrorists at the Charlie Hebdo office in the 11th arrondissement of Paris today. This is a terrific loss.

The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo comes out on Wednesdays, and coincidentally today's issue contains the above sketch by Luz (Renald Luzier) regarding Michel Houellebecq, whose new speculative novel Soumission (the French translation of the word 'Islam', meaning 'submission') was published today. The headline reads: 'The predictions of the magus Houellebecq: "In 2015 I'll lose my teeth... In 2022 [the year in which Soumission is set] I'll celebrate Ramadan".'

I speak of coincidence because the terrorist attack was apparently carried out at the time and on the day of the week that the assassins knew that everyone would be together at the office for their weekly meeting. So there seems to be no relation whatsoever between the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo and the publication of Houellebecq's book, which envisages a future France ruled by an Islamic political party.

ADDENDUM 1: How much actual support as opposed to coverage has the UK press given to this atrocity? Not a lot, as they don't seem to understand much at all about French culture! (Although I like the Independent cartoon of the middle finger of a cartoonist rising from a blood-soaked copy of Charlie Hebdo, because it shows a definite understanding of the paper's diehard mind!) NB: The Guardian has since announced a donation of £100,000!

ADDENDUM 2: The French press has drawn attention to 'Anglo-Saxon' papers' pusillanimity concerning the affair by showing images from some of the papers actually censoring out 'offending' images from example front page copies of certain Charlie Hebdo issues. As Charlie famously said: 'Rire bordel de Dieu!', which could be translated as 'Fucking laugh for Christ's sake!'. Not the thing to do on a day of mourning, OK, but laughter is the very weapon Charlie use to convey its message: pity that not everyone understood it that way though.

ADDENDUM 3: Le Monde has just (21:47 English time 08/01/2015) announced that Michel Houellebecq has suspended plans to promote his new book Soumission. Instead, he is leaving Paris to 'get away from it all'. His friend Bernard Maris – who published Houellebecq économiste last September – was one of the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

ADDENDUM 4: Now that it seems that France has found and got rid of the instigators of the insane attack on Charlie Hebdo, I can only hope that the events of today (9 January 2015) and the last few days don't have repercussions, and that everyone will realise that there is a major difference between 'Islamo-fascism' and true Islam, which is a peaceful religion. I fear, though, that extreme right-wing parties such as the Front National and its misguided followers will view today's events as a reason to reinforce a racist platform. I was struck by this web page from the Nouvel Observateur, which lists attacks on Islam, but also shows a picture of a Muslim holding a typed paper saying 'PAS EN MON NOM' ('NOT IN MY NAME'). (This of course is what many of us said about the obscene Bush-Blair pact, the plan to destroy Iraq.) No, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam: it was the result of a few crazed individuals, nothing more. The web page is here.

6 January 2015

Christophe Donner: L'Empire de la morale (2001)

I don't think it mentions anywhere in this book what the narrator's name is, but it's quite clear that Christophe Donner is writing about his own history, and that the 'roman' (or 'novel'), as the book is described, does in fact contain a great deal of autobiographical information, sufficient for it to come into the autofiction genre or sub-genre.

As an adolescent, the narrator has a recurring 'hallucination' that his fingers are swelling to a huge size, becoming spongiform. He's sent to a special institution in Bougival until he more of less cures himself, but the whole exercise is really a settling of accounts with his parents.

His mother is initially a child psychoanalyst, then she moves to psychoanalysing adults, whereas his father is a communist. The narrator feels that he has to dissect these what he calls 'religions', in an attempt to rescue himself from his demons.

The trouble is, he's somewhat reductive and attacks Freud largely on the grounds of his study of the unconscious and more particularly because of the Œdipus complex. He picks easy targets, as it's not too difficult to ridicule Freud for interpreting dreams as essentially sexually based, and nor is it difficult to destroy an argument that reduces actions to a desire to have sex with your mother and kill your father. Especially if, as Donner says, Freud based his arguments on a false premise about Œdipus: why should he have had a guilt complex about issues he knew nothing about?

And then of course there's communism, although Donner spends most of his arguments against communism by talking about Lenin's syphilis and its effects: there's very little about Marx and Engels, from whom the idea of communism of course comes: was the USSR actually communist then, or simply tagging the name to a very violent regime?

The narrator of L'empire de la morale sees a great deal of violence in both communism and Freudianism, in fact so much that they become the twin evils of the 20th century: after all, communism paved the way for Nazism, didn't it? Er...

By now it's apparent that the narrator is a pretty reactionary, pretty right-wing individual. What we're talking about here is someone who sees socialism, communism, and anarchism as extreme threats to the world, but of the insanities of the right there is barely a mention. What of western governments' supporting, say, Pinochet, or Duvalier, or Saddam (until he became the bogie man), what of the evils of neo-liberalism, which believes in unfettered capitalism, is increasing the wealth of the already-wealthy beyond all reason, and allowing the poor just to die in their rags and ignorance? Not a word.

Sorry, and sorry for the cliché, but left has always been right, and right always has and always will be wrong. The misappropriation of words should never be taken at face value: who today would call, for instance, the French Parti Socialiste actually socialist? Only a fool.

I enjoyed reading this book for a number of reasons, but mainly because it introduced me to the painter Eugene Gabritschevsky, who seems to have been a fascinating (and crazy, but why not) artist. Shame about all the right-wing bullshit though.

3 January 2015

Marie Ndiaye: La Sorcíère (1996)

I read Rosie Carpe (to some bewilderment) several years ago, and coming across her earlier novel La Sorcière I felt I had to have another go. From the beginning the reader is plunged into strangeness, with the narrator Lucie (a witch with imperfect powers) initiating her twelve-year-old twins Maud and Lise into the mysteries: there's an obvious link between initiation and puberty here, as underlined by the girls shedding tears of blood.

It's takes a very short time before Maud and Lise prove to be better witches than their mother, and are ready to fly the nest: they turn into crows while on a train journey with Lucie, then back into their human selves when the train goes through a tunnel; they are also clearly responsible for the termination of their aunt Lili's pregnancy; and, as crows again, they just fly off and leave Lucie when she's on her way home with them.

Lucie's powers are essentially limited to such matters as seeing people in the future or the present which is how, for example, she comes to track down her missing husband Pierrot in his new ménage. Lucie's mother, on the other hand, has strong powers and turns her ex-husband into a snail when Lucie tries to bring them together again.

What the reader is witnessing here is not horror of any kind, not plain fantasy as such, but a kind of magic realism: supernatural events co-exist in world that is only too real – the twins were culturally weaned on TV and buy pizzas from neighbour Isabelle when Pierrot invites someone in from work; Pierrot himself, as his name suggests, is a clownish person who has a job as a timeshare seller; money is hard to come by; and Lucie, struck by the names of the shops in Bourges, wonders (in an all-too-modern setting) if she isn't in her own town, where pretty much all the shops and street layouts look the same.

But other things happen that you wouldn't expect to find in a realistic novel: people can simply appear as if from nowhere and no one is surprised about this, like Lucie's mother and her new partner Robert making themselves at home in the kitchen of Lucie's mother-in-law almost a total stranger to them – in the early hours of the morning and carrying on a conversation and the mother-in-law not batting an eye when she emerges from sleep in dressing gown and slippers. This is a world in which things happen as if in dreams.

There certainly seems to be some social criticism here, and not mainly because Lucie is arrested for the age-old charge of being a witch. Abandonment, separation, isolation, games that families play on each other are central to this novel as in Rosie Carpe. Marie Ndiaye – uniquely, the winner of both the Femina and the Goncourt – is clearly a very important writer, and I shall continue to delve into her fascinating books.

1 January 2015

André Baillon: Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (1928; repr. 2012)

André Baillon's troubled life began in Belgium in 1875, his father dying exactly a year after his birth. His mother died when he was six, and he entered a religious school the following year. He was interned in the psychiatric hospital of Salpêtrière in Paris on a few occasions, and after several attempts succeeded in killing himself in 1932. He is buried in Marly-le-Roi (78), and has left a number of imaginative works, one of the most noted being Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (lit. 'The Luxembourg Earwig' (1928)). Baillon's poet lover Marie du Vivier wrote a biography about him (La Vie tragique d'André Baillon (1946)) and a critical work (Introduction à l'œuvre d'André Baillon (1950)), and although she describes Le Perce-oreille as 'uneven and badly constructed', several literary scholars would disagree with her.

Le Perce-oreille is in three parts and from the beginning we learn that the narrator Marcel is twenty-five ('or fifty') and writing about his life from a psychiatric hospital. Part I describes Marcel's childhood until he is fifteen: the slow dispossession of the family's property until they are living in a kind of boarding house on Île Saint-Louis in the 4th arrondissement; Marcel's religious education, but particularly the occasion when his tormentor Dupéché squashes an earwig in the jardins du Luxembourg; and the brief move to Provence with his 'uncle' and 'aunt' Varia, from whom he discovers the torments of unfulfilled sexual desire.

Part II is the shortest and concerns Marcel's relationship with his friend Charles, Charles's relationship (such as it is) with Jeanne, and Charles's death and funeral.

Part III is concerned with Marcel's relationship with Dupéché and Jeanne; with Dupéché and Louise's wedding ceremony and Marcel's weird behaviour there; and sandwiched between is Marcel's sexual initiation by the much older prostitute Nelly.

These are the mere bones of a story which is not so much a mad narrative as an obsession to write away madness, although the obsession usually takes over and becomes a succession of repetitive thoughts about how things appear to others, how others perceive, twisting ideas, twisting 'reality', whatever that means here. As Nelly tells him: 'Be careful, you live in your head too much'.

Dupéché perhaps has too obvious a surname, and one too easily identifiable with sin (péché), even the devil himself.  But his words Marcel often imagines, and it is simple (maybe too simple) to identify him as a personification of Marcel's self-hatred, self-torment, self-torture.

Things of little or no importance take on a big, even enormous, importance. The earwig perhaps represents a number of different things: self-harm (oeil percé), Marcel's madness, Marcel himself, Dupéché, things loved and hated, perhaps above all the aleatory, but not all of these at the same time: the earwig can change at anytime, transmogrify within the text.

I'm sure there's a great deal more to this book, which is frightening, exhilarating, most of all stimulating, although that would require a second reading: some books deserve a second reading, some don't but this most certainly does. This is clearly a forgotten classic, and I'm very pleased that the small Belgian publisher Espace Nord has re-issued it.

29 December 2014

Christophe Donner: Quand je suis devenu fou (1997)

Christophe Donner was born Christophe Quiniou in 1956 and has written a large number of books, about half of them (for children) written as Chris Donner, and one as Hélène Laurens. He narrowly missed winning the Renaudot in 2007 with Un roi sans lendemain, when Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'école came as if from nowhere to take the prize. This is his only novel I've read, and I'm unsure what to make of it so I'll suspend my judgement until I've read a few more of his books, which should give me a fuller picture of his worldview.

I would certainly classify Quand je suis devenu fou (lit. 'When I Went Mad') as gay literature, and apparently the expression 'coming out' has been used in relation to Donner and this novel, although Donner most strongly denies the tag: he has never called himself homosexual, would deny it under torture(!), and views with horror the idea of anyone being reduced to their sexual practices. So that is categorically clear.

Quand je suis devenu fou is more about obsession than madness, the obsession of the narrator for the male prostitute Nick in Amsterdam. At one point the narrator says 'Quiconque exerce ce métier stupide mérite tout ce qui lui arrive' ('Whoever practises this stupid profession deserves everything that happens to them'.) Interestingly this expression is also the title of Donner's last novel, which concerns acting, and I learn that this is a quotation from Orson Welles, although for some reason – maybe because it's a misquotation? – I can't find the exact sentence Welles used in English. But prostitution is certainly (and no doubt correctly) depicted as a branch of the acting profession in this novel, which reminds me of a particularly brilliantly acted scene by Jane Fonda in Pakula's Klute.

But I digress. The French-speaking narrator, a number of whose biographical details are a lot like Christopher Donner's, is desperate to 'rescue' Nick – who is of Italian origin but speaks English and holds a UK passport – from the 'Boys [sic] Club'. Nick himself says the narrator doesn't know him, and anyway how is the narrator going to, er, pull off such a coup when his beloved isn't exactly wild about him and the whole crazy thing seems doomed to failure before it starts?

But pull it off he does – at the beginning at least: they both make it to San Francisco, but they don't get on, they start leading separate lives, they row, and the narrator pays for him to return to London or wherever. And the narrator sells up in the USA and – sick of Anglo-Saxon culture – heads off for Mexico.

On the way down to Guadalajara the narrator mentions that he plays Brel, although there is no mention – as on the way to Amsterdam from Paris – of a muzzy tape of an interview with Hervé Guilbert (1955–91), a writer much loved by both the narrator and Donner himself.  At his luxury hotel the narrator meets Saúl, who's wearing a tee-shirt of Dalí's Christ, and the narrator quotes Dalí to Saúl: 'The difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.' Saul responds: '¿ Pero quién es, Dalí ?' We know already that the narrator doesn't like his men to be intellectuals, that just complicates a relationship, so, yeah, obviously he's falling in love again...

27 December 2014

Albert Cossery: Les Couleurs de l'infamie | The Colors of Infamy (1999)

I moved straight from Albert Cossery's first book of short stories to his last novel, mainly to gauge the difference. Les Couleurs de l'infamie took fifteen years in the making – or possibly prevaricating is a more appropriate word, as there must have been many distractions. But it was beyond doubt well worth the wait: in Premier bilan aprés l'apocalypse (2011) Frédéric Beigbeder considers this one of the best books in the previous one hundred or so years, and who could argue? At the moment of writing I've only read Cossery's novel Un complot de saltimbanques and his short story collection Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu, so I'm definitely in no position to call this Cossery's best novel, although Les Couleurs de l'infamie will take some beating. When it was first published Cossery was eighty-six years old, and it shows him as a master of suspense: short it certainly is, and I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.

The main character is the twenty-three-year-old Ossama, who is a thief and dresses like a dandy not because he's rich – he certainly doesn't want to be rich – but because he has far more chance of being a successful thief if he dresses smartly than if he dressed as a beggar. He's a Cossery character and his ideology can be very neatly summed up by his rather Fagin-like former teacher Nimr:

'There is nothing more immoral than stealing without risk. Risk is what distinguishes us from bankers and their like who practise legalised theft under the government's patronage.' (My translation.)

Yes, Cossery was well on the ball, and might even have been predicting a global financial crash. In his topsy-turvy world, the goodies are those whom most people would call the baddies, and vice versa. For Cossery, the bankers and their allies are the bastards, and the particular bastards in this novel are property speculators.

The initial underworld setting starring Safira, the seventeen-year-old tart with a heart and her beloved but unloving Ossama soon gives way to the central point of interest: Ossama steals a crocodile wallet, which as well as containing money contains a government letter with very valuable incriminating evidence.

The letter is a rejection of Abelrazak's interest in the property interests of Suleyman, whose dangerous cheap housing has killed fifty tenants. Suleyman had tried to buy away the housing scandal as an earthquake, but the letter risks incriminating him, so he thinks he can buy it from Ossama to shut his mouth. Ossama (with the help of friends) decides to keep the letter tied to his chest as it will serve him for future alibis. When Suleyman calls him a thief, Ossama points out that he's nothing like the thief that Suyelman is. Ossama's former teacher finds this all very funny:

'Nimr burst out laughing, a laugh like no other, a revolutionary laugh, the laugh of someone who has just uncovered the ignoble, grotesque face of those who hold the world's power.' (My translation.)
My other Cossery posts:

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

Albert Cossery: Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu | Men God Forgot (1941; rep. 2004)

In 1931 Albert Cossery published his first book, Les Morsures: he was eighteen years old and it was a collection of poetry inspired by Baudelaire and written, Cossery much later said dismissively, 'to impress the girls'. Bearing the view of the author in mind, plus the fact that the book now seems to be virtually unfindable – even in the BNF catalogue – it's probably better to view Cossery's Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu (Men God Forgot) as his first work.

Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu is a collection of five short stories that I see as Cossery's apprenticeship into his own work: it's where he's collecting his ideas, but hasn't exactly formulated them completely coherently. All the makings of a Cossery novel are here though, the obsessions which will fill his seven novels to come over almost sixty years.

Cairo – or at least a place strongly resembling Cairo – is the setting of these stories. And although Cossery was firmly ensconced in Paris Saint-Germain-des-Prés for virtually all the time – from 1945 up to his death in 2008, he continued to set his stories in north Africa. His concern is for the humble, the poor, the beggars, the lazy hashish smokers, as opposed to the rich, whom he sees as 'bastards'. In fact, he also praises ordinary thieves, seeing them as in a totally different class to the 'real' thieves: those in power, those who control, the people who make the money. Cossery's gentle anarchy inverts the norm.

Postman Zouba in the story 'Le facteur se venge' is the butt of many people's anger: he may not be an immediately obvious target, but he is employed by the government and therefore possesses the officialdom gene. He wears a uniform (and so appears military, bellicose), can read letters and so has power over those who can't. As he delivers letters in the rue de la Femme-Enceinte (the Street of the Pregnant Woman) he's seen to be proud, artificial and manipulative. He's in a number of respects similar to the rich later narrators who will be attacked in Cossery's novels. And Hanafi – the ironer whose irons are rusted from disuse and who just wants to sleep all day and have dope-smoking parties – is very much like the lazy heroes of Cossery's novels.

The book takes its title from the story 'Le coiffeur a tué sa femme', in which a father – in answer to his young son's question – says that they are poor because God has forgotten them. All of Albert Cossery's books after this one will take as their subjects these very people and show their lifestyles and the way they go about defying – and so denying the validity of – the prevailing system.
My other Cossery posts:

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

24 December 2014

Pierre Autin-Grenier: Je ne suis pas un héros (1993)

Pierre Autin-Grenier died in April this year. He divided his life between Lyon and Carpentras (Vaucluse), and was incapable of writing novels, preferring instead tiny stories of just a few pages, such as this book which has exactly one hundred pages but contains thirty-three stories.
He is generally included in the same area of writing as François de Cornière and Jean-Pierre Georges, both of whose works Autin-Grenier enjoyed. Je ne suis pas un héros (1993) is the first part of the trilogy Une Histoire, which also includes Toute une vie bien ratée (lit. A Completely Wasted Life') (1997) and L'éternité est inutile ('Eternity is useless') (2002). Autin-Grenier dedicated Toute une vie to his dog Music. The first story of that is called 'Je n'ai pas grand chose à dire en ce moment' ('I've not a great deal to say at the moment'), which of course is hardly the kind of beginning to set the world alight.

I suspect Autin-Grenier is known by very few people outside France, and even within his own country itself I doubt if very many people are aware of his existence. He nevertheless has a small, very devoted, group of enthusiasts: he's something of a cult figure.

The title Je ne suis pas un heros ('I'm not a hero') and Roland Topor's painting Rire panique ('Panique Laughter') on the front cover say a lot. Many of Autin-Grenier's stories include self-deprecation, the narrator seeing himself as a little man in a threatening world, one full of monsters which are often admitted to be part of his own imagination. This is a world of casual, everyday, even uninteresting events shot through with surreal happenings that could have been horrifically treated but are simply seen as part of the norm. In 'Des fourmis', for instance, a man shaking lettuce in front of his house sees his arm drop off and roll into the grass, he rushes to chase after it and one of his legs drop off, he hobbles on and his head drops off, his wife views all this from the window and laughs, etc: reading this is like watching a cartoon.

It's taken me quite a while (well, two or three days) to work out what Autin-Grenier is about, but I've arrived at a very good idea from looking beyond this book: after all, a writer's worth can't be summed up by reading a small quantity of his or her output. In 2010 Les Éditions des chemins de fer published Elodie Cordou, la disparition, a remarkable book by Autin-Grenier having just fifty-two pages all about a woman Autin-Grenier knew in his youth, but who now seems untraceable. There is no resolution and the narrator is just left with his memories of, for example, discussing the complete works of the poet Norwich Restinghale with Elodie.

Elodie Cordou is lavishly illustrated with paintings of Cordou by Ronan Barrot, but Autin-Grenier says that although some group photos including her from her university days may still be mouldering away in a few graduates' scrapbooks, she was intensely camera-shy. Oh, the internet has made things so very much easier, and it's simple to discover that Norwich Restinghale is a fictional character in Christian Garcin's novel Du Bruit dans les arbres (2002), and it goes without saying that Elodie Cordou has never had any more substance than Restinghale.

I'm coming round: the Autin-Grenier spell is beginning to work on me.

21 December 2014

François-Paul Alibert: Le Fils de Loth (2002)

François-Paul Alibert (1873–1953) was a poet and a journalist who was born and buried in Carcassonne.

His erotic gay novel Le Supplice d'une queue (lit. 'The Torture of a Dick') was published and sold under the counter in 1930–31 in a print run of only ninety copies by René Bonnel in the same volume as Hugo Marsan's Le Jeu de l'amour et de la nécessité (lit. 'The Game of Love and Necessity', and an obvious pun on Marivaux's play Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard).

Alibert's second (gay) novel – Une Couronne de Pines (lit. 'A Crown of Cocks') with a print run again of about one hundred – was confiscated by the police.

His third novel – Le Fils de Loth (lit. 'Lot's Son') – was called 'the most audacious' of Alibert's works by Joë Bousquet (1897–1950), who is perhaps Carcassonne's most famous poet. The above scan is the first edition, meaning that it took about seventy years to be published. That was by Musardine, and it has an Introduction by Emmanuel Pierrat and a Preface by Didier Eribon. The cover illustration is from Ils, dessins érotiques de Jean Cocteau (Annie Guédras, Le Pré aux clercs, 1998).

Le Fils de Loth takes as its subject not simply male homosexual love, but also gay incestuous love. At the beginning of the book Alibert uses a quotation from André Gide's Nouvelles Nourritures, in which he speaks of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt and Lot then sleeping with his daughters. Didier Eribon says that this could almost be seen as Alibert cocking an advance snook at the 'psychoanalytical vulgate' of judging homosexuality as a reversal of the Oedipus story: the male child dreaming of sleeping with his father and seeing his mother as a rival.

On first appearances it seems odd that this boundary-breaking book should come not from the literary centre of Paris but from the small town of Carcassonne, tucked away in the south-west of France. But then, there was a long correspondence between Gide and Alibert which lasted from 1907 to 1950: Didier suggests that Alibert was tempted to go beyond boundaries both because that is just what Gide had done with L'Immoraliste, and because of Alibert's taste for Helleno-Latin culture.

Le Fils de Loth begins with the young lovers Roland and André enjoying each other by the sea and Roland asking who initiated André into the art of love. André says that it was his father, and so begins a long explanation with only occasional interruptions.

Every attempt is made to make André's incestuous relationship very natural, wished for, chosen, non-exploitative. From the time that the seven-year-old boy shares a bed with his father when the mother is away and he enjoys his father's rugged masculinity and he is excited by his father's morning glory he knows that there is a power he must discover, although his father Édouard feel something is not right and they sleep alone afterwards, even though nothing of an overt sexual nature has actually happened.

André has never had any interest in girls but is particularly sexually excited by his father. When years later father and son sleep in separate beds Édouard – when he believes André is sleeping – has a tremendous wank (I don't think the word 'masturbate' is ever used), and André knows that he is having this effect on his father. But neither can express their feelings for each other.

It remains for Édouard's friend Michel to play Cupid and bring the fifteen-year-old André sexually together with his father, and the lovers have a number of days of unbridled passion, with full descriptions of many of their activities.

In the end André dies of meningitis, the nameless mother dies, Édouard is living with Michel, and the reader wonders what to make of all this. It wouldn't have been possible to publish this book in the 1930s, and although now pretty much anything of a sexual nature goes in terms of the written word the fact remains that even though André is a more than willing partner and even instigates a number of things sexually, this is still parental abuse of a child.

As Eribon states, and I translate: 'This book will again ask the eternal question: is everything possible in literature? How far can you go?' He also says that Alibert took it upon himself to push the boundaries back, and I think that's the best way to view the book: as a curiosity, a literary experiment.

20 December 2014

Lorette Nobécourt: La Démangeaison (1994)

The expression 'Génération Houellebecq' has been used to describe contemporary French writers not of a recognisable school – and indeed many who could assume this label are often very different from each other – but of a number of writers preoccupied with themselves, the body, sex, and perhaps with the state of France and the world in general. Such writers of course include Michel Houellebecq, but also Virginie Despentes, Nina Bouraoui, Christine Angot, and Lorette Nobécourt.

Michel Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was coincidentally published in 1994, the same year as the publication of Lorette Nobécourt's first novel, La Démangeaison (lit. 'The Itching'). The subject is psoriasis – very acute psoriasis, lasting a number of years, and from which Nobécourt herself suffered in childhood and youth. This book is a fictionalisation, with the protagonist Irène as the narrator.

This is a short novel, but no easy or quick read: it is painful, and Nobécourt makes no compromise with the readers' sensibilities. Before the first page of text, the quotation is by Nietzsche: 'the serpent would die if it didn't change its skin'. The novel takes us beyond good and evil, but the particular remark about skin is very relevant here: it is full of words such as 'skin', 'scratching', 'itching', 'sores', 'swellings', 'pus', 'blood', 'scales', 'wounds', 'smell', 'marks', 'scabs', 'oozing', etc. The reader is forced to some extent to identify with the victim.

Irène has suffered from psoriasis since about six months of age and her bourgeois parents have never shown her any affection and her mother sometimes beats her. Her psoriasis is a mark of her difference, making her a stranger in the world she strives to survive in. She speaks early on of washing in icy water her skin lacerated with 'hieroglyphics', and the language of the body will play a part later in the story.

Irène sees her family as complete hypocrites, making the external show of caring by attending church every Sunday but in private being anything but caring to their sick child. Unsurprisingly, Irène initially sees herself as guilty, as 'abnormal'. But she knows her mental state is preferable to that of the others around her.

One day, pushing her little sister on a swing the corners cracks her head hard and she has to have an operation. But she refuses an anaesthetic, fearing that during the operation they'll take sometime out, or put something in that will cause her to wake up like them, without 'la conscience de mon être: 'the consciousness of my being'.

Irène comes to be her illness, to love it. Her parents are only too willing to send her to a small boarding school, where although the other girls call her 'Caiman' and 'Hippocampe' in reference to the loss of her scales and the roughness of her skin, but at least she can immerse herself in the solitary pursuit of reading. And later she writes and writes in school notebooks, writing the scratches of her body into word.

On leaving school Irène, being freed from her psoriasis, finds a job as a proof reader until the marks return and make it impossible for her to go back to work. The relationship between her marked body and her sexuality is strongly felt not so much so her masturbating alone in bed, or at peep shows, but in her rapport with Rodolphe.

Rodophe is about fifteen and doesn't ask any questions about her body marks, and as he masturbates her she teaches him to scratch her, harder, and harder, and harder. Their sexual relationship lasts a few months until he has to go on holiday with his parents. Then he returns, and she is taken to a psychiatric hospital for, it seems, killing him.

In the last paragraph there are suggestions of an unreliable narrator, when Irène says she's lied a great deal, that she never had a younger sister, she's the eldest, but that changes nothing in the end, as the extremes of psoriasis are real.

I'll be reading more of Lorette Nobécourt.

17 December 2014

Rowena Edlin-White: Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall (2007)

I had intended to tie in a blog post about Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856–1923) with a visit to Bramall Hall, Stockport, Cheshire, but unfortunately it's been closed 'for restoration and refurbishment' since the end of this September, and doesn't re-open until spring 2016. Meanwhile I've read Rowena Edlin-White's Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall, which underlines the very interesting relationship between the North American writer and this part of England.

Kate Douglas Wiggin first visited England in 1890, the year after the death of her first husband, Samuel Bradley Wiggin. It was towards the end of her stay – after she had also visited several countries in Europe – that she accepted Charles and Mary Nevill's invitation to visit them at their home: Bramall Hall, the Elizabethan manor house which the calico printer Thomas Henry Nevill had bought for his son Charles in 1882. She stayed there five days, but this was to be the first of many usually annual visits up to about 1913, after which the First World War – along with Charles's death – intervened.

In her autobiography My Garden of Memory published posthumously but in the same year as her death Wiggin speaks of Bramall Hall's 'picturesque beauty and grandeur', and says that the death of Mary (1901) and Charles (1916) 'left a great blank in my list of English friendships'.

She loved the luxury of the great house, and slept in the Davenport Room:

'When I go to bed at night there is a procession of room-maids, ladies' maids, housekeepers and others, with warming pans, jugs of hot water, candles, eider-down quilts, and hot gin and water! In the morning a procession arrives with different articles, and oh! how I like it!'

Wiggin initially visited Bramall Hall with Chatto & Windus publisher Percy Spalding's wife, although later she went with her sister Nora Archibald Smith (also a writer) or George Riggs, her second husband, whom she married in 1895.

Kate Douglas Wiggin is noted for the 'Penelope' books, the first of which Penelope's English Experiences was published in one volume with A Cathedral Courtship in 1893, although revised editions of each were published in 1900 and 1901 respectively. The germ of Penelope's English Experiences began on her first visit to Bramall Hall, and her most famous book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) – was dedicated to Charles Henry Nevill, 'under whose dear English roof so many of these chapters were written'.

Rowena Edlin-White wrote her doctoral thesis on Kate Douglas Wiggin, and it is clear from the back cover of this very interesting book that she wants the 'Penelope' series to be as well known as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And also, of course, that the link between Kate Douglas Wiggin and Bramall Hall be better known: which it probably won't be while it remains closed.

16 December 2014

Véronique Bizot: Mon couronnement (2010)

After publishing two books of short stories, Le Couronnement is Veronique Bizot's first novel, although she's since written two more: Un avenir (2011) and Âme qui vive, which reached the final for this year's Médicis award. With just one paragraph for each of its eighteen chapters and no speech markers, this short novel initially appears a little daunting, but it's not at all.

Eighty-seven-year-old Gilbert Kaplan is the narrator, although we don't find out his name until much later in this book, which is in many ways a study of the absurdity of life, although its treatment of it is in general far from pessimistic. People in it go mad or are thought to be mad but are dealt with in an amusing fashion – M. Schenker, Gilbert's maths teacher at university, is taken away in the middle of a lecture; Gilbert's first wife (he only had one but he calls her his first), jumped out of a window of their house and her false teeth he keeps in a plastic bag to remember her; Colette Lenoir is a more doubtful case of madness, although she keeps Gilbert waiting in her flat for his old friend Henry Lenoir – her husband – until Gilbert suspects that Henry may have died some time before.

The central absurdity is the fact Gilbert has received an award for an important discovery he made when he was a scientist, although this is so long ago that Gilbert has forgotten what his discovery was: far from being delighted by this belated recognition, he sees the attention he's receiving as rather an invasion of his privacy and disruption of his routine.

And Gilbert's routine revolves around his housekeeper Mme Ambrunaz cooking for him and mothering him. She lives in the large property, sleeping in a room overlooked by Gilbert's stone sculptures left over from the later work he took up before it became too strenuous for him. She obviously lives for Gilbert and there's an unrecognised mutuality in this relationship.

Certainly there are no other people whose company he really enjoys. His brother Victor is preoccupied by his novel writing and his fame, and will never forget that his wife left him and was in love with Gilbert, although Gilbert didn't know this and didn't even have a relationship with her; his son is perfunctorily filial; he really doesn't like his sister Alice, who lives in her beloved Alsace and leaves a tacky souvenir from the place each time she visits him; apart from Mme Ambrunaz, the only other person of importance to him was his sister Louise, whom he's not seen for many years and who ran off with a bishop (now long dead) in order to do good works around the world.

Shortly before the dreaded presentation ceremony, Mme Ambrunaz decides to give Gilbert's spirit a lift by taking him to Le Touquet for two nights: she can stay with a nearby distant relative and show him around the town in the day. So she gingerly spends a while reversing Gilbert's old car which she in the beginning drives with white knuckles but handles the autoroute well enough, telling him not to talk to her as it spoils her concentration. And they both love the brief break, and Gilbert wants to tell Mme Ambrunaz how much he truly appreciates her, but he just can't manage it.

They're both very tired when they return but Mme Ambrunaz is in a hurry to have the holiday photos developed. He says he'll go with her too but then notices she's still staring at him, leaning her head back on the sofa. But she can't see him.

Both Gilbert and Mme Ambrunaz expected that he'd die before her and be buried in the plot that she'd chosen for them miles away from the Paris area, a lovely cemetery in the country. But it happened the other way round and it's time for Gilbert to take a taxi to this absurd presentation ceremony. When he arrives he finds a huge crowd, and spots a little group with his brother, his own son, and his sister Alice. But of course no Mme Ambrunaz, and no sister Louise. He decides not to go in.

Earlier in the book Gilbert goes to a book-signing session to buy his brother's latest tome: a seven hundred pager, because Victor says the public wants big books with big themes. Consciously, I'm sure, Veronique Bizot is making a comment on her own book, which is on the surface quite the reverse of Victor's: it has just one hundred pages of print, and ostensibly has a very small theme. But I found that Mon couronnement has a resonance far greater than many much 'bigger' books. This is a little treasure.

15 December 2014

Erik Orsenna: La Grammaire est une chanson douce | Grammar Is a Gentle, Sweet Song (2001)

I've read this before: it's the kind of book you can read a number of times without its freshness ever leaving you. It's a sort of fairy story for adults.

The narrator is the ten-year-old Jeanne – think of Joan of Arc, she boasts – who has a fourteen-year-old brother Thomas, and their parents are divorced. They're used to travelling by ship to see their parents when school's out, but this time there's a shipwreck and they are the only survivors. They spend a brief time on a small island until their parents come and collect them. But it's what they see on the island that is important.

La Grammaire est une chanson douce is strong on social criticism: in the first chapter we see Jeanne and her class friends being taught by Mademoiselle Laurencin, a woman in love with literature and words in general who has to be sent to have her enthusiasm ironed out and a more 'scientific' approach instilled. On the island the children – who have both lost their voices in the wreck – learn of the politician Nécrole, who sometimes burns down libraries to the delight of 'business men, bankers and economists': limiting vocabulary makes sound business sense.

Jeanne and Thomas are shown around the island by Monsieur Henri, who is a creation inspired by the guitar-playing wordsmith Henri Salvador (1917–2008). Monsieur Henri teaches them to find their voices again, and tells them that without language things – life itself – will die. On the island there's a shop, for instance, where customers can buy words to express their love for someone: saying 'I love you' is not enough, it's a hackneyed expression that becomes tired and wears out through overuse. Words are seen as living organisms that form relationships with other words, which bond, even marry. A very old and very respected woman breathes life into archaic words to revive them.

A sheer joy to read.

(I note that the English translator couldn't decide whether 'douce' means 'gentle' or 'sweet' here, so in the end kept both words: I don't know what the rest of the translation reads like, but the title is in the spirit of the book itself!)