10 August 2017

Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école (2007)

The most annoying thing about Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'école, to me at least, is the way it eats into your brain, forces you to think back to your own experience of education. I found my reminiscences of my teachers taking over. I certainly wasn't what Pennac was then called – 'un cancre' (or 'dunce') – although my educational progress was marred by poor education, what teachers thought I was and what I actually was.

Of my primary education I have very few positive memories: there was a weird guy (Robertson, Robinson, I give up) whose hair was kind of plaited at the front and he used to hit student's backs when they couldn't come up with the right answer. And then there was the headteacher who used to teach us as well: a sadist called 'Pop Martin', whom I used to call 'Monkey Mush Martin' because that's what he looked like: he used to slap arses if a mouth didn't cough up with the right word(s). I distinctly remember one teacher (whose name I forget) bursting in on excusing the one teaching for his interruption, pointing to one of the pupils and asking 'Do I frighten you? Well, under the circumstances what answer could the pupil come up with but a negative? I don't vividly recall much else of Seely Primary, Sherwood, Nottingham, and it's probably just as well.

Before I went to High Pavement Grammar, Bestwood Park, Nottingham, Monkey Mush Martin burst into the classroom and feigned incredulity that I hadn't dashed into his room and announced (as if it were the Holy Grail) to him that I'd made it to the school. As my experience of High Pavement proved, I was underwhelmed, and had every reason to be so.

But oh, the horrors of High Pavement Grammar! Memory is obviously selective, and we all tend to remember the best times and/or the worst or the funniest. I think Baudelaire was on the menu at the time, but anyway a French teacher called Rudd (and if I ever knew his forename I forget) was asking a question which involved prostitution. The guy next to me was my former friend Raf Pérez, who showed me a note on a piece of paper saying 'Watch Rudd go red.' Rudd saw the manoeuvre, shot up in appropiate anger and indignation and demanded to know the content of the note. Raf hesitated, but knew he had to say something as outrageous as the note (only not so personal), and just said 'Are you going down the Scotch Bar tonight?'. There ensued an obvious bollocking by Rudd (who once, in private, pompously informed that he knew people who could run circles round me intellectually) but the truth was skilfully avoided by Raf.

The truth always seemed to be hidden at High Pavement, which (to me and many others, I know) just seemed to be a breeding ground or a playing field in which teachers could display their neuroses. Music rehearsals for the horrific speech days (how things looked were vital) were given more importance than, er, education.

There were fortunate breaks from the boredom and insanity of it all, such as the intentionally eccentric English teacher Bill Gray, who almost always wore odd socks and claimed the Earth was obviously flat. In his local boozer, The Grosvenor on Mansfield Road, a little after I'd left the school, he joked that he wanted to put on a school play, Oh Calcutta! (incidentally a pun on the French 'Ô quel cul t'as !', or 'Oh what an arse you've got!'), the lead role being taken by 'the kid with the biggest cock in the school': well, we can all have our fantasies.

For the record, I thought the English teacher Keith Dobson was by far the best of a poor bunch, in spite of his being (like the other English teacher, the writer Stanley Middleton (always Stan Middo to us)) also a dreaded Leavisite, those infuriating people who believed that a work should be read as is, without biographical, social, psychological, etc, umbilical attachments. In retrospect: how can much knowledge be known of a book if no outside knowledge of it is allowed?

My father thought I was a waster and wouldn't sign any university forms, although my mother (bless her) was quite willing to. No, I had principles, and worked for three years to gain independent student status before taking a BA in French of the University of Leicester. I loved it, especially the year in Albi (lengthened to two with a little bit of cunning on my part). But I'd always wanted to continue, be an eternal student or something, get an MA, even (some hope) a PhD. Just who did I think I was?

And then, years later, I filled in a form to study Literature three years part-time with the Open University. And it worked like a dream, I drank in any information I could get, and read, read, read. My tutor for most of the time, Dr Stella Brooks, had faith in me, and that counts for multitudes: I gained an MA with Distinction, my dissertation on local author James Prior's novel Forest Folk seen as a dialogue with the New Woman.

But there were problems: shortly before getting my MA I had a truly bizarre interview with a certain Dr Guy of the University of Nottingham, who told me that I'd be wasting my money going for a PhD, and that I should be taking an MA (again!) but this time with Nottingham University: the wonderful Stella's email reaction to Dr Guy after I told her of her assessment: 'nevereardover'. And a Stevie something (who didn't even have a PhD) of Nottingham Trent University scoffed and told me I'd never get a PhD.

Thanks to Stella's efforts I obtained a three-year bursary (including a research trip to Southern Illinois University) from the Open University to study the interwar working-class anarchist writer Lionel Britton's work in the context of other working-class British working-class writers of the time, along with (then) contemporary novels by outsiders, in a Sartrean context. I had a marvellous time!

And I passed. which shows that (like the 'dysorthographic' Daniel Pennac) if a teacher has faith in you, you'll have faith in yourself, and succeed.

8 August 2017

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Le Collier rouge (2014)

Jean-Christophe Rufin, as in his Goncourt-winning Rouge Brésil, is interested in culture conflict. Le Collier rouge is more about the conflict of two political ideologies, or is it really? Maybe the conflict between the animal and the human world, to the detriment of the human? Or what exactly is the main theme?

Whatever the conclusion reached, the origins of this short novel began in Jordan in 2011, when Rufin, working for an unnamed weekly magazine, was enjoying one of his many idle moments with the late photographer Benoît Gysembergh. The photographer spoke about his grandfather who had received the Légion d'honneur during the First World War, but was afterwards arrested and tried following a transgressive drunken act.

And so we have Le Collier rouge, set just after WWI, in which Morlac (also Légion d'honneur) has been imprisoned for (we don't discover until the end) decorating his dog Guillaume with the medal during the 14th July ceremony. The story takes place in Berry, near Bourges, and the military judge Lantier has the problem of carrying out a series of interviews with Morlac, who's the only prisoner in this unnamed small place. The excessive wine-drinking jailer Dujeux sounds as if he's going to be an interesting character, although he just fades into the background as Morlac's actions and beliefs come to the fore, as well as his relationship with Lantier (and specifically the character of the judge himself).

All this notwithstanding, the main character in the book is the dog Guillaume: faithful and extraordinarily intelligent. Guillaume is the thread which runs thoughout this novel, from the first sentence when his howling is disturbing Dujeux, to the final sentence when Lantier takes him home to his wife and children in the back seat of his car, when Guillaume seems to smile at the idea of his being a present.

In between all this is the uneducated Morlac transforming himself into a pacifist anarchist largely through his lover Valentine's books (Marx, Phoudhon, Bakunin); and Lantier's determination not to go out on a negative note.

And the winner? Fidelity, of course: case dismissed.

My other Jean-Christophe Rufin posts:

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Sept histoires qui reviennent de loin
Jean-Christophe Rufin: Rouge Brésil | Brasil Red

7 August 2017

Jean-Claude Izzo: Solea (1998)

An unusual title again here in Solea (from a Miles Davis piece), the final volume in Jean-Claude Izzo's trilogie marseillaise, in which we find a number of familiar characters, such as the elderly Honorine (who delights in making Fabio Montale's meals in his cabanon in Les Goudes), Fonfon (who's still partly continuing his café-restaurant in the same village), and the departed but still living Lole who is a memory, as is the murdered Sonia, whom Fabio only very briefly knew, but whose loss he mourns.

The Mafia are a constant presence, especially as they have made the investigative journalist Babette run into hiding, and they are pressurising Fabio to discover her whereabouts by killing off his friends, slitting their throats from ear to ear: the ex-cop fears not so much for his own life but for the lives of Honorine and Fonfon.

Of course there's heavy drinking and another highly desirable woman in here, but this time it's the police commissaire Hélène Pessayre, and needless to say they don't get the opportunity to express their desire for each other physically. And nor do they entirely trust each other.

Lots of deaths, lots of fear, lots of Marseille (ah, Le Vallon des Auffes), lots of action as with the other two novels, but once again seemingly incongruous literary quotations, such as from Camus and the inevitable Louis Brauquier. There may be a few clichés in Izzo's trilogy, but there are far more surprises, and Izzo is thoroughly original and unmistakable: you recognise his literary imprint almost immediately.

My other Jean-Claude Izzo posts:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops
Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo (1996)

Again, Jean-Claude Izzo's second volume of his trilogie marseillaise has the now resigned cop Fabio Montale as its (anti)hero, hounded by the extreme right-wing, the Mafia, drinking more than ever, puking up, regretting actions taken, reminiscing, linking the past and the present, but on a mission to help his (much desired but of course never sexually touched) cousin Gélou, whose son Guitou has disappeared from far-away Gap in the alps, although it's pretty certain that he's gone to meet his girlfriend Naïma, who was born on the wrong side of the racial tracks.

Although Gélou's husband has been harsh with Guitou at times, it seems he's brought up his step-children well, so should Fabio have any problems with this? Well, yes, especially when it's discovered that this husband of ten years is found to be a Mafia killer.

Much eating and even more drinking, of course. And more reminiscing, lost hopes, hopes for the future, etc. But where else would you get quotations from Saint-Jean Perse, Louis Brauquier, Léo Ferré, etc, in a detective story than in a Jean-Claude Izzo book? A delight.

My other Jean-Claude Izzo posts:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Solea
Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops

Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops (1995)

Total Khéops is the first volume of Jean-Claude Izzo's superior detective trilogie marseillaise, which is packed with a love of multi-cultural Marseille, about which it makes innumerable references: the title itself refers to the Marseillais rap band IAM's record Total Khéops, meaning  complete chaos, a general mess. Which is the underworld of early 1990s Marseille depicted here.

Cop Fabio Montale is the (anti)hero, a guy in his forties who's seen it all, done it all (but really only in Marseille and its area), drinks far too much (especially just before driving), but loves fine wine and whisky, and (surprisingly not that often) the beautiful women associated with the area. He doesn't live in Marseille itself, but Les Goudes, a tiny village close to the Calanques, where the faithful seventy-year-old Honorine treats him as a son and loves to make him meals.

At heart Fabio is a softie, although he's surrounded by fascist murderers and thugs who think nothing of killing anyone who stands in their way. Like his now murdered schoolmates Manu, and now Ugo, they shared with him a petty criminal life before his life as a cop began, when he too could have continued on the other side. But then, bent or straight (in the criminal sense) is there much difference?

My other Jean-Claude Izzo posts:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo
Jean-Claude Izzo: Solea

6 August 2017

Lucien Grimaud in Aubagne, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)

'Ici a vécu
Journaliste Historien Conteur
1909 – 1993'

17 Place des Quinze, Aubagne, the same building where François-Urbain Domergue was born. Lucien Grimaud wrote stories and history books on Aubagne, the first of which, Histoires d'Aubagne (1973), was prefaced by Marcel Pagnol.

This bust of Lucien Grimaud is by Antignani in 1994, the year after the historian's death, and at the time of writing is in Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol in Aubagne.

François-Urbain Domergue in Aubagne, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)

23 MARS 1745 – 29 MAI 1810'

17 Place des Quinze, Aubagne. François-Urbain Domergue was born in Aubagne and died in Paris, his place of burial being unknown. He was a member of the Académie française from 1803 to 1810 and wrote a number of works on French grammar, pronunciation, and the French language in general. He founded the Journal de la Langue Française in 1784, one of whose objects was, er, to fight neologisms: it was of course unsuccessful both financially and realistically.

5 August 2017

Arthur Rimbaud, Parc Balnéaire du Prado, Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)


Arthur Rimbaud – Le bateau ivre"

The monumental homage to Rimbaud (1854–91), in the Parc balnéaire du Prado, Marseille, sculpted by Jean Amado (1927–95) and installed in 1989. Rimbaud died at the age of thirty-seven, and wrote 'Le Bateau ivre' when he was seventeen. He died of cancer in Marseille.

Claude McKay in Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)

This plaque, dedicated to one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, writer Claude McKay (1889–1948), was only unveiled in Vieux Port in June 2015. McKay spent several months in the late twenties in the poor (and now non-existent) area La Fosse, where he wrote the novel Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929), which is set in low-life Marseille. The eponymous main character is an occasional dock worker and lives among immigrants and drifters of many nationalities, prostitutes, pimps and the like.

4 August 2017

Louis Brauquier in Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)

I'd not have heard of the Marseillais poet Louis Brauquier if I'd not read any of Jean-Claude Izzo's works, although he's Izzo's favorite, and he's remembered here in the Vieux Port. Izzo quotes him a lot, his love of Marseille itself and the sea here in particular. I'll be honest: Brauquier is much more of a must to read than the Château d'If is to visit, especially with a horde of tourists in tow.

Le Château d'If, Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône (13)

Le Château d'If in the centre background from Notre Dame de la Garde.

And from the Corniche.

Le Château d'If, close to the archipelago of Frioul (otherwise known as the Ratonneau and Pomègues islands) just off the coast of Marseille, is of course a tourist must which remained a prison for four hundred years, and which was made famous by Alexandre Dumas's novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844–46), where the fictional Edmond Dantès was incarcerated. Something like 100,000 tourists visit it a year, and the queues are long. In the castle are labelled Dumas-related locations: a fiction within a fiction. No, we didn't bother to visit it: too touristy, too false, too much of a time waste. Why trouble to take a short cruise to see this place when you can enjoy the ferries from the much more peaceful L'Estaque to Le Vieux Port or (even better) the tiny village of Les Goudes (where the fictional Fabio Montale of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseille trilogy lives) to Le Vieux Port – or vice versa?

A mural near the ferry terminal in Les Goudes.

And the ferry approaching Marseille from Les Goudes, with Notre Dame de la Garde in the centre middleground.