24 December 2017

Ferdinand Oyono: Une vie de boy (1956)

Une vie de boy (1956) by Ferdinand Oyono (1929–2010) is the first part of a trilogy (also including Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille (1956) and Chemin d'Europe (1960), the only three novels that Oyono ever wrote, all a time leading up to the independence of Cameroon (Republic of Cameroon).

This novel toggles between the two aspects of Cameroon, the soon-to-be 'free' country and the colony at the time. Toundi is a representation of the split between the two countries, and the novel is very much his notes on what happens. He has a violent father he flees from, and from then is 'adopted' by Father Gilbert, who names him Joseph and teaches him the French language.

On the death of Father Gilbert Joseph becomes the 'boy' (servant) of a white colonial 'master', whose wife is (as is the norm) unfaithful to her husband and Toundi has to act as go-between. Until, that is, he is accused of a crime of which he is innocent, and, well... I can understand why Oyono is an important Cameroon writer.

19 December 2017

Bertrand Beyern: Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres (2008)

Wow. Although Bascoulard: dessinateur virtuose, clochard magnifique, femme inventée (2014) has (by a very long shot) to be the most interesting book I've bought this year, Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres is also by a very long shot the second most interesting. (For the record, Louis Wolfson's Ma mère, musicienne... comes third, and Albert Cohen's Belle du seigneur fourth.) This is a 377-page book of the graves of people – the French are a bit weird with gender, mainly because of the way the language is constructed –  throughout the country, divided by order of départements, and within those by alphabetical order of villages or towns. No messing, no nonsense, pages divided into two columns with a limited number of unobtrusive photos: a taphophile's paradise.

Paris is obviously well represented, and there are maps with numbered graves of the cemeteries in Père-Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmartre and Passy: the four most well-known Parisian places. But beyond this there are many other cemeteries within the périphérique, divided into the twenty arrondissements.

Although we visit Paris every September for the full month, we know that from the point of view of literature – France greatly treasures its literary heritage, as England only vaguely does – even Paris, let alone the country in general – is inexhaustible. Although there are the inevitable additions to be made of people already dead and those who will die, this book is a real treasure, one we will continue to consult during our regular three or four months in France every year.

I've found omissions here, but maybe the main one is tramp-painter Marcel Bascoulard, who perhaps wasn't as well known at the time of publication as he is now. I'm sure I'll find more blanks as I plough into the book, but there's no doubt that I've found a true gem here.

17 December 2017

François-Marie Banier: Balthazar, fils de famille (1985)

Today, any mention of François-Marie Banier is perhaps inevitably greeted with a smile or a laugh, in remembrance of his recent antics in the court case over Liliane Bettancourt, for which he was imprisoned for financially abusing a very rich woman deprived of her mental faculties. The humour was caused by his literary pretensions, his histrionics.

So what was I expecting to find in Balthazar, fils de famille, which I scooped up for the grand sum of nothing in the giraffe in Marseilles?  Not a great deal I must admit, and yet.

And yet this is not only a quick read but, in its way, a fascinating one. Written over thirty years ago, when Banier was in his late twenties, Balthazar, fils de famille is autobiographical: Balthazar, like Banier, has a father of Hungarian origin who physically abused him, used to live in the centre of rue Victor Hugo in the 16e, went to the lycée Janson-de-Sailly, and sold his own paintings in the street.

How much of his alienation as an adolescent, his search for substitute parents, his love for a girl met during holiday, and his attempted suicide are true I don't know, but this is a very surprisingly, and surprisingly well done, novel. Yes, very readable, and quite possibly more autobiographical than I at first thought.

13 December 2017

Céline Minard: Le Grand Jeu (2016)

Céline Minard is generally considered as one of the strangest, most individual writers in French today. This, the latest that she has published at the time of writing, is the first work of hers that I've read. It concerns survival, both physical and existential.

The unnamed female narrator has had a high-tech home built into a mountainside in an attempt to discover how to live. She spends a great deal of time climbing the mountain, descends to the bottom, grows her own food, and even tries building a much more primitive second home, where she feels more in tune with her primitive ancestors.

Solitude is evidently one of the problems she has to learn to cope with, although this is to a certain extent compensated for by the existence of the wildlife community: a curious jay, the isards (or Pyrrenean chamois), and a troublesome marmoset in what initially appears to be a deserted cabin are just some of the encounters she makes.

The narrator has set herself a test, or rather a number of tests, although the greatest test of all comes when she is faced with a female hermit, almost toothless and anarchically shunning any socially accepted formalities in the conventional world. The narrator cannot not accept the woman into her existence and is soon getting drunk with Dongbin. Reading passing remarks in the novel, it's not only alcoholic or primitive alternative states of mind that are of interest, but also the effects of cannabis and LSD. Um, yes this novel is quite a trip.

11 December 2017

Yvan Audouard: Lettres de mon pigeonnier (1991)

The parents of Yvan Audouard (1914–2004) were born in Provence, although he was born in Saigon (his father being a lieutenant) but spent much of his childhood in Arles and Nîmes. After World War II Yvan worked in Paris for Le Canard enchaîné for about thirty years. He wrote over eighty books, dating from 1946 to 2007, many of which were simply for amusement. Provence was always in his heart, particularly in Alphonse Daudet's Fontvieille, and of course the title (lit. 'Letters from My Dovecote') is a play on Daudet's very well-known Lettres de mon moulin (1869) (Letters from My Windmill), which even receives a mention in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.

The writer narrator spends half of each year In Fontvieille, and this is a celebration of Provence and its secrets. It's also a celebration of mystery, of the supernatural, and here he lives with his family, including his female cat Madelon and his pet magpire Gina.

Very strange things happen here, such as the steeple cock on the dovecote speaking and  moving to greet other steeple cocks. Then there are the santons of Grambois (north of Pertuis), the statues speaking, the dove Magali turning into stone, and the narrator's cat Madelon and pet magpie Gina (very troublesome creatures) helping and talking to the narrator so much, as if they were human. 

Even stones speak in this book, although meals never seem to be vegetarian: surely something wrong with the logic here?

Ivan Audouard lies in Fontvieille cemetery:

9 December 2017

Louis Wolfson: Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984; revised 2012 )

This book – by an American – is one of the most amazing ever written in any language. I've mentioned it before, so I'll be brief with the general background here, which is in a little more detail in the link at the bottom. Louis Wolfson's previous Le Schizo et ses langues (1970) contained a Preface by Gilles Deleuze and received an enthusiastic welcome by Raymond Queneau and J. B. Pontalis. Michel Foucault, J. M. G. Le Clézio and Paul Auster have also expressed their fascination for the man. This is Wolfson's 2012 update of his Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir memorial à Manhattan (1984): on the surface, simply about the death of his mother.

I've already stated that, after being sent to a psychiatric hospital in his adolescence, diagnosed as a schizophrenic and subjected to EST (or ECT 'therapy' in English), Wolfson emerged into the outside world hating English, his 'mother' tongue, the language of the mother who subjected him to psychiatric abuse. So, teaching himself French, German, Hebrew and Russian, he devised an extremely complex way to by-pass English by automatically mentally converting sounds and meanings into equivalent sounds and meanings in those other languages. His constant use of his cassette player and his headphones also helped to drown out his intrusive mother tongue.

When I wrote the previous post I hadn't read Ma mère, musicienne, ..., I'd only read reviews of Wolfson's books and articles about him. I'd imagined that this three-hundred page book, dressed in black and where Wolfson sort of makes his peace with his sort of aggressor, would be rather bleak and daunting. How wrong can you be? This reads very much like an accomplished novel, the writer knows how to lead the reader into the story and it's actually surprisingly humorous in many parts.

In fact, although in places Wolfson's obsessions show through, it's nevertheless really surprising how, er, 'normal' he seems, and the book in parts reads as though the apparently sane aren't so 'normal': in other words he's turning madness on its head: how about his brilliant reference (for once in English) to 'Harry Pot o' Shit'? Could any comedian do a better put-down of J. K. Rowling?

Yes, Ma mère, musicienne, ... is about Louis Wolfson's mother's death, and is punctuated throughout with Rose Wolfson's diary notes of her illness (ovarian cancer), the times she sees the doctor, the medication she's given, etc. But in the first half of the book Rose plays second fiddle to the horses Wolfson obsessively backs, and the reader is treated to betting odds, scrupulous details of how he made his way to the stadia, his arguments with a black bus driver (often called a 'nigger': Wolfson has his prejudices), his preoccupation with the cost of things, and so on. In the second half of the book, 'les canassons' ('the nags') give way to Wolfson reading up on cancer.

Wolfson, who lived for a while in Montréal, can certainly write French, although inevitably he has his eccentricities: he uses the archaic 'vivoir' for 'salon', for instance, and the word 'couple' is adopted for a couple of anything; several times, we read 'piastres' instead of 'dollars', and 'liard' is used a few times; he appears to have a healthy hatred for television, and frequently follows it with 'cancérigène ?' in brackets. He also uses the expresssion 'peu ou prou' ('more or less') and the word 'nonobstant' ('notwithstanding') a great deal. He is convinced, as he frequently mentions, that his paranoia is iatrogenic.

These little quirks, tics of language, call them what you will, might sound irritating, but they are all part of the framework of Wolfson's personality, and they very much add to the reader's knowledge of the man as a whole: there's nothing artificial there, we have to conclude – this is Louis Wolfson. And this is a hell of a book.

Link to my previous post on Louis Wolfson:
Louis Wolfson and Schizophrenic Languages

6 December 2017

Christian Signol: Au cœur des forêts (2010)

After reading a book of interviews, and novel and a play by Bernard-Marie Koltès, Christian Signol (a very popular writer, but not in the same way as, say, Marc Levy or Guillaume Musso) pulled me back to earth with such a jolt that I'm still wondering 'What happened?'. Signol was born in Quercy (Quatre-Routes-du-Lot) in 1947, and has since 1984 published at least one book a year. And they're not short, as this one is over three hundred pages.

I question how much revision Signol subjects his books to, as in the beginning of this book at least there are a number of repetitions, although this novel taught me a number of things about trees, such as oaks take far longer to mature than spruces, and so on. But trees are very much the main characters in this novel, in which the ageing first person narrator Bastien owns a reasonably sized plantation: he knows that trees have to breathe, can feel pain.

Essentially this is the story of Bastien's life among the trees, of his memories, and of the present, in which his grand-daughter Charlotte comes to stay with him several times, and is very interested in family history, particularly in the disappearance long ago of Bastien's sister Justine, but of course Charlotte is technologically clued up and can research things on the internet that Bastien has no idea of.

So, hovering around Bastien's business with trees is an unsolved mystery that has haunted him for decades. So too is his memory of his father's concerns for a seriously wounded German soldier in World War II: most French people would have left him to die or have finished him off, especially members of the Resistance, people such as Bastien's father. But no, his father had a heart.

The story of the German soldier fascinates Charlotte as much as the fate of Justine, and she Googles for some time, finally resolving the mystery: the dying soldier passed on his address to Justine who told him she'd visit his family after the war to tell them how he died, which she does and ends up marrying the German's brother, and her daughter Magda (the result of the marriage) Charlotte tracks down so she (Magda) can visit Bastien to tell him the story, and of how Justine lost her life in a car crash in the 1960s, never daring to tell her whereabouts to her family, especially to her mother who'd lost her brother in a Nazi atrocity in the village.

Yeah, I know. Highly readable, but I won't jump at the chance to read too many of the novels Christian Signol churns out.

4 December 2017

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger (1995)

Commissioned to write this in 1977 by Bruno Boëglin, Sallinger (with a double 'l') is Bernard-Marie Koltès's first written play, although it was not published until 1995, several years after his death. As the title suggests, it is heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger, and there are many similarities between this and Salinger's Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye: Zooey, and Leslie in Sallinger, are both actors; some of the characteristics of Ma in Sallinger echo the mother in Franny and Zooey; the telephone call at the end of Sallinger recalls the dead brother of Franny and Zooey; more generally, there is the theme of the family; and of course the various problems of young people on the edge of adulthood, etc.

Violence is again a strong feature of Sallinger, such as Leslie's window smashing scene, and of course the suicide of Le Rouquin and later Henry killing himself by jumping from the bridge. War is of course not only in the background but also very much in the foreground, and old soldier Al (the father) gives an encouraging welcome to the Vietnam war, although the general drift of the play is well away from the perceived glory of combat and emphasises war's wastefulness, its mindless tearing apart of people's lives.

Perhaps needless to say, the themes of alienation, deracination, solitude, and lack of communication (particularly among younger people), and madness (on the part of Le Rouquin and Leslie's sister Anna) are to the fore here.

Sallinger is nowhere near as well known as the plays Quai Ouest, Dans la solitude des champs de coton, or the monoloque La Nuit juste avant les forêts, although the indications of what was to come are quite clearly in place.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville (1984)

La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville (lit. 'The Flight on Horseback Far into the Town') is Bernard-Marie Koltès's only novel: novels don't have the constraints that Koltès finds so productively useful, and he says in an interview in Une part de ma vie that it would probably take him ten years to write one. (Koltès was obviously unaware that at the time of speaking he only had six more years to live.) The novel was written in 1977, seven years before it was published in 1984, and was in fact Koltès's first published book. All of his books are published by Minuit.

Although obviously not too proud of this first published work, Koltès nevertheless doesn't 'disown' it, and the novel (formally unusual in its narrative that sometimes resembles a play, sometimes a film scenario) bears many of the marks of his later work.

The back cover – presumably written by the author himself – describes the four main characters, the young sisters Barba and Félice and the two young men Cassius and Chabanne (young people are a strong feature in Koltès's plays) as 'fragile heroes of a kind of mythology for our time' who are 'metaphors of everyday day life' playing out the 'cruel, silent ballet of impossible loves'.

Koltès finds love banal and false and seeks out truth. As might be expected, his characters are mainly rootless, alienated, and often violent in a menacing, violent and dark world. Félice is from a psychiatric hospital and spends some time with a knife 'haunting' a cemetery where there are threatening cats; Cassius is a constant sponger who can only live by cadging from people, and who kills a cat who just happens in on a bedroom scene, and then guts it; Chabanne is an Arab who knows his way around cars and is disliked by the police; and Barba, Chabanne's mistress, worked at the Griffe Rouge ('Red Claw') until she got the sack.

Or was some of that above a dream? The whole novel is suffused with a hallucinatory, surreal atmosphere in which reality sometimes seems just a bit player in a twilight world of psychotropic drugs, which, being no doubt so much a part of the story, are barely mentioned.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

3 December 2017

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Une part de ma vie : entretiens (1983-1989) (1999)

Une part de ma vie is a fascinating, if often intangible, insight into the playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès's work, being a collection of interviews taken from just before the publication of his first work (his only novel La Fuite à cheval, in 1983) until the date of his death from AIDS in 1989.

Koltès often appears to side-step questions, denying what might appear to be obvious, such as the alienation, the lack of hope, the deracination. Nothing to do with his homosexuality, though, as he says he can't use that as a prop. Well, no, as all these interpretations of his work deal with universals.

At one point in an early interview he makes an interesting point about his interest in the theatre in particular: he likes the constraints, how you can't describe a character directly as in a novel, never speak about the situation, because you have to make it exist. It's what's behind the words being said that is of importance: you can't, for instance, have a character say 'Je suis triste' ('I'm sad'), he has to say something like 'Je vais faire un tour' ('I'm going for a walk'). Yes, but the way it is said is surely vital?

Koltès says that he goes to the cinema a great deal, but to the theatre very little, as, for example, he doesn't like the people who go to the theatre, and I can understand that very well. His literary influences are 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Latin American', and mentions Melville, London, Conrad and Vargas Llosa, although he dodges the inevitable probe that these are writers of exile, elsewhere, travel, by saying that they have an extraordinary sense of metaphor. A similar avoidance of being pinned down to particular themes in his work comes when he doesn't deny that his work deals with deracination, but simply states that no story doesn't take this into account.

But travel is very important to him, and he finds it impossible to write in Paris, his ideas always come when travelling, and he wrote Combat de nègre et de chiens in a small Guatemalan village. The way people speak languages which are not their native tongues is also important to him.

Later, he says that he's never written anything that's intended to be serious, which surely must be an odd kind of joke, itself not to be taken seriously?

Translation though (one of my own pet hates) is certainly to be taken seriously, and he says that he'd like to see his plays performed in London, but suspects that translation is a problem. Certainly he came to see Germany (a nation among his greatest readership) as mis-translating his work in the broadest sense: he saw the theatrical interpretation of one of his plays as appalling.

Interestingly, when asked about his depiction of marginals, Koltès replies that the whole world consists of marginals. In Quai Ouest he took New York and Barbès (in Paris) as his models, places where eighty per cent of the population were (and probably still are) immigrants: ordinary people are marginals – the real crazies, the real weirdos – are the bourgeoisie in the provinces.

Clearly, Koltès was a truly original talent cut down in his prime.

My other Bernard-Marie Koltès posts:
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Sallinger

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Fuite à cheval très loin dans la ville
Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

1 December 2017

Albert Cohen: Belle du seigneur (1968)

Of Jewish origin, Albert Cohen (1895–1981) was of Swiss nationality, born in Corfu. Winner of the Grand Prix de l'Académie FrançaiseBelle du seigneur (1968) is generally considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest Francophone books of the twentieth century. It is  the third part of a tetralogy: first came Solal (1930), then Mangeclous (1938), and the original Belle du seigneur, at 1300 pages, was too long for Gallimard, so Cohen excised a large part and with it made the final volume: Les Valeureux (1969).

Brilliant Belle du seigneur certainly is, although it is no easy read, and not just because of its dense 845 pages. It is written in different styles, and there are a number of chapters or sections filled with unparagraphed, unpunctuated stream of consciousness. I wouldn't  hesitate to put this tome among a group of other 'unreadable' door-stoppers such as Josuah Cohen's Witz, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, and Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.

Albert Cohen's novel is a book of strong satire on the various diplomatic positions within the Société des Nations, the preening and posturing, the fawning and the frivolity of it all. It can be very funny, pitiless to the pathetic, filled with representations of sexual passion, but death always lurks behind the scenes, or is even a major player at the heights of apparent life.

Essentially, though, this is a love story doomed to failure. Here, the rakish big shot at the SDN, the Jew Solal, falls in love with Ariane, the bored wife of the unbearably sycophantic m'as-tu vu Adrien Teume, promotes him and runs off with his wife. Adrien tries to kill himself, fails and continues working. Meanwhile, Solal has lost his nationality, and therefore his job and entire status, but carries on regardless living in a sexual fantasy land with Ariane at an expensive hotel in the south of France. But you can't escape your own consciousness, nor the fact that love is evanescent, and the dangerous games that Solal and Ariane are playing will lead inevitably to mutual suicide. You might say that Romeo and and Juliette are hoist with their own petards, but this is much more Joycean and Proustian than Shakespearean.

In this mammoth novel Albert Cohen is often funny when talking about death, from the 'joyeux futurs cadavres' ('joyful future corpses') to Solal and Ariane being 'enterrés vivants dans leur amour' ('buried alive in their love'); he sees the insanity of tourism: whyever should they go to Venice only to see themselves?; he is acutely aware of the malice behind the social smile; the madness of being jealous about a dead affair; the vacuousness of having nothing to do in your home but use a spirit level on items of your furniture, just to check; or the despair that leads you to kiss your own hand in order to give yourself the appearance of companionship.

Belle du seigneur may be tedious to the point of being unspeakably boring at times, but isn't that true of life itself? Albert Cohen has drawn a true picture of life, and this work should be recognised as the vital literary work of art that it is.

My other Albert Cohen post:
Albert Cohen: Mangeclous | Naileater