17 February 2018

Les Jardins d'Étretat, Étretat (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

Les Jardins d'Étretat, as an attraction, are less than eighteen months old. But their history goes back to 1905, when a local landscape gardener Auguste Lecanu, with the actor Madame Thébault (of whose existence I can find nothing online), planted the first tree here on the Falaise d'Amont, within sight of the Falaise d'Aval, its Aiguille made famous by writer Maurice Leblanc's creation, the 'gentleman burglar' Arsène Lupin. Thébault's most famous role, the story goes, was as Roxelane in Soliman le magnifique, and she bought an area of land here and had a villa called Roxelane constructed. Lecanu designed the garden influenced by the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, noted for his painting Coucher de soleil à Étretat.

Much later, it was the Russians Alexandre Grivko and his friend Mark Dumas who began transforming the premises into a kind of sculpture garden. This includes Coquillage de mer by Alena Kogan; Le jardin des Etreintes et des arbres by Viktor Szostalo and Agnieszka Gradnik; Le Jardin Emotions (with its remarkable ball faces) by Samuel Salcedo; and Viktor Szostalo also created the sculpture of Monet with his easel and artwork, with the real Falaise d'Aval in the background. These are just a few photos:


















Finally, a representation of Monet painting his famous canvas.

11 February 2018

Amity Gaige: Schroder (2013)

Jonathan Franzen is quoted on the front cover of Amity Gaige's Schroder as calling the main character 'appealing'. Perceptive and intelligent (although at times very stupid) he certainly is, but I certainly wouldn't use Franzen's adjective.

This is the story of a man separated from his wife and having limited access to his six-year-old daughter Meadow. One day he drives her around, they have a heap of fun, and he just continues driving because he can't bear to be separated from his beloved daughter. And then he finds rather crumby accommodation for them miles from anywhere, where the owner doesn't even have an internet connection.

It's when he goes to the nearest town, takes Meadow to a bar and sees himself on television that the net begins to close in on them and, in spite of help from April he's caught by the cops and ends up in a correctional facility.

Schroder is the name of the book, and that is the protagonist's original name: his earlier identity, when he spent the first five years of his life in East Germany, until the family moved to the States. Here, Schroder takes on another identity, becomes an American guy called Paul Kennedy (maybe some kinda very distant relation), who was born in Twelve Miles (an imaginary hamlet) in Cape Cod and marries an American girl until things go wrong and his Catholic wife doesn't feel that they have anything in common any more.

There are many digressions in the book, back to Kennedy's marriage, Schroder's life back in Germany, to his early days in the States, etc. And there are digressions in the form of footnotes, digressions within digressions, and in the end the reader is sorry that the huge digression in Schroder's life that was Kennedy – or other names he invented in his desperate attempt to avoid detection – has come to an end.

9 February 2018

Didier van Cauwelaert: Vingt ans et des poussières (1982)

Didier van Cauwelaert's Vingt ans et des poussières is the Goncourt-winner's first novel, and in a frequently crazy, action-filled book this is often funny, particularly from the point of view (I at least found) of character and situation. And although Cauwelaert was only in his early twenties at the time of publication, this still shows signs of narrative maturity.

After fifteen years without working in the theatre, 72-year-old Émile, retired in Nice and married, looking after a brother-in-law (turning towards senility) and helping the neighbours in his block of flats with all manner of jobs, including taking kids to school, finds (vaguely by mean of the nearby boulangerie) a new lease of life in the theatre: transforming a very dubious play by local lycéens into something really valuable – cue for getting to know Norbert and other teenagers, but particularly Sandra.

Of secondary note are two fascinating characters, Carême and Trastour. Carême is the school gardener who has a penchant for the female head teacher and is obsessively keen to improve his knowledge, one way in which he does so being to 'eavesdrop' on lessons while he's performing his duties, and another to read as much as he can: he's full of literary quotations. Trastour is a somewhat anarchistic teacher of provençal and niçois, although his refusal to translate, and (not unrelated) his apparent indifference to his students' negative reactions to his teaching mean that he is almost without students interested in his subject; his attempts to help the players, in part fired by his hatred of the school where he 'works', also result in the players' animosity towards him.

My other Didier van Cauwelaert posts:
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Didier van Cauwelaert: Un aller simple | One Way
Didier van Cauwelaert: Jules

8 February 2018

Jean Echenoz: 14 (2012)

Jean Echenoz's 14 is a concise title for a concise book. The fourteen relates to the year World War I began, and the devastation of that war to end wars is the subject of the war itself, plus (to some extent) its aftermath.

The book begins with the main character Anthime walking in the countryside and hearing the tocsin summoning the inhabitants of his small town to join the war. He doesn't hesitate, along with his fishing and drinking friends Bossis, Arcenel and Padioleau, and his elder brother Charles. Charles is the assistant director of the local shoe factory and the lover of the owner's daughter Blanche, and Anthime is the accountant for the business.

They are part of the 93rd infantry, a reference to Victor Hugo's final novel Quatrevingt-treize (published 1874), whose background is the Terror of revolutionary France (1793). Anthime drops this book in the opening pages of 14, which falls open at Hugo's chapter 'Aures habet, et non audiet' ('His ears are open, but he doesn't listen').

Inevitably, this book contains some horrific passages, although it is not without humour, such as the newly enlisted men's concerns about ludicrously ill-fitting military clothing. Some of the descriptions of the battle scenes (perhaps particularly of the man sawn in half vertically) are gruesome and make for an anti-war book, although this is far from the author's only interest: at one point, the narrator recognises that the gore of war has been well covered by writers, and may well come across as (boring) opera.

There is a romantic interest: Blanche has been having a relationship with Charles, and steers him away from the front into aviation, although he is early on killed in a plane crash, never to see his daughter Juliette. And he's not the only one of the five mates who will die, as Bossis is killed on the front and Arcenel innocently wanders off from the camp one day and as a result is caught by the police, tried before a military court and executed by firing squad.

There's also a big criticism of the manufacturers who profit from war, such as Blanche's father's business exploiting the troops by selling the government substandard products.

Anthime loses his right arm (cue for Echenoz to make many digressions on right- and left-handedness and phantom arms) and Padioleau loses his sight (cue for Echenoz to digress about blind people's abilities and disabilities), and surely (OK, I'm a great one for spoilers) the fact that Blanche gives birth to her and Anthime's child (named Charles), born at the time of the final battle of World War I (Mons) is significant of, er... Another great novel by Jean Echenoz.

My other Jean Echenoz posts:
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Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone (revisited)
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running
Jean Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon

7 February 2018

Marie NDiaye: Quant au riche avenir (1985)

Famously, Marie NDiaye wrote her first novel Quant au riche avenir at the age of sixteen and Jérôme Lindon, founder of the prestigious publishing firm Les Éditions de Minuit, came to greet her outside Lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, with a publishing contract for her to sign. It is impossible to read this astonishing book without imagining that much of the content is autobiographical. The book is divided into three sections: 'L'Amie', which takes up almost exactly half of the content, with the other parts occupying about half the remaining space: 'Tante' and 'L'École'.

'L'Amie', as its title suggests, is about the adolescent protagonist's unnamed girlfriend, if that is the right word. Throughout the book the narrator, who has access to Z's thoughts and his alone, there are many long, rambling sentences packed with the neverending introspections of Z, his agonising, his intellectualising, his inability to relate to anyone else. And even when ostensibly communicating with people, his highly over-sensitised mind makes any real communication impossible.The girlfriend, unlike Z, lives outside the Paris area, and although she visits Paris several times and meets Z, he finds the occasions fraught with anxiety: he feels as though when he is with her he is another person, not the person who has desperately waited to see her. When she is with him she doesn't seem very enthusiatic, but then she doesn't seem enthusiastic in the letters she has written to him, letters in reply to his, for which he has often spent some time waiting for, letters which prove disappointingly frivolous. Eventually, Z finds a kind of escape valve for his anguish by to a certain extent emotionally divorcing himself from her.

But Z's intensely strained relationship between the inner and the outer, the psychological hell in which he is imprisoned versus the virtually hopelessly distant outside world, is inescapable. He was orphaned at a very young age and is brought up by a 'vague' aunt (Tante), who maintains an emotional distance from him, and he finds it impossible to relate to her. However, an almost epiphanic moment comes when she gives him not biscuits but his favourite cherry clafoufis (a kind of cake), and he seems to find a short-lived metaphysical relationship with Tante. But this fades and gives way to pity for her and the life she leads.

'L'École' is once more concerned with Z's inability to relate to the outside world. He's a highly accomplished student, but vain, and virtually friendless. He makes attempts (in his vague way) to communicate with Blériot, although finds him too much like himself, so inevitably breaks with him. In the end he thinks of just walking out on everything, but it's the thought of Tante, the thought of the responsibilities that he knows will in different ways haunt him for life, that makes him continue.

Quant au riche avenir, perhaps more than other books by NDiaye, is no easy read, although at the same time it's a joy to read NDiaye's exquisite narrative, so far removed from that of any other author.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
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Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Tous mes amis
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

4 February 2018

Marie NDiaye: Tous mes amis (2004)

So far Tous mes amis is Marie NDiaye's only book of short stories and there are five of them, vastly varying in length at times: the penultimate one, for instance, is fifty-five pages long, but the last one a mere eight pages. In order of sequence, they are 'Tous mes amis', 'La Mort de Claude François', 'Les Garçons', 'Une journée de Brulard' and Révélation'. All can be classed as some kind of horror story, all bear the clear hallmark of Marie NDiaye's preoccupations.

Abandonment (particularly the abandonment of children) is a theme which occurs in all five stories in some form or other: in 'Tous mes amis' the schoolteacher – quite common profession with NDiaye's characters – is the narrator whose wife has abandoned him, taking their children with her; in 'La Mort de Claude François' Marlène accuses her former schoolfriend the doctor Zaka of deserting her family, and when Zaka goes to see Marlène she abandons her daughter (another broken family) at the bottom of the block of flats; in 'Les Garçons' Mme Mour (whose husband later leaves her) sells her son Anthony into a pornographic business, and René (also wishing to leave his dismal, poverty-stricken home) is also sold: to his own estranged, pedophilic father; in 'Une journée de Brulard', the ex-movie actor Eve Brulard, now ageing, has abandoned her husband Jimmy and both of them seem to care little about their daughter Lulu; and finally, in 'Révélation' a woman takes her son on a definitive ride to Corneville, Rouen, to some kind of institution.

Madness is perhaps needless to say also present in all five stories: the narrator schoolteacher is clearly out of his mind visiting Jemal's home on the perhaps equally crazy Werner's instructions to kill Jemal, although we don't know how this deed will be done; Marlène is clearly mad, still Eve seeing visions of her former self in several places, and her mother in a mountain; and finally the boy on the bus, in spite of his obvious intelligence, goes off to the psychiatric hospital.

Violence has also been slightly touched on, and it is often hinted at: the schoolteacher thumps Séverine, is in turn pushed to the ground and kicked by her husband Jemal, and his unknown death has already been mentioned; René is left to untold horrors; Marlène has bruises from her 'son' and Zaka has left her daughter Paula downstairs in an obviously highly insalubrious neighbourhood; and menace haunts  'Une journée de Brulard', especially towards the end after the Rotors's dog eats Jimmy's little dog.

Class and sex are also strong themes in the book, although I've probably already given enough flavour of it. Marie NDiaye packs a great deal into five stories in the space of 174 pages, clearly proving her well acknowledged mastery of and indeed innovation in the fictional field.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
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Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Quant au riche avenir
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

1 February 2018

Béatrix Beck: Léon Morin, prêtre (1952)

After forty-nine years of Goncourt prizes, Béatrix Beck became only the second woman (after Elsa Triolet in 1944) to be awarded it in 1952. It is in part autobiographical and has been adapted to the cinema twice, the second occasion being 2017, and the cover shows a still from this film, with Roman Duris and Marine Vacth staring at each other: the title was changed to La Confession.

The novel is set in World War II and part of it concerns the Nazi occupation, the hiding of Jews, the work of the maquisards, and inevitably the collabos. Barny (the narrator) is a communist and atheist widow of a Jew who is now bringing her daughter France up on her own. But this is not really the main source of the drama, which lies between Barny and the young priest Léon Morin.

Barny one day just walks into church and starts talking to Morin, who in some ways thinks she's more religious than many of his flock who merely go through the motions. He lends her religious books which she reads and finds herself being converted to Catholicism, and their intellectual conversations continue through to after the end of the war. Morin is a fervent Catholic, which is clear from the beginning, and it is evident that nothing will sway him from his path. But Barny takes some time to realise that this man is not only intellectually engaging, but physically appealing. Although Zola's La Faute de l'abbé Mouret (The Sin of Abbé Mouret) this isn't.

I was occasionally reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), with the lack of sexual content being foregrounded for that very reason. And indeed most of the things that need to be said here remain unsaid. However, Morin can say some strange things at times, and on seeing her with sandals and unvarnished toe-nails he seems surprised, and says Barny needs a man. She says she uses a piece of wood, although this doesn't seem to surprise him, and he says she ought to be careful, but Barny says she's tough.

After the war Morin finds it more convenient to see Barny and France at their home, cue for a neighbour to sing a slightly saucy song about a curé getting a young woman pregnant, which Barny finds 'obscene', but then this is the late 1940s. But oh, that sexual tension. France wishes Morin were her father, and certainly he has very fatherly features towards her.

But of course this can never be, even though Morin has told Barny (by the proxy of France) that he loves her. When Barny asks him if, had he been a Protestant vicar, therefore able to marry her, he would have. Yes, he would have. But there's a dazzling piece (shortly after Barny has had a dream about Morin coming into her bedroom and making immensely satisfying love to her) in which Morin visits Barny and she nearly loses control and Morin has to calm her (again, obliquely). He advises her to go to confession that day, which she does and tells Morin that she tried to seduce a priest.

So there we have it. Morin is moved to a completely different area, where the rural parishioners have not been spiritually guided for years, and Barny chooses not to ask Morin if it's by his choice that he's moving, or because he's genuinely been moved. Although in either case, he's obviously been severely emotionally moved. The novel would of course have been a disastrous, staggering cop-out if they'd, er, come together at the end.