18 February 2018

Maupassant in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

La fontaine du Précieux-Sang. Legend has it that a little of Christ's blood, concealed in the trunk of a fig tree, fell from the cart carrying it in Fécamp. A (healing) well sprang from this, and Fécamp, along with the Mont-Saint-Michel, became the greatest places of pilgrimage in Normandy. In the second half of the nineteenth century through to the first half of the twentieth century the pilgrimages were so successful that a train service was set up specifically to cater for religious tourists. Maupassant mentions the tale in his short story 'Histoire d'une fille de ferme' (1881).

Jean Lorrain (Paul Duval) in Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

1855 – 1906'

Paul Duval was born in Fécamp, where he is buried. He wrote as Jean Lorrain and was one of the most colourful characters of the period. He was a homosexual who wore corsets, make-up, dressed as a woman, dressed in disguises, and frequented the literary world as well as the shadier areas of Paris. His first novel, Les Lepillier (1985), caused a scandal in Fécamp because he drew some his characters from actual people in Fécamp. His childhood friend Maupassant was incensed by the depiction of Beaufrilan in his second novel, Très Russe (1886). In 1887 he fought a duel with Proust over his negative reaction to Proust's first work: Les Plaisirs et les Jours, of which Proust himself later sought to prevent republication. His health disintegrated under the effects of ether and syphilis, and he died at the age of fifty.

Le Chat Pitre, Fécamp (76), Seine-Maritime (76)

I couldn't resist taking a shot of this bookshop I noted in Fécamp, called 'Le Chat Pitre' ('The Clown Cat)', as it is of course a pun on 'Chapitre', or 'Chapter'.

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 Coucher de soleil à Étretat.

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:
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:
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:
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:
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.

29 January 2018

Philippe Delerm: Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby (2009)

There's a French expression 'marcher à  côté de ses pompes' that could be translated as 'being in another world', or 'being completely out of it', etc, which would be an adequate description, but by no means entirely accurate: literally, it means 'walking at the side of your shoes', which puts a whole new glow on it. There is quite simply no way that I can think of in English to convey this mind/body, internal/external split in a short expression. To a certain extent, this is what Philippe Delerm's Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby is about.

Arnold Spitzweg is a very likeable character, a kind of everyman, but a loser who is not only happy to be a loser but relishes it: he's not interested in the finer things in life, he's interested in the little things that most people don't even think of, he can spend hours looking at wallpaper hanging loose from a wall, watch a crack in a wall, get his kicks out of not getting kicks. He refuses not exactly in the way that Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener refuses to accept, but just refuses to be normal, to accept conventions. His 'I'd prefer not to' is quiet, as he knows he'd get the sack from his mediocre job if he actually voiced it. Instead, he simply refuses to play the usual social games, the bits of nonsense that make up other people's existences.

If we take those shoes as life itself, he walks at the side of life without completely engaging in it. He moved from Kintzheim, Bas-Rhin, on the death of his parents: he was known by people in the small town, although he trades this recognition for the anonymity of Paris. Arnold might appear to have something of the autistic in him, maybe Asperger's syndrome, a real communication problem, but he recognises that he can't really communicate with most people, that he mainly communicates with himself, but don't we all? Isn't his way of being unconventional merely the way he copes with modern life?

Certainly his communication is virtual, but again, isn't that a manifestation of modern life today? When he lived with a woman, he disliked the way she came home and automatically switched on music, the way she'd spend hours texting her cousins in the suburbs, people she'd never actually visit, never know.

And then the anti-modern Arnold discovers blogging, a way he can say what he wants, create www.antiaction.com, which unfortunately takes off too well, people start making comments to him, many of them women, but he doesn't reply, just pretends he's talking to himself. But he's asked on a radio show, even though his face is unknown he's recognised by some, so he has to self-censor in order to conceal the identities of people he writes about: in a word he's no longer himself, society is taking over. He refuses a book contract: he isn't made to live outside himself.

My other posts on Philippe Delerm:
Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville
Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière

28 January 2018

Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert (1984)

Une ambition dans le désert is a gem from Albert Cossery, and I can only describe it as an anarchist rant thinly hidden within a kind of detective story. Not that the 'how' and the 'why' are too important here though, as the back cover tells us the basic plot before the reader begins the book: sheikh Ben Kadem is prime minister of a fictitious, poor, oil-free gulf state and wants to change things round, to make people on the international scene look to him as an important leader instead of those in the rich states. So he invents a ghost opposition by having bombs go off at unimportant targets in the hope that his people will rise up against the imaginary terrorists and make him a world hero. But, as we learn on the back cover, his son Mohi is killed in a bomb explosion.

Knowing all this already, and a whole lot more, the interest of the book focuses on the description and the activities of the characters, which is Cossery's forte here: he's far more interested in psychology and colour than plot. We know that Shaat is performing the intentionally impotent bomb attacks for Ben Kadem, and that the central character is Samantar, the 'marginal aristocrat [...] who embodies scepticism, intelligence, wisdom and phlegm, dear to all Cossery's heroes'.

Samantar has inherited a little land he's never seen (he hates cars as they're part of the modern world he loathes) and rents it out to a man who pays him regularly and also includes a chunk of cannabis in a cigarette packet when he does so: it would in any case be against Samantar's interests to enquire further into what his tenant farmer is actually growing on his land. Samantar's land interests mean he doesn't have to work, and can live a relatively poor but calm existence enjoying reading, young women, smoking, and lazing: who wants anything more.

But Samantar is even put off love-making by this wave of apparently meaningless bombs attacks on nothing, which have injured no one. He wants to know what's behind it, why the peace of Dofa (the capital, where the whole story takes place) is being disturbed. So he goes to see Hicham, whose twelve-year-old daughter has learnt to skin up a mean spiff while the men try to figure things out.

They visit one of the seedy bars where shady characters hang out and Samantar is surprised to see that Shaat has been let out of jail so soon after being handed a stiff sentence for gold smuggling. Shaat was the son of the family servant and Samantar grew up with, they became close friends and Shaat has always had similar ideas to Samantar's, which is why it's very odd that he's dressed like a spiv and arrives in a vintage car. Could Shaat be behind the jobs at all? It doesn't seem to be in his nature, although the yarn that Shaat spins him about his early release and having a new job selling household electrical goods in the villages in the north rings false: what use would any villager have for an electrical product when they have no electricity?

Gradually the truth unwinds through Ben Kadem (who is his richer cousin who likes to chew the intellectual fat with a kindred intellectual (if not spiritual) mind, but more through the town idiot Tareq, who just stands near Higazi (Shaat's apparent partner in crime) as he sits in the bar for low-life, looking towards Shaat as if pointing to a very important lead: is he an idiot savant, I couldn't help wondering?

Now, Ben Kadem has an unknown son by a poor girl with whom he had a relationship, but Mohi has always denied his father, always hated him. And things come to a head (really an end) when Mohi is found dead is the street, killed by a prematurely exploded bomb while he was on the way to kill his father and himself with him.

Samantar learns the truth from Shaat, also from Tareq (who's been setting up his own mini-bomb factory) and is also a (hidden) member of Dofa's intelligentsia, merely posing as an idiot: you can learn everything that's going on when no one cares about your presence because they think you're an idiot.

And Samantar also hears Ben Kadem's version of the truth, although he doesn't understand why he is so sad, why he will no longer be sending Shaat to make more bombs: no one will ever learn the truth of who Mohi really was.

My other Cossery posts:
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy

Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie

25 January 2018

René Benjamin: Gaspard (1915; repr. 1998 with Preface by Pauline Bochant)

René Benjamin's Gaspard was the first World War I novel and won the Prix Goncourt in 1915. Other books about the war that followed are Barbusse's Le Feu, Genevoix's Ceux de 14, and Dorgelès's Les Croix de bois. Benjamin wrote the book from the notes that he made: he was a very early casualty of the war, seriously injuring his arm in it.

The novels that followed are darker than this, much of Gaspard being amusing, playful, and full of the main character Gaspard's slang. World War I, like any war, was no joke, although his antics here, his jokes, songs, bragging, casual stealing and almost constant cheerfulness could to some extent be seen as a coping mechanism. But offsetting that idea is the fact that he seems to be this way most of the time.

So the novel follows Gaspard, a Parisian snail-seller, through the journey to Lorraine in north-east France, seeing the devastation of battle and being wounded in the backside, going to hospital and seeing three wonderful nurses there,* and then back in action only to return to civvy street with an amputated leg. Throughout there are another coping mechanisms: a lust for food, large quantities of wine and beer, and women.

But working-class Gaspard has his serious side, and he befriends Burette (a journalist) and Monsieur Mousse (an academic) in his two separate visits to the front, in which both of them die and he visits Burette's widow, and respects Mousse's wishes by handing over a letter to M. Farinet, Professor of Arts. Farinet's attitude to Gaspard is similar to Gaspard's reception at a rather plush hotel he went to for a meal on joining the outside world after his first stay in hospital – very condescending to the point of rudeness, and it's obvious that Benjamin is exercising a strong criticism of class prejudice in this novel.

This is a novel which is occasionally re-published, thus reviving the almost forgotten René Benjamin. Apart from during the war scenes and the sad scenes in the hospital, I was frequently struck by the original cartoon-like energy in the novel. Quite exceptional.

*While in the military hospital in Angers, Benjamin met Élizabeth Lecoy, a volunteer nurse whose parents owned property in Saché, and who also loved Balzac like he did. He made a marriage proposal, and she accepted.

21 January 2018

Marie Darrieussecq: Truismes | Pig Tales (1996)

The title Truismes has a double meaning: on the one hand truisms, on the other, er, 'sowisms', or what comes from female pigs. This book was a huge popular and critical success, and launched the literary career of the twenty-seven-year-old academic. The English title Pig Tales obviously doesn't quite translate the original title, but at least it makes a pun and suggests female concern in the homophonic 'pigtails'.

Truismes is about a woman who turns into a pig. There's evidently more to it than that, although that sums up the basic story. It's a kind of fairy story sometimes of the horror type, but it's very amusing at the same time. A story then of metamorphosis, although (contrary to what some critics suggested) Darrieussecq didn't have Ovid or Kafka in mind, nothing of the metamorphoses that we could mention throughout literary history.

Everyone has interpreted the narrative as they find fit, and social satire has been found by those who looked, although Darrieussecq intended it more as the story of a woman's body. A Basque magazine (from the region where Darrieussecq originates) just to mention Basque porcine culture in a review.

The protagonist graphically describes an F1 AccorHotel (although not mentioned as such) somewhere close to the périphérique near Issy-les-Moulineaux, and there may well have been or is still one there. She also speaks in polite familiar language, with frequent use of such expressions as 'pour ainsi dire' and 'comme qui dirait', both synonymous here with 'like' rather than the more artificial 'so to speak' or 'as it were'. Now, I'm familiar with Issy-les-Moulineaux, but when the narrator began to speak of coming from a crumby HLM in Garenne-le-Mouillé (suggesting something like a wet rabbit warren), I wasn't at all surprised to find that the only references to such a place on Google (just five) are to Truismes.

Truismes, as I've said, is a kind of fairy story, but of course the main fairy story is Marie Darrieussecq's sudden phenomenal success that this story brought her. This is one of those books that you can read several times and still get pleasure from.

My other Marie Darrieussecq posts:
Marie Darrieussecq: Tom est mort | Tom Is Dead
Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes | My Phantom Husband

18 January 2018

Marie Nimier: La Girafe | The Giraffe (1987) trans. Mary Feeney

This book I remember buying for a few cents at The Strand bookstore in New York some years ago, before I developed my acute allergy to books in translation, especially translations from the French, which I can read as well as I can English. But as it was sitting there on one of my bookcases and I'd not seen a copy of Marie Nimier's book in the original, I thought I'd give it a go. I shall no doubt end up reading the original anyway, as this is very intriguing, weird (well, it's French), and absorbing.

It is entirely by chance that, in the wake of Catherine Deneuve's objectionable denunciation of #balancetonporc (and by extension #metoo), I began the book on the same day that Catherine Millet (author of La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001)) was making even more objectionable comments, much to the disgust of feminists. Millet was actually saying that she felt sympathy for the métro frotteurs, men who get off on rubbing against women of public transport; she was saying how unfortunate it is that these men's sexual satisfaction is reduced to such pathetic measures. This ignores the indisputable fact that many of these men are probably in permanent relationships anyway, and that their behaviour is akin to that of a schoolboy taking risks by seeing how much he can get away with, or famous or highly esteemed personalities in some position of power taking great risks for the same reason. Frotteurs are not worthy of any sympathy, they are not guilty of harassment: sexual assault is the name of the game, and it is a serious offence. Shame on Millet.

Joseph, the protagonist (and anti-hero) of La Girafe often dares to masturbate in a quiet public place, thrilled by the possibility of being caught, and although he's no frotteur he at one time used an umbrella as an extension of his body to surreptitiously touch women's legs on public transport.

But this book isn't exactly about weird sex: there's not really any sex in it, unless you count a male giraffe mounting a female giraffe, and the zoo director secretly visiting the cashier for a quick one. It's more of an unusual love story of a young man (Joseph) and his obsession for the giraffe (Hedwige in the French version, Solange in the English) that he's in care of at the zoo where he works in Paris. Of African ancestry, Joseph is already an outsider, but he's also seriously sexually and psychologically disturbed.

Joseph really loses control at times of what are for him sexual trauma: he poisons the ostrich after it receives Hedwige's attentions, and even Hedwige herself must die after she loses her virginity to the zoo's lothario. No one suspects Joseph of anything. Finally, when Colin B. (a man) begins sexually assaulting Joseph, Joseph strangles him: well, self defence, yeah?

Often, the book is suffused with oneiric, fantasy writing, the real merging with the imaginary. A very strange second novel from Marie Nimier.

16 January 2018

Hattersley, Hyde, Tameside, Greater Manchester towards the end of the second decade

'Young Andrew Sole jumps for joy!' it says on the imprint page of this 96-page book. It is called Fresh Hope Fresh Air: Starting a New Life in Hattersley, was published in 2008 by Mancunian Reunion Project, and was written by Rachel Gee, Sharron Power, and Dick Richardson. The photo is taken from Werneth Low in the 1960s, with the new builds of Hattersley (an extension of Hyde) in the background.

The new property in Hattersley was a council estate, one of the overspills designed to rehouse those in dwellings in central Manchester classed as 'unfit for human habitation'. The move began in 1963, with most of the tenants coming from the east of Manchester. The book is a largely pictorial guide from the cramped streets of Manchester to Hattersley, with locals providing memories of its schools, its celebrations, its pubs and clubs, etc.

What the book omits is what happened to Hattersley between its creation and its rebirth. It is not too easy to find results by Googling "Hattersley" and "right to buy" because the name of Roy Hattersley (an opponent) inevitably gets in the way, but Margaret Thatcher successfully introduced her 'Right to Buy' bill in 1979, meaning that those living in council houses (today usually called 'social housing') could fulfill their dream: to buy the house they lived in. This was but one of Thatcher's (or rather her advisors') privatisation schemes – such as the right to buy shares in newly privatised gas and electricity – whose 'divide and rule' policies split the working classes down the middle, thus allowing her to remain in power for so many years.

Meanwhile, Hattersley became a 'sink estate', riddled with drugs and crime in general. Its name became synonymous with exclusion from mainstream society. In a few pages at the end of Fresh Hope Fresh Air, trumpeting the re-rebirth of Hattersley, John Armitage, of Hattersley, says:

'On the positive side, crime is down, modernisation of the houses is almost on schedule [...] [e]xcept for a few people with long memories, Hattersley has outlived its previous disreputable stigma, and has a brighter future.'

These seem fine, confident words. However, the reality is very different: the tower blocks have all gone, new houses and flats have gone up and look very pretty perhaps, but Barratt, who as far as I know have built all the houses on the new estate in Hattersley, have handed the management on to Residential Management Group (RMG), who have no interest in property management at all, and are in fact no more than a Mafia-type syndicate created (via a legal loophole) to in effect steal and extort as much money as possible from their unsuspecting leaseholders or 'freeholders' (who aren't in reality free at all).

How about this devastating reaction by 'tenant' Emma Winterbottom, whose full email to Jonathan Reynolds MP (Stalybridge and Hyde (Lab/Co-op)), sent 8 January 2018, I post below with her permission:

'Dear Jonathan Reynolds

I am writing this email to you regarding my concerns and worries regarding RMG who manages the block of apartments where I live on Ashby Gardens in Hyde.

When I first moved into my apartment which will be 5 years in May I was only paying £70 a month. Last year I have been paying £130 a month which is astronomical, that’s almost doubled in the time I have been here. This greatly concerns me financially especially with me living alone. Over the years I have enquired to what exactly I am paying for each month. To which they list jobs that are very rarely carried out if at all. The cleaning is of a very poor standard the doors aren’t even wiped down. They are suppose to look after the car park area which as far as I can see is very irregular. Once the weeds were that bad that they were pushing up the paving in the car park. This did eventually get seen to but after me complaining several times.

It seems to me that I have to phone to complain about something before anything is done which is what I am paying a large amount of money for each month anyway.

The problems I have previously had with regards to the gates for the car park which seems not to have been a problem recently but previously when I hadn’t been here that long they were constantly stuck open. This infuriated me that nothing kept getting done about it despite my numerous calls and calls my neighbours had made regarding this problem, as my car insurance would have been affected if anything had happened to my car as my car is covered as being kept in a private gated car park overnight.

Previously I have also had problems with shoddy workmanship in the apartment. I understand that this isn’t RMG’s fault but this falls with Barratt’s. But what I am about to tell you was daylight robbery on RMG’s part.

I came in from work one evening to find a water leak in the communal hallway downstairs. I went to check my bathroom as this was above and there was a leak coming from the cistern which is the poor workmanship I’m talking about. I had only lived here at that time just over 2 years so Barratts weren’t liable for anything as it had just gone over the 2 years cover with them. I turned off the water and didn’t know what to do. My neighbour upstairs phoned RMG and I tried to contact a plumber which I couldn’t do. An hour or so later a workman from RMG turned up came in and said there was nothing he could do and that it was poor workmanship. He was here no more than ten minutes and was unable to do anything. I then had to get someone in myself the next day to sort out the problem. About 6 months later I received a final demand letter from RMG for £300 which was what they were charging me for the call out. Not only is this an obscene amount of money for absolutely nothing but this letter stated final demand when I had not received any other correspondence previously to this regarding this £300. Living on my own and not earning thousands of pounds a year I was extremely worried and upset as the letter unsettled me as it was quite threatening with regards to taking action if this was not paid as soon as possible. I haven’t got that kind of money lying around. I paid the money with great difficulty but was worried what the further action would be. I had a meeting with the new site manager which I think was early last year I was told there was little he could do about it.

Any correspondence I do receive from RMG is never clear and very confusing. They just pluck large amounts of money out of thin air and demand to be paid.

I recently misplaced my car park fob and phoned up to order another one. I knew there would be a charge for this and with it being my fault for misplacing it there was little I could say but nevertheless was shocked to find out this would be £58. I needed it so I paid for it. A few days later I found the lost fob and contacted them that same day which was a Friday. I was told this could be cancelled and refunded but would have to ring back on Monday. I phoned back on the Monday and was told that this couldn’t be done that the fob had been already been posted and sent out recorded delivery. A week went by and the fob still hadn’t arrived. I didn’t need it as I had found the old one but I had paid £58 for this new one and I wanted it. I then contacted the site manager directly. He said that it had been processed and sent but on this occasion he would refund me the £58. A week later this refund still hadn’t been sent so I had to contact him again. I had to do this numerous times till eventually I did get the refund but the key fob never turned up so they clearly never sent it.

I phoned them early December regarding the monthly charges as I was concerned they were going to go up even further. He informed me they will now be £100 a month instead of £130 due to him agreeing better contracts with other companies. I will believe this when I see it.

I spoke to the neighbours opposite who also own their property and they had received correspondence from RMG with regards to decorating the communal areas and internal repairs. At this point I had not received anything of the sort. I got 2 letters from them between Christmas and new year. These letters are very confusing and misleading. With a final date we all have to speak up about it by the 13th January 2018. Why I got one letter for the properties across the road I have no idea but this seems to state that their repairs will be covered with what they already pay from what I can make out. But speaking to the neighbours facing their correspondence looks like they are wanting over £600 per apartment.

The letter regarding my apartment and the others in the block states they will need approximately £80 each apartment for them to carry out unnecessary work. I pay them enough each month without added extras as well as my yearly ground rent.

I dread getting correspondence from them as I know it is going to cost me. Living alone I have barely any disposable income a month as it is. It is making me ill the constant worries about charges. £80 might not seem a lot of money to most but I won’t get anything for it when already paying £130 a month which I get absolutely nothing for.

My anxiety is through the roof, I’m having many a sleepless night as I can’t afford to pay these ever increasing charges, they just decide what they feel like. What will happen if I simply can’t afford to pay it and keep up with their payment demands? Will I lose my property? I have a very low income as it is hard enough working out the money outgoing without extras like this unnecessarily popping up and I find it very unlikely it will be only £80 there are some very large figures on the paperwork I recently received.

What I find most interesting when I had the meeting with the site manager and I expressed my concerns about the cleaning and marked walls and I asked if decorating was included and was told any decorating is carried out only every ten years. So why is this being carried out now after I have only been here less than 5 years.

I just really hope something can be done about all this as I’m at my wits end.

Please find attached photos of the 2 letters I recently received for my apartment block and the one facing.

I look forward to hearing from you

Emma Winterbottom'

On 21 December 2017 Jonathan Reynolds, in a debate on leasehold and commonhold reform in Westminster Hall, said before reading from a few lines of an email he had received from a constituent in Ashby Gardens, Hattersley:

'I am genuinely shocked by the stories I hear in my constituency and that we have heard in this debate. I am not a man prone to hyperbole, but I would go so far as to say that the only fair description of some of the practices we have heard about in this debate is legalised extortion. There is simply no relationship between the services being rendered and the costs charged for them.'

He mentioned another constituent, and added:

'Colleagues who know a little bit about Greater Manchester might know that Hattersley is one of the most successful urban regeneration housing schemes in the country. It took a huge amount of resources under the last Labour Government, and was originally one of the overspill estates from Manchester City Council. It is a fabulous story of urban regeneration and success, and activities such as this are frankly blighting that very successful legacy, which is extremely distressing to hear.'

Speaking in general about such legalised criminals as RMG of Hoddesdon, Jonathan Reynolds concluded:

'The time is clearly ripe for action, and there is clearly a consensus for strong action. My only plea to the Minister would be this: for many constituents, this matter is urgent. It is blighting their lives and affecting their quality of life. It is clearly affecting the liquidity of the housing market, and whether people can make reasonable decisions about their households going forward. We need the action to be as swift as possible. Clearly, it is not straightforward and there are issues to resolve, but I cannot believe that anyone who has listened to today’s debate, or others that have taken place, would not agree that there is consensus for political action. Please, Minister—let us get on with that as soon as possible.'

11 January 2018

Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (2017)

This is an almost unbelievable story, although true. Christopher Smart, aged twenty, decided one day in 1986 to live in the woods in the North Pond area of Maine. And he stayed there for twenty-seven years until his discovery in 2013. His family were quite reclusive and never registered his disappearance to the police. He lived by burgling the summer residences nearby for food and other essentials. He made about 1000 such raids, before he was discovered. He didn't look like anyone might expect a hermit to look: he bathed with a sponge in cold water, buried his food packings, shaved and cut his hair. In winter he had great problems coping with sub-zero temperatures.

Slowly, Michael Finkel managed to communicate with him, first writing, then meeting him in prison and collecting information on Smart's startling activities. However, he spends pages talking about autism, Asperger's syndrome, schizoid behaviour, and people's ability to survive such situations without human contact.

But Smart also stole books and read a great deal: reading, after all, is communication, as Smart himself observed but Finkel doesn't pick up on the fact that an author is actually talking to a reader.  Smart's comment that Henry David Thoreau was a dilettante is quite perceptive, and although he may not be a literary expert – his comment on Joyce's Ulysses being highly overrated by pseudo-intellectuals is more than a little gauche – it is obvious that he has a keen intelligence.

That's the problem with this book, which at two hundred pages is read in a couple of hours with no struggle at all, there are no great insights: very simple words and apparently designed for young adults, or people who just don't read very much. When Finkel starts talking about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I was dumbfound. Christopher Smart is indeed an intelligent person, and he deserves far better than Michael Finkel to write about him.

6 January 2018

Bernard-Marie Koltès: La Nuit juste avant les forêts (1988)

No work by Bernard-Marie Koltès is a comfortable read. Here we have a sixty-three page play, or short 'story' (a questionable term in this case) which is in effect a monologue by an unnamed narrator to an unnamed and unknown person. There is just one sentence, punctuated by commas, dashes, and occasionally parentheses.

A man, possibly drunk or sobering up, possibly maddened by loneliness or fear or any other emotion, waylays another person (called by the familiar 'tu') and tries to prevent him passing by his breathless talking. The reader can have few ideas of the man's age, even of his background, although he speaks in slang, and often speaks of events in the past, recent or distant.

We can perhaps surmise that the place is Paris as the man speaks of the métro and of many bridges. He is out of work, has very little money now because he has just been robbed on the métro, helpless to shout for help because (this piece was written in 1977) his attackers have called him a 'queer'.

But he tells his listener that he's not 'a queer', that's not his reason for stopping him, he wants to sober up, or spend some time talking. And he talks of prostitutes, of women he's known (and a particular one he's had sex with on a bridge), of wanting to buy the other person a coffee: anything to shrug off the fear, the despair, the agony of being for a short time. Comforting read, no, but quite fascinating, outsider writing par excellence.

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: Une part de ma vie
Bernard-Marie Koltès: Dans la solitude des champs de coton | In the Solitude of Cotton Fields

5 January 2018

Jocelyne François: Joue-nous « España » (1980)

Another vintage gem from Jocelyne François, found in one of my favourite Paris bookshops for all of one euro. The back cover says Joue-nous « España » (lit. 'Play Us 'Spain'') is an autobiographical account of a woman from Lorraine, concerning her childhood and adolescence. Yes, this has some very vivid descriptions of the area of Nancy where François was born, including her visits to both of her grandparents in nearby Rosière-aux-Salines and Combasle-sur-Meurthe. The reader is treated to a lyrical description of the flowers*, orchards, and vines of the region, including some expressions of the area, such as mettre à parer, meaning to spread grapes on a rack until they ripen. And then World War II spreads its poison over France.

The real interest is when after the war the narrator is sent to a religious school in Mattaincourt, where she physically and mentally develops for seven years. The narrator expresses her love for Marie-Claire, or Sarah as she also calls her, a love which is extremely strong and physically expressed; when she tells a religious man she believes is sympathetic, he tells her to forget such matters: for him, there is no such thing as homosexual love, which is against nature.

The narrator's mother is of a similar opinion as the religious man, only she believes that the narrator would have been better as a sexually promiscuous woman, even as a prostitute. The title takes on a symbolic significance, and in the final paragraph the narrator rejects both her father and her mother: they used to enjoy her playing 'España' on the piano, although she didn't, but when she says 'Non, mon père, non, ma mère, je ne jouerai jamais España' on the piano they gave her, she means that she will never play the game, never play the heterosexual farce (again). She did play the game initially by marrying and had three children, and her lover 'Sarah' (in reality Marie-Claire Pichaud) had an affair with a married man. But truth (as opposed to pretense, or hypocrisy) won in the end, and the couple lived together in Provence (Saumane-de-Vaucluse) for twenty-five years before moving to Paris due to poor health.

*One flower mentioned several times is the nielle, or corn cockle, which is virtually extinct in England.

My other Jocelyne François post:
Jocelyne François: Les Bonheurs

4 January 2018

Celia Robertson: Who Was Sophie?: My Grandmother, Poet and Stranger (2008)

This is really the story of two lives in one person: first Joan Adeney Easdale, who was a promising poet in her youth; and the second Sophie (or Sophia) Curly, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent many of her years in Nottingham, UK, where she died. The book is written by Celia Robertson, Joan's granddaughter, who tries to work out the secret of what happened to her.

I read somewhere that a doctor (probably a psychiatrist) was pleased that this book is not yet another criticism of psychiatry, and yet to me it reads as just that, it's hugely Laingian. Joan moved from southern England to Australia with her husband and family, and was told by a psychiatrist to forget writing, be a good wife and get on with the housework (OK I'm exaggerating, but to prove an important point), and take up painting as a hobby.

We will never know how much the ill health of Joan's father had an effect on her, how many of her later problems were due to genetic factors, how many to psychological ones. But there are many of Joan's writings here, and it is evident that her writing was a kind of therapy, and that forgetting it would probably do as much harm as the barbaric electro-convulsive therapy she was subjected to in England for seven years from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s. (And I know what I'm saying: I once worked as a psychiatric nurse for many months, helping to administer ECT in its 'modified' form (using muscle relaxant drugs): it's not the kind of experience you forget quickly.)

And so Joan moved back to England, being financially taken advantage of by an unintelligent man called Curly, lived for a few years with him before leaving him for Nottingham and a new life as Sophie Curly. Here she lived off national assistance, in a council house (later flat), becoming 'almost' a prostitute, getting outrageously drunk frequently in the local pubs, where she descended further into (often controlled) madness, and where no one knew of her past budding career as a poet.

Joan Easdale lived from 1913 to 1998, and three books of her poetry were published by Hogarth Press. The cover shows her as a young woman at Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Monks House, Rodmell. Her publications are A Collection of Poems (1931), Clemence and Clare (1932), and Amber Innocent (1939), the last of which is published in full at the end of the biography.

3 January 2018

Tahar Djaout: Les Chercheurs d'os (1984)

Tahar Djaout (1954–93) died at the age of thirty-nine, one of the first victims of Algeria's 'Decade of Terrorism'. Les Chercheurs d'or is the second of his seven novels, and often features as a set book in schools as well as universities. Its subject is in so many respects the Algerian war of independence, but which is nevertheless notable by its absence in the novel: we only have before and after.

Les Chercheurs d'or is divided into three parts: firstly, the leaving of the East Atlas mountains by the adolescent narrator with his relative Rabah Ouali to bring back the bones of his brother killed in the war; secondly, there's a long flashback to the boy's memories of his brother; and finally, there is the journey back to the village with the brother's remains.

The experience transforms the unnamed boy. Are these actually his brother's bones, why has he made this mission ostensibly for his brother who hated the village, and aren't the members of the village merely trying to bury their own ghosts?

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Quai ouest (1985)

Although the place is unnamed, Bernard-Marie Koltès bases the setting and the architecture on a large disused shed (destroyed in the early 1980s because of the crime associated with it) which he spent some time in in New York in 1982, a place of tramps, gays, criminals, social rejects. Here we have Maurice Koch, 60, who arrives in the shed in his car with Monique, 42. There's also a family: the husband Rodolfe, 58, his wife Cécile, 60, and their children Charles, 28, and Claire, 14. Also present are Fak, 22. And Abad who can speak but never does.

It's impossible not to see Beckett as an influence here, although the play (Koltès's first published) also mentions quotes from the Bible, Victor Hugo, Jack London and Burning Spear (Winston Rodney): an eclectic mixture to match the characters.

Sometimes Koltès's work seems like a kind of dance around dealing of some sort, exchanges of possessions, with menace, or at least uncertainty, ever present. Koltès says he's not interested in reasons, not the 'Why?' but the 'How?'. Also of interest is the meeting of two people, who might have come from two different periods of his life: in his childhood Koch, the bourgeois, military, provincial, French; as opposed to Abad in his youth, who is none of these.

Koch, who has lost his money but doesn't know why, wants to kill himself but we don't know why and of course it doesn't matter. He at first throws himself in the (Hudson) River by the shed, only to be fished out by Charles. At the end he dies offstage, and it's not clear if he dies by his own hand or as a result of Abad killing him.

Cécile also dies, after speaking in Spanish and Quechuan, which are only translated into French in the Annex to the book. Also of interest is Fak teasingly trying to entice Claire into the shed using language which is obviously sexual, although there is no specific mention of anything of a sexual nature: again, it's a kind of dance around the unspoken, which Koltès excels at. But 'meaning', symbolism? Don't even think about it: that's a world Koltès doesn't inhabit.

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