Films and Books

Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.

Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.

Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.

Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.

*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.

7 books for £30 total, of which only one was a new one and cost £10.99

However, I had also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…

And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.

Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.

Swiss in October: Ramuz and Canton Vaud

I’ve owned this copy of Beauty on Earth by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz for several years. It was translated, after all, by my good friend Michelle Bailat Jones, and I trust both her literary taste and her translations, since she is a very sensitive, poetic writer herself. But, for some reason, it did not click with me at first reading and I abandoned it after a few pages.

When I started it this time round, I was craving something more specifically Swiss, after the rather disappointing LA setting of Pascale Kramer’s novel. Well, Ramuz certainly is the master of that: the landscapes, the descriptions of village life (and suspicion and gossip) were so spot on that I felt transported back to this…

September blue, picture taken by Michelle Bailat Jones. She lives in almost the exact location where Ramuz set his novels, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

During his lifetime he was often dismissed (especially by the French) as a ‘regional writer’, but his reputation has grown since his death in 1947 and he is the only Swiss writer to achieve that highest of French literary accolades, i.e. be published in the ‘Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’. Yes, he often sets his novels and novellas in the Swiss countryside he knew and loved, but the landscape is never described just for the sake of prettifying the text. Instead, it is perceived as THE main character, sometimes benign, often threatening, with an inestimable impact on humans.

Beauty on Earth is one of his major works, but the only previous English language translation of it was a curtailed and anonymous version published in 1929 (the novel itself appeared in 1927). The beautiful orphan Juliette is brought from Cuba to Switzerland to live with her uncle, the village innkeeper. The uncle Milliquet is not sure he wants her there, although at first his earnings go up as people crowd on his terrace in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her. However, she soon causes turbulence in the village, through no fault of her own except for her ‘strange ways’ and love of accordion music. The innkeeper’s wife kicks her out and she finds refuge with the fisherman Rouge, who soon starts to feel over-protective of her. The turmoil her presence creates in the village can only end in a huge (literal and metaphorical) storm. Yet she is not the only outsider in the village: there is a tension between the fishermen and the farmers, a hunchbacked Italian musician and a secretive Savoyard are frequent guests on the cafe terrace. The border is just across the lake, and beside, this has always been a region of shifting borders and loyalties.

It is easy to see why there haven’t been that many translations of Ramuz: his style, even for fluent French speakers, is idiosyncratic and difficult. He soon abandons any pretence at chronological storytelling, he wanders from one point of view to the next and has a tendency to use that amibiguous French pronoun ‘on’, which could mean ‘it’, or ‘we’ or ‘you’. The translator’s notes at the beginning of the book describe the impossibility of being consistent in translating this simple word. The actual narrator often seems to be an all-seeing figure somewhere above the common fray, who makes grave pronouncements from time to time, generally meditating about the nature of beauty and the damage it can cause in everyday life.

… we are drawn into beauty’s orbit. Down here on the earth we don’t see enough of it. We are greedy about it, we hunger for it; we want to possess it… do we know what to do with beauty among men?

This ‘voice’ gives the story the gravitas and solemnity of the choir in Ancient Greek tragedies. We watch the actors playing their roles in those beautiful landscapes, we hear their dialogues and see their gestures, punctuated by commentary. Overall, there is a sense of inescapable fate, no matter how much the villagers try to fight it.

Ramuz is a poet as well as a novelist. His long sentences and sensuous descriptions are works of art and if anyone can do them justice, it is Michelle, with her own talent for writing (honestly, I am being objective here, I have no qualms about criticising my friends if I don’t like their style). His creation of atmosphere through minute description of people’s appearance, of landscapes, of set scenes (often described as ‘stepping into a painting’) is at a far slower pace than contemporary readers might like. That is possibly what made me stop reading a few years ago. However, if you allow yourself to slow right down and follow his pace, it feels timeless, following the natural flow of the seasons, remaining in close proximity to nature, observing and respecting it. He describes a world that was already vanishing in his day, a world that was in equal parts enchanting and menacing.

How can I not love the tranquillity and beauty he describes, which can still be observed nowadays on the shores of Lac Leman?

The door was wide open; the entire beautiful Sunday came in, with its rowboats, with its steamboats. On Sundays people love to come down off the mountain and from the villages up the hill or behind the hill; young people, boys and girls; and it’s when this beautiful water starts to shine between your field stakes and it calls to you from the lake over your little walls… And there are the big steamboats, all white with their red, green and white, or tri-color flags, and their big wheel beating the water, each flat thud can be heard before we even see the boat; or we can even hear singing…

And yet all this calm beauty also hides constraints – the rules and regulations that Rouge feels land people are bound by (I have to add: in Switzerland perhaps more than in other places), whereas he, as a fisherman, is less hemmed in.

…alls these winemakers or the people who cut the hay and rake the hay, these owners of a corner of a pasture, of a part of a field, of a tiny piece of the land, you see all of them forced to follow a path and always the same one, between two walls, between two hedges, and here this is my home and next door it’s not. It’s full of rules over there, full of No Tresspassing… they can’t go left nor right… As for me, for us… we go where we want. We’ve got everything because we have nothing.

I allowed myself to be engulfed by the magic of Ramuz and was suddenly extremely homesick for the Swiss village he described (although not for its inhabitants). At the same time, we can never forget that this village is the whole world and the whole world is represented in this village.

This was exactly the sort of reading from Switzerland that I’d hoped for. Dare I read him next in the original French? Not sure, but luckily Onesuch Press has brought out some further translations: the poetry collection Riversong of the Rhone, translated by Patti Marxsen, What If the Sun, translated once more by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Derborence translated by Laura Spinney, and an earlier novel The Reign of the Evil One, translated by James Whitall. You can find more details about their books here.

Ramuz’ house in Pully, where he died in 1947.

Swiss in October: Pascale Kramer

Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.

The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.

I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.

Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.

This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?

It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?

So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.

Too much to handle in October?

Have I set myself up for failure in October, by taking on too many things?

Possibly.

The reason for that is that October is my quietest month at work. The students have come back, my colleagues are very busy, so no one has time for my training courses and webinars. Although I am preparing some behind-the-scenes improvements, it is not as busy as the summer period, when I had no holiday at all. On the personal front as well, things start falling into place after the back to school frenzy. So the plan was to take some days off, but just stay home, rest, tidy up my study, focus on reading and writing.

The reality is…

I’ll be visiting my parents in Romania toward the end of the month (apparently to discuss funeral arrangements and elder care issues, so that will be fun!), plus it’s an opportunity to get some of the boys’ paperwork done so they can get Romanian passports. I also have additional paperwork to prepare and check, as right after we return from Romania, I will be appearing in court for financial settlement in this never-ending divorce case. [For all the wimps who shout ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and cannot handle 3.5 years of Brexit negotiations, they should try 4-5 years of divorce negotiations!] I’ll also be helping out a friend by looking after her children while she is away on a business trip, so cooking for six instead of three and four different schools to handle instead of just two. The last of the admin type issues I’m tackling this month involves something more joyful: it’s still secret and very early stages, but let me just say it might involve a translation of books from Romanian type project.

Joyful though my cultural and social events are, I seem to have agreed to an awful lot of them this month: from the Kenneth Branagh Awards at the Windsor Fringe Festival, to films, plays, opera, taking my son to Duke of Edinburgh Awards-related events, quiz night at my son’s school, the very last university open day (I hope)… as well as trying to go to the gym regularly.

Last but not least, my cup of joyful reading is in danger of running over too. Switzerland in October is a-go, I’ve already read the first (disappointingly un-Swiss) book by Pascale Kramer and have now embarked on Ramuz. Then there is the 1930 Book Club, for which I am very tempted to re-read Camil Petrescu’s Last Night of Love, First Night of War, a Romanian classic. I might feel differently about him and the book now, after reading how he behaved to Mihail Sebastian in the late 1930s. October is also the Orenda month, and I cannot go past it without picking up at least one (or two) of their most recent books! I am also continuing to read the ‘one entry a day’ readalong for Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries on the Mookse and Gripes site and am trying to stay clear of the temptation to reread Proust in preparation for Backlisted Pod’s Christmas special. The #EU27Project needs to finally conclude at some point. Plus, that pesky library keeps pestering me with some China Mieville, Iain Banks and Nicola Barker books that I also want to read…

What I absolutely must do, even if it comes at the expense of anything else on the above list, is edit my poems and start putting them together for a chapbook. The need for artistic ‘selfishness’ has become obvious, as this article on the dangers of kindness points out.

Why can’t I learn to relax like Zoë (pronounced Zo-eh, with trema, as my boys keep pointing out, rather than Zoey)?

Friday Fun: Writers Houses, Mostly French

I thought I had already shown you most writers’ homes in France, but it turns out I’ve barely scratched the surface. So here are some more, plus an extra one a little further afield!

Winter falls on Rousseau’s house in Montmorency, from museejjrousseau.montmorency.fr
Francois Mauriac’s little chateau in Vemars, L’Express.
An older house, for the playwright Corneille, from tourmag.fr
Alphonse Daudet bought this house from his first royalties, which must have been greater in those days, maison.alphonse.daudet.overblog.fr
Surprisingly, Jean Cocteau had the most romantic house outside Paris, in Milly-la-Foret. From L’Express.
Last but not least, this amazing House for Writers from Tbilisi, Georgia. From itinari.com

Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign

Nicola Barker is having fun. She has waved good-bye to the traditional novel form and is experimenting left, right and centre. She is playing with words and characters, and we are the audience privileged to witness the joy and games.

You might deduce from that how much I enjoyed her latest ‘anti-novel’ I Am Sovereign. It is short, sharp, often hilarious and it might feel like it has less philosophical heft than some of her previous novels… but that’s not a bad thing. It is far less dense and therefore more accessible: in short, a great introduction for those who have yet to discover Barker’s work.

The action takes place over the 20 minutes or so that a typical house viewing might take place (although there are some things which delay the process, but still no longer than 30 minutes). The house in question is a rather run-down two up, two down on a grimy street in Llandudno and belongs to Charles’ late mother. Perhaps the reason the house isn’t selling is because Charles insists on ‘helping out with the viewings’, much to estate agent Avigail’s disgust, since this 40 year old, introverted teddy-bear maker is both chronically shy and prone to inappropriate over-sharing. For instance, he keeps mentioning an attempted burglary that took place at the property over 12 years ago, and forcing popcorn makers and other superfluous gadgets onto hapless prospective buyers.

When Wang Shu, a busy Chinese woman, constantly on the phone, and her daughter Ying Yue view the house, a mysterious and violent oyster shell incident occurs, which makes nearly all those present question their lives, their identities and their ambitions. And that’s before you even take into account their obsession with certain You Tube stars and self-development gurus. It all becomes funnier still and even more chaotic when the author grapples to regain her authority over her characters, as they disagree with her interpretation of things or even refuse to allow themselves to be portrayed at all in the book.

… it is necessary at this moment in the novella (henceforth referred to as I am Sovereign) to warn the reader that Nicola Barker (henceforth referred to as The Author) has been granted absolutely no access to the thoughts and feelings of the character Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo (henceforth referred to as The Subject). At his inception, The Subject seemed not only a willing, but an actively enthusiastic participant in the project, yet after several weeks of engagement became increasingly cynical and uncooperative, to the point of threatening to withdraw from the enterprise altogether if The Author deigned to encroach, unduly, upon his ‘interior life’.

You will find all the trademark Nicola Barker playing around with fonts and appearance of the text on the page. Yet somehow, it never feels too gimmicky. Things that might annoy me in other writers just make me giggle in this case.

You need to be in the right mood for a Nicola Barker novel, but when you meet it head-on, without knowing too much about it, without any expectations and an open frame of mind, what a beautiful collision (between fiction and reality) it makes!

Too Close for Comfort: Three Quick Reviews

All three of these recently read books were a little too close to home for me: on a personal, social or political level. Absolutely compelling reading, although each one required some coffee and cake or deep breathing breaks.

Rodrigo de Souza Leao: All Dogs are Blue (transl. Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler)

This was part of my Brazilians in August personal challenge, the only man who sneaked onto my list of Brazilian authors in translation. Much like Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, it gives you an insight into what it must feel like to be deeply depressed, paranoid and schizophrenic. Regardless of diagnostic, the morbidly obese narrator finds himself in an asylum in Rio. He believes he has swallowed a chip that makes him behave out of character and do things he doesn’t want to do. His descriptions of life both inside and outside the asylum, in all its madcap noise and grossness, are hilarious. Knowing that the author himself suffered from mental health problems and died at a young age, soon after the publication of this book, gives a bitter edge to the comedy. It is the black humour of despair, and it’s not surprising that his chosen fantasy chums are Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

To read this book is to abandon yourself to its rhythm and let its waves overpower you. It’s not a pleasant experience, it tosses you about and can feel like drowning at times.

I swallowed a chip. I swallowed a cricket. What else is left to devour in this world? Carnival only wears the colours of short-lived happiness. Dealing with lunatics or with normal people: what’s the difference? What is reality? How many pieces of wood do you need to make that canoe? How many mortars do you need to sink that boat?

But Souza Leao is very clever and also has a poet’s felicity of expression: he tosses a throwaway line into the mix that you simply have to stop and wonder over.

I left the hotel and went to the bus station. I was possessed by a fertile spirit of modern madness, one that had helped twentieth-century poetry many times and had put contemporary literature in its rightful place. My persecution complex had reached the pinnacle of its glory.

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living

At the age of fifty, Levy leaves her marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children. This slim volume is the story of her reinvention, a sort of ‘swimming home’, finding herself and her purpose, while also dealing with the irritating, intractable, unforgiving day to day. As a woman, mother and writer who is struggling with many of the same things, it has simply meant so much to me. It’s a book I’ve filled up with post-its and shall be returning to again and again. It is also very insightful into gender relations and often feels like she has been inhabiting my head and heart. Here are just a few favourite quotes:

At first I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want. If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be phantom.

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.

Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then mock her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us… he tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

A late entry to my Americans in June challenge. Moving from the personal and gendered to the more purely political, this book is just as painful as the other two. It was written in 1935 as a satire and a warning against the rise of populists and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in what must have seemed very frightening end of world times. (Hence the rise of dystopian fiction during that period, so similar to our own.)

A narcissistic, rude, almost illiterate, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue Buzz Windrip promises to make America proud and prosperous once more and wins the presidential election. The results are predictable but even more dire than the peace-loving newspaper editor Doremus Jessup had feared. His original ‘wait and see’ policy, the complacency of the ‘it can’t happen here’ type of those around him soon leads to the regime slipping ever more deeply into disturbing authoritarianism.

At first, Doremus and his family seem comfortable and protected, nobody seems to share his discomfort at the election of Buzz as president, and he has a bit of tantrum-ridden stomping off ‘fine then, don’t listen to me’ attitude that I can understand all too well.

All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that. All these years I’ve worked – and I never did want to be on all these committees and boards and charity drives! – and don’t they look silly now! What I always wanted to do was to sneak off to an ivory tower – or anyway, celluloid, imitation ivory – and read everything I’ve been too busy to read.

But soon things go beyond a joke and beyond mere discomfort. There is no more sitting on the fence or ignoring the way the country is heading. It’s no longer about compromise and self-censorship, very soon it turns into attempting to escape, being tortured and even killed.

Interestingly enough, Buzz is a Democrat and originally runs on a socialist platform, showing that any ideology can be taken to extremes and abused. An absolutely chilling novel, sadly possibly more topical now than at any other time since the Second World War.