Friday Fun: A Writing Shed of One’s Own

This is the dream, isn’t it, for all writers, particularly when it’s hot and stuffy in the house? Here are some cool-looking spots for your unwind at the back of your garden… if you have one.

Turquoise beauty with porch, from No Wasted Ink.

The sound of running water must be so soothing. From BookTrust.

This one even has an upper floor! From Pinterest.

Charming shed on stilts with a little terrace, this is Elly Griffith’s writing retreat. From her website/newsletter.

Among the terraced houses of London, in the back garden, you can find this beauty. And it even has a stove! From Home Design Lover.

A Year Older… and Match-Making My Books

It’s my birthday this week and I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to fully prepare for it. I’ll be delivering two translation workshops in schools on my actual birthday, but also going to the hairdresser and having my older son come back home from university. No major treats planned for my birthday weekend (because we will be heading back to Durham on the 1st of July and will celebrate then), but I can tell you it has been a better year than the previous one.

There have been no spectacular changes outwardly, other than having my older son go off to university (and experiencing the bittersweet delight of having him home for the holidays and then saying farewell all over again) – but he seems happy, settled, and still eager to talk to me regularly, so it’s not been a horrible wrench. I have also finally been able to go and see my parents in March, after 2.5 years of enforced distancing. They are much frailer than I’d have liked, and I can foresee I will have to make more frequent trips over there over the next few years.

Other than that: I am still in the same day job, I have not moved house, I have not found a new partner, nor have I suddenly taken up a new sport and dramatically altered my body. I have not won any literary prizes (neither individually nor with my publishing venture Corylus Books). In fact, I’ve had a lot of rejections, both little and big.

What I have done is started proper (online) Italian lessons, in a very small group, and am progressing very well, even if I don’t do lots of homework every day. I did the BCLT Summer School for Multilingual Theatre Translation last July and discovered how much I enjoy translated theatre and that I really want to be involved in it. Best of all, I’ve rediscovered my passion for writing and the topics to match. The burbling fountain (or should that be ‘babbling’?) is back! After a discouraging few years of merely editing and resubmitting previously rejected stuff, it feels good to be writing new things, however raw and in need of revision. The poetry also feels lighter, more playful than before – I seem to be having fun with it. See what you think:

The search is not for love
but for a brief clasp of your fingers
and a jolt of electricity
on a late May evening
in a station where only the slow train stops,
the white lilac teases
with its heady scent above
the crumbling wall.

One thing I have become acutely aware of this year is that, if I am planning to move abroad permanently in about two years’ time, I need to get a handle on my completely out-of-control bookshelves. I am still buying books, but I should also learn to take them promptly off the shelves once I’ve read them, unless they are profoundly significant and will require rereading.

This got me wondering whether it might be a good idea to share some of my recent books which I’ve reviewed but no longer want to keep. I give a huge pile of books to charity shops ever so often, but they have started refusing them recently (they have too many, not enough place to store them). Moreover, these books I was thinking of are not underlined or based-looking second-hand copies. They are all in splendid condition, bought new, read once (with post-its rather than scribbles or turned corners).

Since I am not steeped in wealth (but also don’t want to be profiteering, as I recognise things are tough for everyone right now), I thought I might make a small amount from reselling them – enough to cover the cost of P&P and perhaps a coffee when I go to the post office. How does a flat fee of £5 per book sound? UK only, I’m afraid, as postage to other countries is prohibitively expensive, while custom forms are an additional obstacle.

I will suggest about five or so books every month. Let me know either on Twitter or in the comments below if you have your eye on any of them (you can have more than one, if you like) and we can arrange payment via Paypal or some other means. I am linking to the original reviews on my blog where they exist, but don’t be put off if I haven’t loved a book, as I tend to be horrendously critical and impatient (especially of late).

I feel like I’m doing a bit of a match-making service for these books, so that they find their perfect reader, so here are my first attempts at playing matchmaker.

  1. Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy – inspired by Orwell, an unashamedly frank look at contemporary life on minimum wage is searching for an equally no-holds-barred fan of poetic yet politically charged non-fiction
  2. Italo Svevo: A Perfect Hoax – short, humorous, yet packs a dark punch to the gut. Looking for understanding reader, with a satirical delight in tormented writerly types and their foibles.
  3. Amy Liptrot: The Instant – confused young woman searching for a good home and respite from heartbreak
  4. Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin – self-absorbed and self-destructive but colourful, seeking a steady, understanding influence and/or lashings of hedonism.
  5. John Dickson Carr: Till Death Do Us Part – a British Library crime classic by one of the best Golden Age crime writers – you get very much what it says on the tin – a good solid few hours of fun and a near-impossible puzzle

French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

Friday Fun: Something Old, Something New…

Some of these libraries are actually old, but most of them are ‘faux’. Some of them only slightly pretend to be classical. Never mind – I could happily put up with any of them!

The Franckeshe Stiftung, Halle, was indeed founded at the end of the 17th century. From welt.de

I did not know that the Opera Garnier in Paris also has a library.

Strawberry Hill House is neo-Gothic – so 18th century masquerading as 14th. From Teddington NUB News.

The Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina clearly longs for the French chateau or English country house style. From Wikimedia.

Modern but clearly inspired by olde worlde style, from Pinterest.

Unapologetically modern, Mediterranean and 1960s in style. From Casa Om.

French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde à portée de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

French in June and #20Books: Three Writers of Noir

It’s no secret that I like noir fiction, especially when it is not too macho and the (usually male) narrator reveals vulnerability. That’s why two of the authors below are firmly among my favourites, while Janis Otsiemi is new to me, but after hearing him speak in Lyon in 2016, I thought he sounded very interesting. All three of them are (or were) also quite politically engaged, and I wonder if noir is a response to a certain political frame of mind.

Book 3/20: Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est à l’abri du succès (2000) (literally: Nobody’s safe from success)

Translated as C’est la Vie (tr. Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2019.

This is the slim volume I was lucky enough to find signed by the author (dedicated to Marie Louise, which is ALMOST Marina Sofia, don’t you agree?) in a second-hand bookshop in Lyon. This was his sixth or seven novel for adults, although it seems to be one of the last to be translated into English. Prior to that, he had a long career as a children’s book author, and the juxtaposition of his hilarious yet slightly surreal kids’ fantasy books with his very dark and violent novels always makes me smile.

The ‘hero’ of the story (who is never a hero, if you know your Garnier) is Jeff Colombier, a has-been middle-aged writer, drinking too much, whose relationships with women have come to nothing, and whose grown-up son despises him. But then things seem to turn around for him when he wins an important literary prize. Although he makes a fool of himself on TV, he is nevertheless feted and suddenly touring all over France. He runs away from all these trappings of success to spend some time with his son (who has become a drug dealer) in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Of course things go awry, although perhaps not quite as violently as in some of the other Garnier novels. Which might be a relief for some readers, but I feel it also lacks some of the perception and depth of novels like How’s the Pain or Moon in a Dead Eye. It is in essence the dry, witty description of a man’s midlife crisis, with additional swipes at the Parisian literary world, womanising and parenting. This is his second novel featuring an author, and there possibly are some knowing autobiographical nods in this one, but I feel it was much better done in The Eskimo Solution. One for Garnier completists (and worth it for his signature alone in my case).

Book 4/20: Jean-Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours (1999) (literally: Barren/Arid Days), with photographs by Catherine-Bouretz-Izzo.

A bit of an unusual book this, a poetry collection by an author best known for his neo-noir Marseille Trilogy. Yet Izzo started out by publishing several volumes of poetry in the 1970s before switching to prose and then returned to poetry twenty years later in 1997 for the remainder of his short life. This volume is illustrated with photos by his wife, mostly close-ups of rocks and cliffs around Marseille.

In fact, you might argue that all of Izzo’s work is a love-song to the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean, without being blind to the destructive forces of either. His work has often been described as combining ‘black and blue’ – the blackest depths of noir, even the ‘blues’ (music also plays an important part in his work), but also the clear blue of the sea representing optimism, the colour of hope and dreams.

His poetry is so evocative of place, of the Mediterranean landscape in all its seasons. There is something so immediate about his descriptions, very sensual, dropping you in the middle of a grassy field, or with your fingers scrabbling in red earth, the warmth of the sun against your skin. I am afraid you will have to take my word for it, because I find it very difficult to translate poetry. It sounds rather inane when I just capture the meaning of the words but not the whole atmosphere, soundscape and colour.

No reference points around here.

Nothing but the sun.

Who says: here and now.

Our place is here, under the shoulder of the sun

on the blue stones, in the bosom of the grass,

the moan of the midi.

Izzo was a political journalist as well as a writer, but poetry seems to have been his shelter. He used to say that he loved telling stories, but that he felt most alive when writing poetry. Poetry helped keep him le plus fidèle possible à l’innocence (as close as possible to innocence).

Book 5/20: Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot (2009) [literally: Life’s a dirty business]

This novel is a more straightforward piece of crime fiction, set in Libreville, Gabon. Chicano has just been released from prison (possibly thanks to a case of mistaken identity) after serving four years for a burglary that went wrong. He has sworn to lead a good life from now on, but easier said than done. How can you possibly hope to succeed, when you have no education, no skills, no supportive family or girlfriend, in a country where corruption reigns supreme? Needless to say, Chicano gets sucked back into his criminal gang and things go as well as might be expected.

The story is relatively simple and predictable, and it’s perhaps fair to say that it is one of the author’s earliest novels – he has written around nine of them by now, all featuring the inspectors Koumba and Owoula. But this is not really a police procedural – for the police, just like pretty much all of the public services in Gabon, are corrupt, biased and incompetent. This is not a pretty picture that Otsiemi paints of his country, but it is full of energy and wit. The noise, heat and constant movement of the city streets and marketplaces really come to life.

I also loved the examples of non-standard French being used throughout (some of them explained in footnotes, others perfectly comprehensible but making me smile in the body of the text). For example, the ‘breadwinner’ becomes the ‘manioc winner’ (gagne-pain –> gagne-manioc), underpants are ‘porte-fesses’ (buttock-carriers), the mistress is known as ‘the second office’ and so on. Despite the best efforts of the Académie française, the French language remains alive, diverse and constantly kicking!

Friday Fun: Modern Architecture and Public Buildings

When I posted my university campuses post, one of my Twitter friends @buddclair said it’s all very well to be escapist, but what about ‘some pictures of the mundane, the Brutalist, the underfunded places where people spent their formative years, made friends and hopefully got a bit of education along the way’?

Of course, you know that my Friday Fun posts are all about escapism, so there was no way I would include ugly buildings in this collection. However, it did make me think of examples of 1960s or so architecture in public buildings that I could admire? Well, this could end up being a post entirely about Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. This is what I came up with, do let me know about your own favourites.

Clouds reflected in the Oscar Niemeyer Museum of Curitiba, Brazil.

He famously designed the new capital city of Brasilia – and always made the most of reflections. From Arch Daily.

Another view of the Congress building in Brasilia, because I just love the image of the cars sinking into the water. From Sounds and Colours.

A European example of Niemeyer’s work, the Mondadori HQ in Milan, Italy, and once again his great use of reflections. From divisare.com

My personal favourite (and the one I have visited) is the spaceship-like modern art museum in Rio (Niteroi). From Lifeblink.com
The red carpte twisty entrance to the Niteroi Museum – and the views! From art50.net

And this is what it looks like inside the Modern Art Museum in Niteroi – Captain Kirk, you are wanted on the bridge! From Wikiwand.
There are, however, contemporary examples of architecture which really resonate with me: the Bosjes Chapel in South Africa, for instance, designed by Steyn Studio, London. From Arch Daily.

Last, but not least, the Harbin Opera House in China, designed by MAD Architects in China. From ChinaTravel.com

French in June and #20Books: Women’s Midlife Crisis

Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire (Book 2 of #20Books of Summer)

This book has been translated as Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by the very talented author and translator Alison Anderson, and the title does rather give you an idea of what the book is about. Unlike the original Emma Bovary, however, the narrator known only as M.A.(pronounced just like Emma in French) does not have an unhappy ending. Instead, we have a picture of her whole life, from childhood to death, covering around 75 years of French social history from the 1950s to roughly 2025.

If you compare it with another recent book that traces a character’s entire life story (rather than being plot-driven), A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you might find this book profoundly annoying. Because, unlike with Andreas, no real tragedy befalls M.A.: she does not face war or destruction or even major familial dramas and losses. She has loving, if rather dull parents, she gets a chance to go to university, she marries, has healthy children, and, after some initial financial worries, soon leads a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with all the household consumer goods considered necessary at the time. Yet, despite all this, she is often bored and unhappy, and embarks upon an affair with a work colleague. But this only brings momentary excitement to her life, and all her other attempts to liven things up – the friendships, the hobbies, psychotherapy – fall flat. This flatness is echoed in the idiosyncratic narrative style – instead of a first person narrator, we have the unusual second person – and this brings MA much closer to us. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but her story is fairly typical of her generation (and probably ours as well) and the tediousness of everyday life is conveyed not only through the observation of all the tiny details of family life (the interruptions during supper, for example), but also with exhaustive descriptions of the fridge or the car, all adding to that sense of flatness and information overwhelm.

‘You couldn’t express clearly this sense of dissatisfaction because – as all the images from around the world kept reminding you – you had everything you needed to be happy. In your country there were no major floods, no wars, no epidemics, people died of old age, there was no bankruptcy, just a demanding career for your husband and worryies about the children’s future. Later, your mother will die in a room with dirty curtains, you will be made redundant, you will be burgled, but you will never experience anything major, you will never win the lottery or be kidnapped and have your fifteen minutes of fame.’

(my translation)

I personally much preferred Divry’s funnier and more overtly militant novel When the Devil Comes Out of the Bathroom, but I can see what she was trying to do here. It is perhaps also a good warning to not waste your life, and to realise what really matters to you and make the most of it.

Emily Itami: Fault Lines

The wife in this case is Japanese and she too seems to have everything she needs to be happy, at least on paper. Mizuki is a housewife, after a rather lacklustre singing career, with two cute children and a successful professional husband, living in a posh part of Tokyo. Yet she too is discontented with her life, seriously considering throwing herself off the balcony where she escapes to smoke a cigarette. She also embarks upon an affair, but soon realises that she probably lacks the courage or conviction to uproot her life, so it cannot last.

This story focuses on a limited time period of Mizuki’s life, a few months at most, and it is told from the first person point of view, so there is a lot more emotion, anger, poignancy and sense of yearning than in Divry’s almost clinical detachment (and near-imperatives). Mizuki feels invisible and unwanted, and she desperately longs to be loved, to feel attractive once more.

He’s made me invisible. With all the options I had, I chose him, chose him for life, for living, and he’s frozen me out into an existence that isn’t living at all. I’m in a cage without bars and I’m screaming but nobody can hear. I’m not even middle-aged yet and he’s faded me into the background.

The author suggests that the reason Mizuki is so frustrated with her life is because she has lived for a while in the United States, and has been exposed to different expectations and lifestyles, much like the author herself (who I suspect is half-Japanese and spent her childhood there, but now lives in the UK). However, I was also amused by the astute observations of the impact of American self-help gurus on Japanese culture.

All the talks are about accepting yourself as you are, being kind to yourself, seeing yourself as just one human out of many, doing your best, with as much right to be here as everybody else. I like the idea, and I find the talks relaxing, but if I think about it too much, the idea of self-acceptance jars. Some people, surely, are unacceptable, and the makers of the recordings don’t know if I’m one of those people or not. How do they know if I phone my mother regularly, or separate my recycling, or keep my terrace free of furniture that could fly away in a typhoon, or tell the truth? You can accept yourself, here, but only if you’re fulfilling your obligation to society. I guess that’s why America is the land of the free, but we have lower crime rates and litter-free streets.

I actually enjoyed this more than I expected – the adultery side of things was sensitively done, not that I am squeamish about such things in my reading (and we hear almost by-the-by that her husband had cheated on her previously too). It was certainly more heartfelt than M.A.’s pathetic self-delusions with her affair, there was a dreaminess and sweetness to it which captivated me.

I suppose these two books were a continuation of the theme of aging, loneliness, and a woman’s identity that I started reading about in Simone de Beauvoir. These stories can occasionally feel self-indulgent (when we compare them to the more traumatic stories of women’s lives in other places, classes or historical periods), but after ploughing through so much literature about white men’s midlife crisis in the past, I am willing to lend my ear to these stories as well.

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!

#6Degrees June 2022

Always happy to add in an extra blog post for this fun monthly meme: you start with the same book as all the other readers and then let your imagination run wild over the course of six links. For more explanations and an example of how it’s done, see the host of this meme, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The starting point this month is a book that has had quite a bit of a buzz, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s the story of a woman who thinks there might be something wrong with her, but her husband keeps telling her everything’s fine, until the moment when he leaves her. I haven’t read it yet, but (for obvious reasons) it resonates with me and I intend to read it… after the buzz has quietened down.

I will start with another book about women’s mental health and husbands who fail to understand or sympathise (to put it mildly) – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s creepy and terrifying, with no humour or happy ending (which I gather Sorrow and Bliss does have), which makes it all the more unsuitable for the marketing treatment below.

who’s gonna tell them pic.twitter.com/zrCJ7cdLYT— Meaghan O’Connell (@meaghano) June 1, 2022

 

This (and the responses in the thread) made me laugh nearly all of Thursday, and the next link is to another misinterpreted book, namely The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. We recently rewatched the Disney adaptation and I was struck once more by how much it simplifies and whitewashes characters, while Hugo intended it to be more of a social and cultural critique. Quasimodo is a complex character (who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances of his birth, physical body and upbringing?), certainly not as innocent and childish as in the cartoon, but at least Hugo shows that people with disabilities can be more loving and noble than attractive people like Phoebus.

The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio was ubiquitous when my children were in primary school, as an example of a book designed to reassure children that facial disfigurement does not a lesser person make. My sons were somewhat bemused by the simplistic message, since they had already encountered plenty of classmates who did not ‘fit the norm’ already, but not everyone has those experiences, and I always appreciate books which broaden our horizons.

Very simple link comes next: the word ‘wonder’ in the title. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, hopefully I will be able to find it at the university library: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and the subtitle says it all, really:  The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The next choice is a play about the beauty and terror of science, more specifically physics. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists is a classic written at the height of the Cold War in 1962, after the Second World War had shown the incredible and destructive power of the atom, and how politicians are unlikely to use such power for good purposes.

In addition to being a playwright, Dürrenmatt also wrote crime fiction, first as potboilers, but then increasingly subverting the genre and introducing his own brand of philosophy about guilt and punishment and social responsibility. Another writer who is better known for his literary works, but also wrote crime novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), is Cecil Day-Lewis and I will pick his most famous novel The Beast Must Die, which has been adapted at least twice for cinema, including by Claude Chabrol (see the film poster).

A thread heavy on men and/or English language this month, I notice, but that’s where my subconscious took me. I don’t overthink these things, let whim guide me. Where will your whim take you?