When You Loiter With Boxes in Paris by Night

I need to catch up with myself and my reading, but older son is now on holiday and there is still all the end of term stuff to do for younger son. So these will be three rather short reviews of books I’ve recently read.

GuezJérémie Guez: Paris la nuit (Paris by Night)

#TBR11

The debut novel of a hugely talented young French writer – he was 19 or so when he wrote this and is now already on his fourth or fifth novel, aged only about 26. If you liked Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, you will find an even more brutal portrayal of life in the Parisian banlieues (or ghettos) in this book. It’s a very short book, describing the rapid descent of a young man from petty wrongdoings to more serious crime – and is representative of a whole generation of youngsters in Paris.

Jeremie Guez at Quais du Polar, Lyon.
Jeremie Guez at Quais du Polar, Lyon.

Abraham (known as Abe) is a young man of the streets, whose family came over from the Maghreb. His mother died when he was very young and his father has buried himself in his apartment, watching TV and barely noticing the comings and goings of his son. Together with his childhood friend Goran (from former Yugoslavia) and some other mates (Jewish, black, North African – a rainbow of deprivation), Abe hangs out in his neighbourhood and around Belleville, Pigalle and even the Latin Quarter, smoking joints, doing some minor drug dealing, fighting in bars and spending the occasional night at the police station. Then, one night, they discover an illegal gambling den at the back of a bar and decide to hold it up to steal the money. The author describes so well how the youngsters egg each other on, how fearful they really are, how they are overcome by physical nausea at their deeds, but then gradually develop a thicker hide. As they run away with their meagre earnings, they miss out on opportunities to start a new life or fall in love, and just fall deeper and deeper into a hole of heroin dealing and addiction, procurement of pistols and self-defence turning into aggression. A sobering and very noir read, which I would love to see translated into English.

GarnierBoxesPascal Garnier: Boxes (transl. Melanie Florence)

One French writer that is being translated into English, thanks to the efforts of Gallic Books, is Pascal Garnier. In fact, he is almost achieving more posthumous cult status in the English-speaking world than in his native country, where it’s quite difficult to find his books in libraries or bookshops (other than in collectors’ editions).

Boxes is his seventh novel to be published by Gallic. It is also the last one he wrote (it was published after his death) and, to my mind, it’s not one of his best. It feels oddly autobiographical. Brice, the middle-aged main character, is an illustrator moving out of the city to a small village in the Ardèche region (which is where the author died in 2010). His wife Emma convinced him to buy an old house in need of extensive renovation, but she has now disappeared somewhere abroad and left him to complete the house move on his own. It gradually becomes clear that Emma has most probably died but Brice is in denial and eagerly awaits her return. In the meantime, he wanders around aimlessly, avoids unpacking the boxes and gets to know his eccentric neighbours, Most notable amongst these is a child-like woman called Blanche, who says that Brice reminds her of her deceased father, and who develops a rather unhealthy dependency on the newcomer. The description of her bringing packet soup as a treat for her new neighbour is grotesque and very funny.

From encres-vagabondes.com
From encres-vagabondes.com

No one can surpass Garnier when he describes the slow, inevitable descent of a person into solitude, madness, alcoholism and despondency. He also examines aspects of co-dependency and the claustrophobia of village life. As in all of his books, he takes characters that are inherently strange, somehow lacking in empathy or moral fibre, living on the margins of society and turns the screws on their suffering until they reach breaking point. Garnier is also a master at the gradual build-up of menace. Yet, overall, this book didn’t work for me (or at least, not as well as his earlier ones, The Panda Theory or How’s the Pain?) and I think this is because Blanche evoked not pity or sympathy (as previous Garnier characters have done), but simply annoyed me.

loiteringFinally, after all of these hard-hitting reads (and the middle-aged crisis reads of my preceding review post), I needed something lighter. So I turned to an old favourite, Muriel Spark, and reread Loitering with Intent (also counts as #TBR12). In many ways, Muriel Spark pokes fun at the self-introspection and ‘death of the author’ literary theories of French writers such as Roland Barthes, so it’s very suitable that she should get a review here together with two French authors who write in the first person but are not really autobiographical.

Muriel Spark, from Amazon.com
Muriel Spark, from Amazon.com

This is meta-fun meta-fiction about a would-be writer, Fleur Talbot, set ‘in the middle of the twentieth century’. Fleur is working on her first novel but needs to earn some money, so she takes on a job as a secretary to pompous snob Sir Quentin Oliver, who runs an Autobiographical Association for well-heeled individuals who have more ego than sense (and all believe they ‘have a book in them’). With tongue firmly in cheek and her usual barbed wit, Spark leads us a merry minuet of ins and outs when life starts imitating art, or Sir Oliver’s actions start to mirror those in Fleur’s novel. Or do they? This time I realised that Fleur is far more of an unreliable narrator than I had previously thought. The author mocks her just as much as the other characters, although she does show some affection for the doddery Lady Edwina, Sir Quentin’s long-suffering mother. This is Jane Austen with a good round of alcohol in her and a tongue that takes no prisoners. It is also full of interesting observations about the self-absorption of writers, as well as the joys and challenges of the writing process itself.

Poetry and Politics

Poet Anthony Desmond raised an important topic recently over at dVerse Poets Pub: that most people would rather keep quiet about the matters that trouble the world and the people living in it. Should and could it be the poet’s role to talk about these things? If we believe in the power of words, shouldn’t we be using them to raise awareness, to start a debate? And can words really bring about change? Such a tricky topic, one that I often debate internally. The poem below was inspired by the online discussions.

Picture from The Guardian.
Picture from The Guardian.

I am an angry poet but

Can my words astonish, shame or fly

out into the world to cry

at the injustice or bring about change?

Give voice or succor,

placate when hatred piles on higher and higher?

Too much is shrieking

hurting

maiming

dying

And all I can think of to do is

shriek

fall

describe

weep

All I have are puny words

drowning in babble.

So I am an angry poet but

often

an all too quiet poet.

 

Men Being Depressed Again

I never understood why the Almodovar film was called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, because my experience with literature has been that it’s mainly the men who are moody, depressed, angry and existentially musing about it. I’ve been reading a lot of books by women lately, but, as coincidence would have it, the three last ones I read were by men in the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis, even if they are not all middle-aged. And they all take place in different countries: Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.

NachbarUrsAlex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs)

TBR8

In this charming collection of apparently harmless little stories about small-town life in Olten, Switzerland, Capus shows us the gnashing teeth under the veneer of politeness. Yet he does it with humour and grace, laughing both at himself and his fellow citizens. This is a gently mocking midlife crisis.

The narrator (or author, the two are very tightly linked) has five neighbours, all called Urs. Actually, there are six of them, but one doesn’t want to appear in a book. They all gather in the square outside their houses on balmy summer evenings and chat about random this and that, and sometimes even about the important things in life. Such as love and divorce, a sense of belonging, wanting to move away, welcoming foreigners … and the differences between  the German- and French-speaking Swiss.

‘Your writing thingy, which you call work…’
‘What about it?” I ask.
‘Nothing,’ says Urs. ‘I suppose it must be some kind of work, that what you do. Don’t mind me, I didn’t say anything.’
‘But?’
‘It’s all right, let it be.’

This book was published in 2014 and has not been translated, but several of his earlier books have been translated into English, such as ‘Leon and Louise’, ‘Almost like Spring’ and ‘A Price to Pay’. You can find review of his other books on other blogs, such as Stu Jallen, Lizzy Siddal and Izzy Reads.

kimnovakHåkan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak (transl. Saskia Vogel)

‘It’s going to be a difficult summer’, says Erik’s father at the start of the summer holidays in 1962. He is referring to his wife, Erik’s mother, who is slowly, almost noiselessly slipping away from them with cancer in hospital. But it’s about much more than that, of course, in this heart-breaking account of the coming of age of two 14-year-old boys. They get to spend the summer at the lakeside cottage, together with Erik’s older brother, Henry, former sailor and now freelance journalist, trying to write his first novel. A rural summer made up of small triumphs, everyday pleasures and benign neglect.

It’s a time of learning to cook, of daydreaming about gorgeous women resembling the actress Kim Novak, attending village fairs, reading and raiding the neighbours’ woodpile to build a floating dock. Those long summer days in Sweden, when time seems to stand still, and the adolescents learn about love and lust and violence. It’s not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, unlike Nesser’s previous work. Instead, it is closely observed, nostalgic without becoming twee, and reveals a stiff upper lip that will resonate with British readers (or other Northern Europeans). Why do I say it’s about midlife crisis? Because it’s the older Erik, now in his forties, who remembers that fateful summer and The Terrible Thing, with all its consequences on his family, friendship and himself.

pushkinhillsSergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills (transl. Katherine Dovlatov)

TBR9

You are forewarned from the outset: this is the story of a failing Soviet writer, Boris Alikhanov, sinking into alcoholism, whose wife wants to divorce him and emigrate together with their daughter. In an attempt to patch his life together (or perhaps to get away from it all), he becomes a tour guide on the rural estate of revered national poet Pushkin, now a bustling tourist site. There, he encounters eccentric characters galore, learns how to massage facts and figures to please the tourists, and sinks ever deeper into despondency, indifference and impotent rage. It could be interpreted as the powerlessness and despair of artists having to live under the Soviet system – and not just artists, but the whole population. However, lethargy does not mean lack of feeling, and there is something very poignant about the stylistic restraint of the last few pages of this slim volume.

Every characters seems to have some kind of deadpan humour and are ready to interject philosophically when they are not busy frying their brain cells with drink.

I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’

Boris himself is self-critical, often all too painfully self-aware, but incapable of taking bold steps and either submit to the party line or else become a truly great dissident writer. His wife reproaches him:

Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…’
‘Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?’
‘Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?!…’

You can find a very thoughtful review of this book, complete with a small debate about how to translate colloquialisms, by Guy Savage.

From sciencetimes.com
From sciencetimes.com

In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with a little depression, and I enjoyed all of these books. But it always amuses me to see that men’s nervous breakdowns and alcoholic outbursts are associated with great literature, while women’s are treated with disdain and relegated to mere ‘domestic concerns’.

P.S. I’ve just finished a fourth book in the same vein: Pascal Garnier’s ‘Boxes’ and I really think I need a change of decor. Expect some funnier or lighter or just different next reads.

Friday Fun: Boathouses

Seeing how popular my tiny house on the lake was last week (a.k.a boathouse) and having lived for many years near the Thames, where the boathouses were almost more beautiful than the mansions accompanying them, here are some more for you to enjoy, from all round the world.

Because, as Ratty says to Mole when they get to know each other in The Wind in the Willows:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Simply messing…about in boats — or with boats… In or out of ’em it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.

Boathouse on the Cliveden estate, from walkingclub.org.uk
Boathouse on the Cliveden estate, from walkingclub.org.uk
Boathouse on the Loiret river in France, from Pinterest.
Boathouse on the Loiret river in France, from Pinterest.
Boathouse in Brazil, also from Pinterest.
Boathouse in Brazil, also from Pinterest.
Boathouse on the River Thames, from thamespath.co.uk
Boathouse on the River Thames, from thamespath.co.uk
Muskoka boathouse in Canada, archdaily.ca
Muskoka boathouse in Canada, archdaily.ca
Modern circular boathouse, designrulz.com
Modern circular boathouse designed by Bercy Chen Studio, US, from designrulz.com

Finally, if you can’t decide on an exact location for your boathouse, Singapore-based architect Myitr Malcew has created a floating boathouse which you can take with you anywhere.

From minimalisti.com
From minimalisti.com

 

Erasure Poetry – Yummy Mummy

For every inspiration
there is a yanked deception
all for your good, your own good, your very own good
Old Dobbin work horse, clothes horse,
fit in, fit in, or back to the bargain bin.
Black and white world views:
all men cheat, all women punish.
Snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt oh guilt.
Children? A boast, a blackmail,
nothing too tangly.
Oh, princess, princess, you’re too old,
your pink trousers far too rolled…
Life is to be endured
remembered with regret.
Jump in, drown, in perfect pool
of emoting gushingness – so like a woman!
Seductive but not a slut,
mother in bloom, household goddess with Cath Kidston apron,
organic, fragrant, don’t pop the balloon!
Stay average, stay you, stay submissive,
woo hoo,
how happy we are in our 4X4 car!

The School Run, from moneymagpie.com
The School Run, from moneymagpie.com

I’m linking this to Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets (doors open later tonight) – always a great opportunity to experiment and share. Admittedly, I cheated slightly and added a few bits, but relied mainly on the prose text I’d posted here. I chose a childish beat and repetition, to further emphasise the infantilisation of yummy mummies. Which version do you like best? I always tend to choose the more succinct and ambiguous, but am I right?

Point of clarification: I am neither for nor against Yummy Mummies. But I don’t envy them. Life circumstances have made me feel their pain – or what I imagine to be their pain. Luckily, I’m not yummy enough to quite enter their ranks. 

Guacamole with tortilla chips

First all creamy smooth…

with crunch of fresh-baked hotness:

firesparks in mouth

Food may be one of my favourite things in the world, but my poetic inspiration was only sufficient for this haiku about one of my new favourite foods, since I discovered how to make my own guacamole. I’m linking this up to Toni’s food prompt over at dVerse Poets Pub (talk about pub food!). Join me there to find much more evocative poems for foodies!

I Pretend to Go to Tango Classes

I’d love to dance a proper tango

with flicks and slicks, quick and slow,

in sensuous syncopation,

perfection clinging to my limbs

like the smell of danger.

 

I still dream of a partner to explore

the musical vibration in every pore.

Connect with eyes closed,

be guided yet seduce to influence,

push back when needed,

make our music last beyond the final note.

 

But I fear the slide and bite

of feet so restless across the sprung floor.

I distrust the closeness of the hold, refuse to lean in…

Because I’m tired of looking clumsy

and trying too hard,

being old-dog-new-tricks kind of odd.

Because I no longer know how to walk in heels backwards.

Because nowhere do I feel as alone

as in the arms of all those others,

reassessing, readjusting, taking measure every dance.

 

So I pretend to go to weekly tango classes

and sit in my car in the woods, scribbling poems.