Lyon has an impressive number of independent and chain bookshops, antiquarian and plain second-hand bookshops, as well as a thriving books on the quay (bouquinistes) lifestyle in summer.
Although I did stop to peruse outdoors, I was heading to a specific location: the second-hand bookshop Le Pere Penard on the Quai Fulchiron. I had met the owners at the Quais du Polar, and discovered they had a fantastic selection of noir and crime fiction, as well as BD. So I ordered some Jean-Claude Izzo through them. However, the shop is huge, stuffed to the gills with books in all genres, including cookery, history and coffee-table books.
It was set up by a group of friends in 1994: members of the group have changed over the years, but the passion for books has stayed the same. It’s a real treasure trove of a place, to explore at leisure, over many hours.
a title by Pascal Garnier that I was unfamiliar with, a short novella called Nul n’est a l’abri du succes (Nobody’s safe from success). Then, to my utter surprise and delight, look what I discovered when I looked inside!
Yes, it’s a signed copy and it’s as if the author (whom I only discovered about 4 years ago but who’s since become a firm favourite) is talking to me from beyond the grave.
For more Lyon bookshops, see this earlier post. And no, the Lyon Tourist Office is not paying me to promote their city!
I’ve become a much less frequent visitor to the dVerse Poets Pub in the last few months, but it’s still the friendliest, most fun poetic community that I’ve come across. They are celebrating five years of poems, discussions, shared thoughts and laughter, so join us there , find out what Brian Miller (one of the founders of dVerse) has been up to recently, and take part in the first challenge of the week: a quadrille about ‘Journeys’.
A quadrille is a poem of 44 words exactly. Here is my attempt.
The journey’s start
your journey’s end
Ouroboros alone knows
when we are done exploring in porous dinghies
or flour containers
in baroque façade deceptions
carton jungle of dead ends
where our feet move on and on for miles
yet our hearts not one iota
Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.
We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.
It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.
This is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.
I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:
A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.
He is home. He is home.
You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.
Lyon is one of my favourite cities, not just because it hosts the annual Quais du Polar crime festival. Yet, no matter how often I come here, I never seem to have enough time to visit everything. So I was determined to do two completely new things this ‘weekend of adieus’: see a show in the Roman amphitheatre for Les Nuits de Fourvière festival; and get to see the Brothers Lumière Museum about early cinema. Well, one out of two is not bad…
The Blues Night featured American blues music legend Taj Mahal; a ‘Mali meets New York’ session with guitarists Habib Koité and Eric Bibb; and local boy (relatively speaking), saxophonist Raphaël Imbert and his band. The atmosphere was very special (at least until the cushions went flying onstage), and it was delightful to see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this kind of music. Thank you to Emma from Book Around the Corner, who suggested I join her for this event!
But the rest of the weekend involved doing a few of my favourite things.
Of course, it’s the last thing I needed right now, but a few books just seemed to sneak their way into my bag. I will write more about the bookshop I got them from in a follow-up post.
So what prevented it from being the perfect weekend? Not the fact that I didn’t make it to the Lumière Museum, but that when I sat down for breakfast at a local café, there was a disturbance outside. A group of diverse young men, some black, some white, some drunk, some sober, started making a great deal of noise and one of them grabbed another by the neck in what looked like a rather violent incident. The police were called and managed to walk one or two of the worst troublemakers away. Then, as I passed in front of the remaining group, I heard them speaking Romanian.
I wanted the pavement to open up and swallow me right then and there.
After a brief honeymoon on Facebook back in 2009/2010, when I reconnected with friends I hadn’t ‘seen’ in 10+ years, I became a very infrequent visitor. But over the past few weeks, while attempting to sell household items, old toys, sports equipment etc. prior to our move, I’ve been checking in several times a day. With some dismay.
Buying and Selling on Facebook in Privilege Land
The number of items for sale in June/July in the Geneva area is unbelievable. You can have your pick of furniture, clothes, toys, inflatable pools, cars, bicycles, barbecues and electronics if you are buying. But no one is buying, because everyone is either on holiday or else about to relocate. By September, when the changing of the guard is complete, people new to the area will be looking for second-hand items… and there will be NONE.
The dialogue is straight out of Eugene Ionesco:
‘What do you mean, I need a minivan for a corner sofa? But I don’t live in a minivan.’ ‘Where is the nearest bus stop? Why can’t I take that solid pine chest of drawers on a bus?’ All waiting for you to utter the magic words: ‘Fine, I’ll bring it to you.’
‘How much did you say this was again?’ ‘Oh, you meant euros, not francs?’ “What, you live in France? Oh, no, I never come over the border…’
‘Yeah, I know I asked about the measurements before I came to pick it up. But now that I look at it, I realise it will never fit in my living room.’
Plus, of course, every appointment will need to be rescheduled at least twice. Busy, busy, busy lives we all lead, even though we seem to be trawling through Facebook very frequently.
I can’t believe how many people are selling unused Celine bags, unworn Prada shoes and Gucci tops. Someone has clearly been having a shopping binge or is of a vacillating disposition. Or there are too many husbands/lovers out there who still don’t get their women’s taste!
The Joy of Updates
I’m really happy that people are happy – don’t get me wrong. I am not one fat killjoy waiting to pounce on you. But it’s become a blast of trumpets (or vuvuzelas) rather than a conversation. Look at me, look at me!
Far too easy to click ‘like’ and believe that we are actually interacting. Whilst all along we are thinking how to top that story with one of our own.
I’m also inherently suspicious of people who are projecting too much joy – are they trying a tad too hard? A day out is no longer fun if you do not instantly upload the pictures for all to see. You cannot kiss your partner on your wedding anniversary in the quiet of your bedroom or kitchen without inviting the world along to peek.
My modesty feels assaulted when I see people patting themselves on the back in humblebrag mode. I am delighted that their children have achievements to share, but would rather not rub it into the faces of those who don’t.
The friend who’s constantly ‘too busy’ to meet up with you or invite your son over to see her son, and then you see her posting pictures of her walks and bike rides and having other friends over at her house? A cold shower, that’s for sure.
As for those who whine about the awful day they’ve had and how they deserve that glass of wine, the recent documentary on immigrants on BBC 2 Exodus: Our Journey to Europe shows you what a really bad day, week, month or even year looks like.
I say all this and yet I’ve been guilty of every single one of the above myself on occasion. That’s why I don’t want to play ball anymore. I can commiserate or share my small triumphs directly with my friends, the friends who I can rely on to cheer me up and save me when I am down, who are not envious about any success. Without half the world witnessing our conversation.
The Powerlessness of Politics
Facebook is also a great place to discover that some of your friends of yore have very different political views to your own. Somehow, it never came up in face-to-face conversation… or have you been away for too long and political views can change so dramatically as they approach middle age?
It’s become an ideological battleground (although meaningful arguments cannot really be conducted via quick messages and article links). Above all, it’s become a judgemental moral high ground: ‘How DARE you not change your profile picture to a French/Belgian/Turkish or whatever flag? How dare you not express your sadness or outrage? That surely makes you against us.’
I’m reminded of the Communist dictate: ‘Those who aren’t for us are against us!’ I refuse to succumb once more to the tyranny of ‘what is prescribed behaviours’. I can mourn in my heart, alone, in a darkened room. There is no need to have a competition of who can mourn the loudest online!
But There Are Good Things Too…
Despite all that, I admit that I like pictures of my (real) friends’ children, to see how much they have grown. I have a soft spot for cat pictures and even dogs are adorable (especially in pictures rather than in real life). I like photographic challenges of landscapes or skyscapes, but am not so keen on selfies, food pictures and holiday snaps. It reeks too much of being invited for family dinner at our neighbours’ as a child, and being forced to sit through a hundred decks of holiday slides. I suppose the difference is that nowadays no one is forcing you to look for the price of a dinner.
Soooo that’s exactly what I’ll be doing very soon, once all the stuff is sold or given away. Not looking.
Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.
For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.
Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:
‘parce que les gens libres, bien nés, bien éduqués, vivant en bonne société, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours à agir vertueusement et les éloigne du vice’
Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’
François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.
Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois à la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre à voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.
Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.
Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.
Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.
Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.
I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.
We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.
Louise Labé was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë.
Je vis, je meurs ; je me brûle et me noie ;
J’ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.
Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure ;
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.
Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.
Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.
Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys
Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green
Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.
Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.
Voltaire. How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.
Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les étoiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumière qui ne paraissent que de faibles étincelles à nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, paraît à notre cupidité quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se dévorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.
Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.
Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”