#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the French

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

After a total of 7 years spent in France over the past 11 years, I have quite a substantial French bookshelf. Indeed, it is a whole Billy full of books by or about French (or Swiss Romande) authors, some of them translated. Many of them are unread, because I acquired them at a rapid pace, often on the basis of hearing them speak at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. Not many of these authors are truly obscure, or else I may have mentioned them before on my blog, so that excludes Pascal Garnier, Jean-Claude Izzo and other new acquaintances who became firm favourites.

Appropriately enough, I mention my French authors the week that we have some friends from France visiting.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Pilote de guerre

Of course he is anything but obscure: who hasn’t heard of The Little Prince, possibly my favourite children’s book of all times? (Yes, I still cry whenever I read the ending, much to the embarrassment of my children.)

This slim volume not only describes his war-time experiences as a pilot, but also his entire philosophy of life and a powerful critique of the society of his time (so similar to our own in the present-day). The book condenses months of flights into a single terrifying mission over the town of Arras.  Within the first few days of the German invasion of France in May 1940, 17 of the 23 crews in his unit were sacrificed recklessly “like glasses of water thrown onto a forest fire”. Starting from the idea that soldiers are expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, for an abstract concept of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Our Neighbour’, ‘Love’, he ponders on just what it is he feels he is sacrificing himself for. He criticizes the fact that we have substituted materialism for ideas, objects for culture and have lost ‘Man with a capital M’ in the pursuit of individualism. Here follows a passage in my approximate translation (and I apologise for the masculine pronouns):

What is good for the Community, these [new leaders] find that in plain arithmetic, and it’s arithmetic which governs their thoughts. And so they fail to become something greater than the sum of themselves. They hate all those who are different from themselves, because they have nothing greater to aspire to. All foreign customs, races, thoughts become a danger to them. They cannot absorb them, they seek to amputate Man, instead of giving a sense of purpose to his aspirations and a space for his energy… A cathedral gives meaning to a pile of stones. But the stones absorb nothing and end up crushing you…

Toril Moi: Simone de Beauvoir

This is my favourite book about one of my favourite writers: a detailed analysis of Beauvoir’s work as a feminist and a writer, but also a close look at her real life, the woman behind the icon. Beauvoir was a complex woman, not immune to suffering and jealousy over her famously open relationship with Sartre. Moi looks at the challenges of succeeding as an intellectual in a world which still relegated her to second place. When I first read this book, I was somewhat saddened: this was not the role model that I had adored in my teens and set out to emulate. But perhaps the fact that she achieved all that she did in spite of not being superwoman should be cause for admiration and celebration. As Angela Carter once put it: ‘Why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P? Her memoirs will be mostly about him; he will scarcely speak of her.’

This is the story of a woman who became a feminist almost in spite of herself. She initially expected to compete as a human amongst humans, not as a woman amongst men, pure brains pitted against other pure brains and talent. To her frustration, she found that not to be the case, and this remains true even now:

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with women’s problems and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, torn, disadvantaged: for women the stakes are higher,; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men.

Joseph Incardona: Derrière les panneaux, il y a des hommes 

15th of August is one of the busiest days of the years on the French motorways. The title of the book ‘Behind the road signs, there are humans’ refers to the signs at the edge of the motorways whenever there are road works, warning drivers to watch out for the men (it is usually men) in their hi-viz jackets working on the side of the road.

I’ve read and reviewed other books by Swiss author Incardona, but this is perhaps his best one. It’s the story of Pierre, who lives in his car at a service station on the motorway, where his daughter disappeared six months earlier. It’s not just a thriller but also a portrait of a transient and desperate people who don’t often get mentioned in fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to have torn readers’ opinions in France and Switzerland, receiving either 1 star or 5 stars. Not yet translated into English, but perhaps it should be.

 

Friday Fun: Writers’ Residences in Rhône-Alpes

I am fortunate enough to be living (for the time being) in an extremely beautiful part of France. Although the region Rhône-Alpes is a relatively recent administrative invention, the diversity and beauty of its landscapes and its historically autonomous status (parts of it belonged to Savoie rather than France) have been attracting writers for centuries. This Friday I would like to introduce you to some of those and their favourite homes.

Voltaire's chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From culture.fr
Voltaire’s chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From culture.fr

Rousseau's country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site.  From culture.fr
Rousseau’s country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site. From culture.fr

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.

Paul Claudel's Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in 'The Red and the Black'.
Paul Claudel’s Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in ‘The Red and the Black’.

Gertrude Stein's refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignan near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.
Gertrude Stein’s refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignin near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.

Finally, two villas for which I couldn’t find current pictures. The first, the ivy-covered manor house Boringe on the shores of Lake Annecy, completely captivated Hippolyte Taine. For twenty years he spent March to November there and wrote every morning in his study.

BoringeTaine

The second is on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Evian, where Anna de Noailles spent her childhood summers. It was here that she met Marcel Proust in 1899 and this is the place she returned to time and time again in her writing.

Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.
Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.

The information for this post comes from the beautifully illustrated book ‘Dans le pas des écrivains en Rhône-Alpes’ by Anne Buttin and Nelly Gabriel, published by Glénat. They mention so many other writers who lived, studied or passed through the region (Baudelaire, Camus, Huysmans, Stendhal, Simone Weil and many more).