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.

Friday Fun: Where Should Marina Retire?

Every couple of weeks I start looking at property websites and planning my next move. The house in which I live now is probably the one I have spent the longest amount of time in (we bought it the year my younger son was born, 16 years ago), but we lived there intermittently, moving abroad twice during that period, for a total of seven years away. I fought tooth and nail to keep it in my divorce settlement, because I couldn’t face the hassle of yet another move. Yet, once both sons have swanned off to university or jobs or whatever they plan to do, I am planning to ‘downsize’. In my case, however, the downsizing might be more a case of moving abroad (in the EU, to be precise), where houses are more affordable (although not the ones I am showing below). I will obviously be spending some of the year in Romania, in a landscape somewhat like this:

But for the rest of the year, there are three places that are calling to me, each with its pros and cons.

Option 1 – France – for the skiing, food and culture

Lyon has that big city vibe but is close enough to stunning mountains, from Barnes International.
The apartments in the old part of Lyon are just perfectly proportioned, from AK.SO Conseils.
And this chateau just outside Lyon would allow me to invite Emma from BookAround over, and we could run reading retreats for all of our friends. From AK.SO Conseils.
If Lyon is too expensive, then Grenoble might prove a good alternative, and is closer to the pistes. From Espaces Atypiques.

Option 2 – Berlin – for the friends and lifestyle

Berlin is all about apartments or penthouses, and I like these stairs going up to a roof terrace. From FarAwayHome.
This penthouse flat overlooking the Bundestag is or was apparently the most expensive apartment in Berlin, from Peach Property Group.
I personally prefer the villas on the outskirts of Berlin, close to the lakes, such as this Villa Am Grunewald.
This Villa Bermann also overlooks a lake, and is probably big enough to accommodate a few reading and writing retreats.

Option 3 – Ireland, County Cork – for its natural beauty and remaining in an English-speaking environment

A view from the kitchen to die for, especially if you start sailing in your old age. From Christies Real Estate.
Maureen O’Hara’s house was up for sale a short while ago, nicely tucked away amidst the green. From Cork Beo.
But there are some surprisingly modern constructions as well, like this bungalow in Kinsale. From Irish Times.

So where would you advise me to move in a few years’ time? Where would you like to join me for writing and/or reading retreats, coupled with a bit of hiking or Nordic walking?

Friday Fun: Manor Houses for Sale

They are officially listed under ‘chateaux’ on the exclusive property site Belles Demeures, but they range from medieval castles to 19th century extravaganzas for the lord of the manor, and the prices are far more reasonable than in England (the scenery often far more beautiful too). My conclusion after closely examining every single property on the site is that not enough people make use of all the space they have to create wonderful libraries…

[Apologies for the watermarks on the pictures, since Belles Demeures is an aggregate site for a collective of estate agents in France].

How I love the symmetry of this French chateau near Nantes.
Turrets and a massive park make even the plainest of houses more interesting, as in this example from Pontchateau.
This 19th century building in Nouan is being used as a hotel.
I just love this peaceful terrace at this manor house in Vannes.
Italian influence in this courtyard in Provence.
This castle in Chambery has the perfect demonstration of what a turret staircase might look like.
The more recent manor houses have wider staircases in wood, of course, like this example in Lisieux.

Friday Fun: Shady Spots in Gardens

It’s so lovely to see how many of my blog readers enjoy my Friday Fun posts – and even make suggestions for future topics. Like a DJ, I am always open to requests – and the excuse to go off and do some ‘research’. A couple of weeks ago, CA Lovegrove, who blogs at Calmgrove, asked about cloisters and gardens with shady walkways. So here are some inspirational gardens that I hope fit the bill…

Aberglasney in Wales has a walled garden rather than a cloister, but you can walk below the arches, I believe. From Aberglasney.org
Cloister in Sorrento hosts weddings, in case you’re looking for a romantic backdrop, from fondazionesorrento.com
The Japanese version is more of a narrow corridor or gallery that can open up, a bit like my grandmother’s porch, but going all the way round even the smalleest garden. From Pinterest.
Cloister of Saint Salvi in Albi, France, from Office de Tourisme Albi.
A dreamy, shady walkway at Petworth House, from Country Life.
The Spanish/Moorish design is so beautiful, although this particular one is in the US, from Garden Design.
I’ll end with another Japanese beauty – in honour of the Olympic Games. This one is in Kyoto. From Japanesekoigardens.com

Friday Fun: Back to Househunting in France

You all know my love of French chateaux – I think I may have featured almost every single one of them in past Friday Fun posts. But there are still beautiful houses left in France – the so-called ‘maisons de maitre’ (mansion, estate), which range from the modestly bourgeois to the magnificent. All of the below are for sale on the estate agents’ websites listed below.

  1. Normandy-type villa near Rouen, from Patrice Besse.

2. Classical style near Bordeaux, from Moulin.nl

3. This should be big enough for the entire family to come visit in Dordogne, from Anthouard Immobilier

4. I can never resist this fearful symmetry, in Lot et Garonne, from Legget Immobilier

5. This errs onto the chateau side of the spectrum, near Bernay, from Ivan Ballini Estates.

6. But I would be quietly content with this more modest endeavour, near Berry, from Terres & Demeures.

[I am not sure I will continue with Friday Fun though, as, in addition to it being resource hogging, this new formatting for the pictures and inability to add text directly is too much of a kerfaffle.]

#YoungWriterAward: Marina Kemp – Nightingale

When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.

From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.

However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.

So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.

Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.

Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.

Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.

Friday Fun: Josephine Baker and Her Rainbow Tribe

Something a little bit different for this Friday Fun post. Josephine Baker achieved her greatest success outside her country of birth, the United States. She moved to Paris when she was still very young, and it was there that she became idolised as the Black Venus of cabaret performance in the 1920s and 30s. She was also active in the French Resistance during the war and in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 60s. Part of her activism was her well-intentioned but rather misguided ambition to raise a Rainbow Tribe. Unable to have any children of her own, she adopted a total of 12 children of different ethnicities to prove they could grow up together in harmony. She also deliberately raised them with different religions. At her magnificent estate in the Dordogne Chateau de Milandes she created something of a theme park, including a hotel, a farm, rides, and the children singing and dancing for visitors, included in the price of admission.  That sounds to me horrendously like a zoo, and she certainly was not beyond typecasting the children to ‘represent’ their ethnic group, but she no doubt meant well. She later had to sell the chateau as she got into massive debt, and was taken in by her friend Grace Kelly, by then Princess of Monaco. The chateau is now open once more to visitors.

The rainbow tribe in the mid 1950s.

Chateau de Milandes in the present-day, from its own website.

Josephine Baker with her fourth husband and her children. From YouTube.

The front aspect of Chateau de Milandes, a genuine 15th century French chateau in the Dordogne.

Josephine at the chateau with the children in the 1960s.

The dining room at Chateau des Milandes. From TripAdvisor

Finally, another of Josephine Baker’s houses, in Le Vesinet, Paris, bought when she first achieved fame in the 1920s. The house is privately owned and not available for visiting, but this is where Josephine walked her pet cheetah.

Friday Fun: Nostalgia

Did you know that the term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 17th century to describe a medical condition of melancholy and anxiety present in Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting abroad (that’s why it was also know as the ‘mal de Suisse’ in those days)? Apparently, initially military doctors hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland. But I didn’t grow up within earshot of the cowbells, only lived for a short while in the beautiful Lake Geneva area and am still irreparably damaged and homesick for that part of the world.

In fact, I enjoyed that part of the world so much that I probably stayed much longer in a marriage than I should have.

On the day when I can finally report that I have achieved some kind of financial settlement and inner peace following divorce, I think back once more on the things I loved about that area and introduce a kind of amnesia about the bad memories. Isn’t that what nostalgia is all about?

Memories of the local area https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/friday-fun-more-memories-of-the-local-area/

A walk on the Franco-Swiss border https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/friday-fun-a-walk-in-the-frenchswiss-countryside/

Artworks on the border https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/friday-fun-art-on-the-borders/

Swiss chateaux https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/friday-fun-surely-not-weary-of-chateau-already/

A fond farewell to the area before moving to the UK https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/friday-fun-farewell-ferney-and-voltaire/

And more about Voltaire and Ferney https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/voltaire-and-his-creation-ferney/

Friday Fun: Writers Houses, Mostly French

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

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

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.