Reading Summary Feb 2023

It’s been a busy month, although it started with a delicious little respite in my old ‘stomping ground’ on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I have 17 books listed on Goodreads for the past month, although two of them were abandoned at the 40% mark. Seven of the books fitted into my #FrenchFebruary personal reading challenge – and in fact, all of them ended up being French from France, as the only Swiss author I attempted (Joel Dicker) ended up being one of the abandoned books. Eleven of the books were written by women writers (and none of them were in the DNF category), 12 were written in another language. Three I read for (Corylus) ‘work’, one was non-fiction, one will be reviewed for #ReadIreland in March, two were Book Club reads (Blood Sugar for the Virtual Crime Book Club, Embers for London Reads the World), and seven can be approximately put into the crime fiction category (although two of those I did not finish). Six of the books I read were from independent publishers, although I didn’t review all of them for the #ReadIndies challenge.

Please ignore Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth, which shouldn’t be in this screenshot, because I read it in January (and have already largely forgotten).

Here’s a quick recap of the books I reviewed (most of which also fell into the #ReadIndies category)

My favourite reads this month were probably Romain Gary and Violette Leduc, but Audrey Magee’s The Colony was very, very good as well. I’m still not quite sure about Embers by Márai Sándor – on the one hand, I interpret it as a beautiful example of self-delusion, yearning for a mythical past which never existed and the damage caused by bearing pointless grudges (and I can see historical/political parallels in that). It reminded me a lot of Browning’s My Last Duchess. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that Márai intended it to be read in this way: he may have actually shared some of Henrik’s beliefs and regrets for the old order. Anyway, I intend to review it together with two other novels about old mansions that I am currently reading.

I watched a few TV series this month: Wednesday with my younger son (which was entertaining enough, but rather predictable and forgettable), Borgen (watched Season 4 with oil in Greenland, then rewatched the first season, which reminded me why I stopped watching it back in 2013, because it was getting a little too close to the problems in my own marriage, despite my distinct lack of prime ministerial qualities and being considerably less busy than Birgitte Nyborg). It was quite eye-opening watching the documentary Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, with many political and social details which were either before my time or which I had forgotten.

For most of February, I barely watched any films, but then my older son came back for the last week and we more than made up for it. I thought Tár and Whiplash complemented each other well in their portrayal of bullying behaviour, problematic geniuses and the idea that art has to come from a place of suffering (it takes great pressure to create a diamond etc.). I can never resist films about artists and creators – and they also worked together well with the novel about ballet (and a lot else) that I read by Meg Abbott: The Turnout, which I really enjoyed. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a fascinating rare example of toxic masculinity but also the beauty of the male body perceived by the female gaze – with a breathtaking performance by the always watchable and enigmatic Denis Lavant. I also saw Barry Lyndon (one of my older son’s favourite films) in the cinema at the BFI, which is a very different experience from seeing it on a TV screen.

I don’t want to praise either myself or him, but I just wanted to say how delightful it is to have a grown-up child with whom you can spend a lovely day in London, having lunch in Chinatown, discussing drugs, political philosophy and film music while walking down to the Embankment, trawling the second-hand book stands on the South Bank, going to the Poetry Library mini-exhibition on clothes of women poets, watching Barry Lyndon at the BFI and then reading on the train on the way home in companionable silence.

March is going to be Nordic Reading Month for me, with a fairly broad definition of Nordic: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Canada. Of course, if I can fit any more into the #ReadIreland tag, I will, but it promises to be an extremely busy and tiring month at work.

#FrenchFebruary: Romain Gary, Gary Cooper and Ski Bums

Romain Gary: Adieu Gary Cooper, Gallimard, 1969. (There is also an earlier version of this which Gary wrote in English in 1963, entitled The Ski Bum)

I had heard of this book from the Romain Gary superfan Emma – she actually reviewed the English-language edition on her blog, but stated that the French one is funnier and more poetic, so that was the one I read. I also read it right after my week-long stay in Switzerland plus the second part of the book takes place in the Geneva area, so every little detail was so familiar to me, including crossing the Franco-Suisse border (although without any smuggled gold in my car).

So the location and the skiing captivated me from the start, because, let me be completely honest with you, I could so easily have become a ski bum myself (and am still very upset that I’ve lost the best years of my skiing life living in countries where skiing is not easily accessible). The ‘ski bum’ seems to be the official, if rather unflattering name of the wintry counterculture hero, the winter edition of the ‘surf dude’ if you like. Prepared to do any kind of job, live in fairly basic conditions, as long as they can catch that perfect powder snow and ski for 100 or more days per season. This is not the perfectly groomed, rather crowded, very expensive skiing experience that most of us have when we go on a week-long skiing holiday, but a sort of return to nature – perhaps more fantasy than reality, but perfect escapism.

For Lenny, the ski bum of the English title, it is certainly escape from conscription to go to Vietnam, but also from JFK’s statement: ‘Ask now what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’, which simply sounds sinister and coercive to him. Lenny is a dropout, with minimal education and no desire to better himself, but with the movie star looks of Gary Cooper he is able to make a bit of extra money as a ski monitor to wealthy ladies. He admires Gary Cooper as the strong, silent type, which he also strives to become (especially since he doesn’t speak any other languages, and in fact has some trouble expressing himself clearly even in English). He avoids any romantic entanglements, looks down upon any displays of emotion, although he isn’t quite the nasty macho type – more like a bewildered little boy that women would like to mother.

However, he is slightly ridiculed for his Gary Cooper fixation by the motley crew of other ski bums who have all converged at the chalet of their rich, generous friend Bug Moran (I can’t help wondering if Gary deliberately chose such an unprepossessing name for him):

Gary Cooper is over. Completely and utterly over. Farewell to the quiet American, sure of himself and his sense of what’s right, who fights against the baddies, always for a good cause, who lets justice triumph in the end and always wins. Farewell, American certainties! Ciao, Gary Cooper!

If Lenny’s friends are all hustlers without any loftier ambitions than finding the perfect slope, Jess Donahue, the daughter of the American consul in Geneva, is surrounded by a group of wannabe revolutionaries spouting ideologies and pictures of utopian future worlds they plan to build. Both groups are equally deluded and funny, yet somehow Jess and Lenny come together as the most unlikely (yet nevertheless touching) couple ever. Except that there are ulterior motives to their relationship… and a lot of betrayal and heartbreak will follow, no matter how cynical both Jess and Lenny claim to be.

Gary addresses some serious themes in this novel: the loss of ideals, the gruesome consequences of Realpolitik, the search for identity as an individual but also as a state when the political landscape has changed. Yet these are all handled with a light touch, deftly concealed in a gripping, almost cinematic story with many moments that made me laugh out loud.

For example, in the first part of the book, Lenny is trying to escape from a short affair with Swiss secretary Trudi, but she won’t take no for an answer, so he finally tells her that he killed a policeman in Basle and is therefore on the run and cannot remain with her. A tearful separation scene follows, but, needless to say, the next day the Swiss police shows up to arrest him as Trudi felt obliged to report him. Yep, that’s the Switzerland I know and love!

Frothiness and satire, with a dash of social critique and genuine emotion – I don’t know how Romain Gary does it, but he does it well!

I should add that there is a Genevois rock band named Adieu Gary Cooper and their album Outsiders is full of social critique done in a humorous way as well, such as the one below: ‘Work is badly paid’.

#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies: Cloé Mehdi

Cloé Mehdi: Nothing Is Lost (Rien ne se perd), transl. Howard Curtis, Europa Editions, 2023.

Born near Lyon and currently living in Marseille, Mehdi was only 24 years old when she wrote this, her second novel, which won several notable prizes in France. It is set in the Parisian banlieue, with which the author seems equally familiar, at least judging by her essay written about Fleury-Mérogis, a southern suburb of Paris which is home to the largest prison in France (and Europe), a jail that is a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation.

This is an unapologetically political, even militant novel: it addresses very dark themes (police brutality, social injustice, poverty, mental illnesses and how they are treated, murder, suicide, parental neglect). The humour, if we can describe it as such, is of a cynical variety as voiced by the precocious and world-weary narrator Mattia. At just eleven years old, Mattia has already experienced more than his share of trouble: his father’s mental health problems and subsequent suicide, his sister running away and his mother ‘gave him away’, unable to cope with him after his own attempt to commit suicide aged seven. He is the ward of the eminently unsuitable Zé, himself only 24, who comes from a wealthy white family, but has gone ‘down’ in the world, overcome by guilt since he was accused of killing a classmate at high school, works as a nightwatchman at a supermarket, recites French poets non-stop and forgets to pick Mattia up from school, and tries desperately to keep his girlfriend Gabrielle from committing suicide.

Mattia is bored in school, wary of grown-ups and the authorities, but things get worse when graffiti start appearing, demanding justice for Said, a young teen killed in a police identity check gone wrong. The case happened fifteen years ago and the policeman who beat up Said was acquitted, but it appears that Mattia’s family was somehow involved in what happened then, before he was even born.

This is not really a mystery or suspense story, but more of a relentless portrayal of contemporary French society at the margins, in the vein of the films La Haine or Bande de filles. It also reminded me of Jérôme Leroy’s Little Rebel in its mix of anger and black humour, or the documentaries and novels of Karim Miské set in the 19th arrondisement of Paris. The voice of the eleven-year-old does not always ring true – although he has had to grow faster than others, the language and concepts he uses are too mature and articulate for his age. Some of his outbursts are age-appropriate and ring true, while others are less successful.

When I was small, I thought grown-ups never cried. I realized later that they hide in order to do so. Now I’ve stopped trusting them. I’ve learned to look beyond what they agree to show me, because grown-ups keep the most important things to themselves.

I have a conjugation test tomorrow. How fortunate that someone invented the imperfect subjunctive to distract us from how lousy things really are!

The misfortunes heaped upon our main protagonist can feel almost manipulative at times, to provoke our pity. However, the novel succeeds best in its quieter moments, when there is less commentary attached to the observations of everyday life. For example, there is a scene where the crowds are rioting in response to the acquittal of the police officer against a backdrop of a poster at the bus stop advertising the perfume ‘La vie est belle (Life is beautiful)’.

Some might say that the author tries to work too much into the novel: race and deprivation and redevelopment (the blocks of flats are being torn down and the area is being gentrified), as well as mental health issues. The truth is that all of these problems often coexist and aggravate each other. No wonder Mattia feels that mental breakdown is inevitable, particularly if you have a family history of it. The author is scathing about the treatment of patients experiencing suicidal tendencies or other mental health conditions.

Gradually, the treatments worked. A nameless fog in your head. After that, the idea of escaping or dying was a long way from your daily concerns. As long as you could drink a cup of coffee without spilling it on your pajamas… And so it went on, until they decided you could leave. Free at last, but on borrowed time. Until the next breakdown and the next spell in hopsital. Thanks to them, you were again ready to live in society. You were normal. Were you happy? Nobody cared about that. The important thing was to make you capable of living outside, no matter in what state. No matter if the world around you hadn’t changed. They said it was up to you to adapt. They haven’t yet invented antipsychotics that can modify reality.

This was a brutal if somewhat messy read (the revenge narrative gets a bit bogged down, for example). I was glad to have read it – it feels like a necessary slice of urban life that we need to be aware of – and I read it quite quickly, but it left me feeling there is not much hope for any of the characters involved.

Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction in translation (I am particularly in love with their Europa World Noir series), so I can link my review once again to the #ReadIndies initiative.

#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies: Two French Novels

Jean Teulé: The Poisoning Angel, transl. Melanie Florence, Gallic Books.

When I embarked upon this book, I had no idea that it was based on a real-life case of a serial poisoner in Bretagne in the 19th century. I gather this is this author’s special niche, he takes on true crime cases or real historical figures and speculates about the gaps in their lives or their psychology and motivation.

Hélène Jégado is a little girl in Bretagne, who grows up to become a servant and a cook, and seems to believe that she is either an avenging or a just angel, that she is death’s helper, according to a local myth, and is therefore divinely guided towards ending people’s lives. Whether the real Hélène Jégado believed this, we shall never know, although some of the statements from her trial have been preserved (and are quite puzzling).

I liked the references to the Breton superstitions and gossip, but was not quite sure what the presence of the Norman wig-makers added to the story (a complete invention by the author, obviously). They keep popping up in almost every location and having bizarre, supposedly comic accidents.

The repeated accounts of poisoning entire households (and people not realising for a long time that she, the cook, might be to blame) are sprinkled with a dose of humour and detachment, but overall the story just felt a little flat. Are we supposed to shake our heads at the ‘witch hunt’ or at village superstitions and illiteracy (Hélène cannot read)? Are we supposed to be moved by her ‘love story’, that she did develop feelings for one person in her life, although it didn’t stop her from poisoning him too? I am not quite sure how to feel about this one.

Florence Noiville: A Cage in Search of a Bird, transl. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Seagull Books.

This book is also about a delusion – this time not of acting as the angel of death, but an extreme obsession with another person. I had not heard of the De Clérambault syndrome before reading this book, but I had heard of cases of celebrity stalkers and the obsessions that they can form about ‘their’ celebrities. However, in this case it is not really a celebrity, merely a fairly niche TV journalist who meets an old schoolfriend, recommends her for a job at the TV station she works for and then begins to notice and fear the unhealthy fixation her old friend develops for her.

This is written almost like a personal memoir as the narrator, Laura, uncovers more and more about this syndrome and speaks to others who have fallen victim as the ‘object of affection’. Laura has the frightening insight that there is no cure for it, no way to diminish the ardour of the person suffering from this syndrome, that each of her reactions will be misinterpreted, and that it very often escalates into violence and destruction.

It was a quick, fascinating read, written in that quite matter-of-fact, unadorned modern French style (as Leila Slimani said at an event in London – everyone in France wants to write like Camus). I found the scenes where Laura is not taken seriously by her boyfriend particularly poignant. It also has a sense of escalating danger, quite sinister, and then… I hate to say that there is a ‘twist you won’t be expecting’, because to be honest, you are sort of expecting some kind of twist… But there is a twist, and it is quite a satisfying one.

I should say that these too were new-to-me authors and I was very happy to see that this time both of my translated #FrenchFebruary reads are from independent publishers. Gallic Books were those brave publishers to bring one of my favourite French writers, Pascal Garnier, into the English-speaking world, while Naveen Kishore’s Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, India, needs no further introduction. So I can join in with Kaggsy and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies initiative.

#FrenchFebruary: New-to-me Women Authors – Triolet, Salvayre, Leduc

While staying at my friend’s house near Vevey, I had the pleasure of exploring her extensive library, which contains quite a lot of French-speaking writers (since my friend is also a translator from French). So I had the opportunity to discover three new women writers.

Elsa Triolet: Roses à crédit (Roses on credit), 1958

A still from the film Elsa la Rose

Of course I had heard of Elsa Triolet, usually as an appendage to Louis Aragon, I’m ashamed to say. I also saw the touching documentary made about her by Agnes Varda ‘Elsa la Rose’, which is basically Aragon telling us about his love for her and Michel Piccoli reciting poetry about her and she blushing and brushing it off.

“All these poems are for you. Do they make you feel loved?”

“Oh, no! They aren’t what makes me feel loved. Not the poetry. It’s the rest. Life.”

I know she had a fascinating life: the daughter of Russian Jews, she emigrated to France, and wrote first in Russian and then in French. She met Aragon in 1928, they fought in the Resistance during WW2 and, though she joined the French Communist Party in the early 1950s, she protested vehemently against Stalinist policies. She was the first woman to win the Goncourt Prize. I had heard that after her death in 1970, Aragon kept the calendar in their house forever fixed on the day she died – because time had no meaning for him without her. But I had never read anything by her. This book is the first in a trilogy she called The Age of Nylon, which uses different characters and life stories to critique post-war French society. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the rose imagery is so strong in this book, while Agnes Varda’s documentary refers to Elsa herself as a rose.

This particular book is about the rise of the consumerist society: Martine comes from a very poor rural household, with rats and cockroaches roaming around the house, her mother ready to sleep with any man she encounters and a great number of siblings all living in uneducated squalor. She is determined to escape this misery and befriends a girl at school whose mother is a hairdresser. She becomes her apprentice and later they all move to Paris, where her neat and precise ways make her a highly-appreciated beautician. She has set her sights on marrying her childhood crush, Daniel Donelle, who stems from a family of horticulturists. He is obsessed with creating a new variety of rose with the shape of the modern rose but the fragrance of the old one. Although Martine seems to support him in this mission, in truth all she wants is a bourgeois life with all the latest ‘must haves’ (some of them in dubious taste, as Daniel observes) and she gets into terrible debt in order to create her dream life.

While this seems like a straightforward story of a mismatched couple, there is a lot of implied social critique. I love the way in which Triolet observes the little specific details of rural and urban houses and lifestyles, and somehow manages to make them truly universal (at least for post-war Europe).

We can sympathise with Daniel’s exasperation at Martine’s greediness, but I am pretty sure that Elsa Triolet, who experienced hardship and poverty herself, will have had a lot of understanding for her desire to improve herself through material possessions. I could certainly detect my mother’s traits and tendencies in this book, as well as my father’s more idealistic, less materialistic streak.

Lydie Salvayre: Marcher jusqu’au soir (Walk until Evening), 2019

It takes some convincing, but the author Lydie Salvayre finally agrees to spend the night in the Picasso Museum in Paris, where there is a Giacometti exhibition. One of her favourite works of art in the world is Giacometti’s Walking Man, which she feels expresses best our human condition ‘our endless solitude and vulnerability, but, in spite of that, our stubborn desire to continue living, our stubborn desire to persevere against all reasons for living’.

To her surprise, she experiences a sense of fear and a near panic-attack locked in with all that art and has a rant about museums, the purpose of art, whether beauty can really save us.

This becomes a pretext for her to remember her childhood with a frightening revolutionary father (whom she also describes in her Goncourt Prize novel Pas pleurer – Don’t cry), and also poke fun at the pretentiousness and snobbishness of the art world. The Walking Man intrigues and terrifies her in equal measure, for she cannot help but see it as a metaphor for humankind walking towards death and extinction, no doubt influenced also by the fact that she was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.

She skilfully weaves her own story, her acute past and present fears, with that of Giacometti the man and his art, his immense modesty, how he was never satisfied with his work and would often remodel even his so-called ‘finished’ sculptures. It is reported that he said: ‘In a fire, if I had to choose between saving a cat and a Rembrandt painting, I would choose the cat.’ (See a similar discussion in Mircea Cărtărescu’s Solenoid).

Violette Leduc: La femme au petit renard (The Lady and the Little Fox Fur), 1965

This is the saddest of the three, all the more so when we think that Leduc was very much a proponent of what we call ‘autofiction’ nowadays. This slim little volume depicts the plight of a sixty-year-old woman (considered ancient, apparently, back in the 1960s). She is so poor that she is counting out the beans for her coffee, or trying to divide six potatoes by eight days. She avoids the foodstalls in the market and spends her small change on a metro ticket, so that she doesn’t feel so alone and can feel the warmth of the crowds.

She paces up and down in her garret room, containing pieces of furniture which indicate that perhaps she was not always so down on her luck. She talks to her furniture, and you can’t help wondering if the hunger is causing hallucinations. One day, she has a terrible craving for an orange and goes down to rummage among the rubbish bins for a half-rotten orange someone might have thrown away. Instead, she finds an old fox fur. She imbues this discarded neck adornment with life, and treats it like a much-loved pet, but decides she will have to part with it. She has to sell it so she can get some money to eat.

I won’t tell you the end of the story, merely state that it is almost unbearable to read and the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Imagine a Jean Rhys heroine who has grown old and ugly, who no longer is able to find any male protectors to pay her bills, and who finds herself all alone, starving, wandering in a half-demented state through the streets of Paris.

This is all written in a breathless recitative style, a long monologue (or dialogue with the objects surrounding her), with the exception of one short chapter in which we see the woman through the eyes of others (and realise just how pitiable and weird she seems). There is something of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style here, particularly the sections in Mrs Dalloway dedicated to war veteran Septimus Smith. Her style is raw, unfiltered, somewhat chaotic, often with no punctuation or paragraphs. It feels like someone on the edge of despair – or maybe on the verge of exploding with anger. And yet, just when we think we’ve reached the nadir, we find in our narrator and perhaps in the author herself that will to survive, that rhythmic cry of ‘I am, I am, I am’.

I was hoping to be able to place at least two of these books also under the #ReadIndies initiative, hosted by my dear blogging friends Karen aka Kaggsy and Marcia aka Lizzy Siddal, but it turns out that the proud publisher Gallimard, host of so many Nobel and Goncourt Prize winners, is no longer independent, but part of Groupe Madrigall. Better luck with my next two #FrenchFebruary reads…