The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:
Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.
[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]
So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.
I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines. This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.
There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.
The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)
She binds us with cooing when we find no words
save to admire her licks, trusting gaze, her faults.
She endures the laying on of hands
when they cannot tell their mother of their love
or their father how much they miss him.
They bury their faces in her butter-golden fur
warmed by sunbeams, chased by catnip,
listen for the reassuring snore and rumble in her purrrr.
In a few days, it will be three years exactly since we adopted our cat. She has brought such love, comfort and fun to our lives that she deserves a new poem. Here are some previous poems in her honour: by me and my boys.
Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.
It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]
In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…
She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.
Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…
Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:
I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…
The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).
This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.
This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.
So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.
I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.
Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.
For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.
I don’t usually celebrate my publications on my blog [And why exactly don’t I? That is a subject for another day.], but I do want to share this one with you. I am very pleased that Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine has just published one of the poems which has meant the most to me, Twenty Years After.
This is a poem I wrote three years ago in a sudden fit of inspiration on a business trip to London. The first draft of it is here. It’s about the person I fell in love with during my first year as a student in the UK, someone who broke my heart. I’d forgotten or buried the memory for many years, and have never seen that person again, but revisiting the Barbican brought it all back. On a frozen winter day, we’d practised our ballroom dancing on its empty terraces, just before going to a theatre performance. As the snowflakes started to fall around us, I thought I’d met the love of my life. Now, older and wiser, I know that life is constant flow. And so is love.
I’m really pleased it’s this particular magazine, which I’ve been reading online for a few years now, because I really admire its mission of interculturalism, more important than ever in today’s world. So, if you want to hear some international voices, all united by a love of the English language, do join me there.
I promised to share a love story with you from the Salon du Livre. Here is the story of how I fell in love with a cat, lost a substantial amount of money but gained much happiness.
In addition to the bold, colourful artworks decorating the various stands at the Geneva Book Fair, there was one stand which drew my attention. Fortunately (or should that be unfortunately?) it was right next door to us, so I could browse to my heart’s content.
ACB (Art, Creations et Bibliophilie) is a small company based near Morges, specialising in rare books, beautiful ililustrations and limited edition original artworks.
This is a booklover and book collector’s dream. Hand-coloured prints on delicate handmade paper – these are the illuminated manuscripts of the present day.
For the 70th anniversary of The Little Prince, they commissioned a contemporary artist to reinvent the colour prints to accompany the text. I cannot explain how exquisitely made the paper is, what a pleasurable tactile experience it is to leaf through the book.
But, of course, the original artwork is there too – on loose leafs, so you could frame each one of them.
I was also attracted by a leather-bound, gold-edged, hand-coloured edition of Ulysees, but at the price of around 4500 CHF (£3200 or $4700), it was well beyond my budget. However, if I were a millionare, I know in which shop I would go mad when it came to decorating my house!
ACB also had original artwork to decorate their stand and there was one painting by a Chinese artist which caught my eye. Apologies for the rather dim photo.
Only problem was: it was way out of my price range. After three days of hmming and hawing, much soul-searching, worrying and then telling myself that my parents had once upon a time given me some money to buy something memorable for myself on a round birthday (and I never had)… and after the lovely Pierre Perottin and other people at the ACB stand promised to deliver, offered me a better price and allowed me to pay in instalments… reader, I married this painting and am in utter honeymoon bliss!
If you want to see more of the artwork on offer, ACB have a Facebook page or you can contact Pierre Perottin directly on acbperottin[at]gmail[dot]com. They are not paying me to advertise or promote their business, but it’s the kind of thing that us inveterate booklovers might enjoy (to at least dream of!).
Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (transl. Emily Boyce)
I always get something out of a Pascal Garnier book, but there are some which truly stand out. This is one of the stand-out ones. As usual with this author, it is a slim volume which leaves you ever-so-slightly moody and breathless.
It’s a simple-enough story of Éliette, a grandmother who is ‘not old enough or fat enough to be a Mémé’, who is facing life on her own after her husband’s death two months before he was due to retire. The house they had bought and renovated in preparation for their retirement is in an isolated location in the Ardèche and the life ‘which was supposed to be a never-ending holiday’. After a few months, she finds herself getting restless with this placid existence and overly helpful neighbours. She buys herself a tiny bubble car and zips around the countryside with it. Then, two kilometres away from home, just as the rain is starting, she gets a puncture. A man in his forties called Étienne stops to help and she offers to give him a lift. When he tells her he has broken down himself and is looking for a phone, she invites him into her house. Gradually, some kind of relationship develops between these two strangers, although Éliette is not the sweet, trusting old dear that people can easily take advantage of.
‘I’ll warn you now: if you’re a murderer, I have very little to lose, and there’s nothing here worth stealing unless you count the walls.’
Of course, readers familiar with Garnier’s dark stories will recognise the warning signs, but the danger only becomes apparent once Étienne’s daughter appears on the scene and Éliette finds out about the death of her neighbours’ son. I won’t tell you a word more, because these stories always veer off into unexpected, off-the-wall directions. I will just say that the similarity of the two names is probably not coincidental, as the two characters have more in common than might be apparent at first glance.
She was innocent, just like him, like the worst criminal, like the dog who kills the cat, the cat who kills the mouse, the mouse who… must kill something too. All around, in the bushes and the grass, prey and predators mingled in the same macabre dance. You could be one or the other, depending on the circumstances, all of which were extenuating. It was what they called life, the strongest of all excuses.
I rather loved this wistful but completely unsentimental look at aging, loneliness and hoping to find love or at least comfort in a world which seems to have gone crazy. This book will be released on 11th April and comes heartily recommended.
Péter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn (transl. Elizabeth Szász)
This is a fictionalised account of how the writer’s (and film maker’s) parents met and fell in love after the end of WW2. After his father’s death, Gárdos was given the letters his parents had preserved with such care for so many years by his mother.
The backdrop is anything but promising: Miklos and Lili have just emerged from Belsen and are recovering in different refugee camps in Sweden. Miklos is 25 years old, emaciated and toothless, weighs barely 29 kilos. On his way to Sweden he starts coughing up bloody foam. He has tuberculosis and is told that he has only six months left to live, but that doesn’t stop him looking for a wife. He finds a list of all 117 young Hungarian women from his region ‘whom nurses and doctors were trying to bring back to life in various temporary hospitals across Sweden’ and writes to each one of them in his beautiful handwriting. A few of them write back, but it is the letter of eighteen-year-old Lili which captures his attention. He is instantly convinced that she is the one, but over the next six months they will have to make do with writing each other increasingly passionate letters and seeing each other only three times very briefly and with great difficulty.
When they do meet face-to-face for the first time, they almost run away from each other, but instead they recognise each other in choked emotion. They are kindred souls, although they have had different upbringings and disagree about a number of things. Lili wants to convert to Catholicism, Miklos is a committed Marxist. Miklos is a dreamer with poetic licence, Lili is more timid and realistic. And, although they try to tell each other everything, they never speak about certain important things, neither then, nor later.
My father never told Lili that for three months he burned bodies in Belsen concentration camp… Lili did not tell Miklos about the day of her liberation from Belsen. It took her nine hours to drag herself from the barracks to the clothes depot, a distance of about a hundred metres… Miklos could never bring himself to tell her of his time, before he burned corpses, as an orderly in the typhoid barrack… the most ghastly block in the camp… And Lili never said a word about her twelve-day journey to Germany in a freight wagon.
This is not a book about the Holocaust, but a book about survival, about finding hope and love against all odds, when all the world around you seems ghastly and hopeless. It is anything but sickly sweet – charming, poignant and with little shots of sarcasm and humour which keep it from descending into sentimentality.
The film director originally wrote this story as a film script, then later turned it into a novel. The film came out in December 2015 (in Hungarian). Here is the official trailer on Vimeo.