Having somewhat haphazardly flung my books out of boxes and onto shelves, I discovered I couldn’t find anything anymore. So I’ve tried to rearrange my shelves according to countries and subject matter. Here is what I’ve been able to do so far.
The French Corner. This is a narrow bookcase at the very edge of the room, which has books (some in French, some in translation) by and about French authors or about France (but not the dictionaries or French culture guides, which are housed with the reference books). Unsurprisingly, this section of my library has grown exponentially during my 5 years in that part of the world.
Non-fiction is relatively modest and housed just below the French section. (But there is an additional overly large academic and business books section, see below.)
A whole shelf is dedicated to books on the writing craft and literary criticism – and includes the complete diaries of Virginia Woolf (my favourite writing book), while another shelf is all about poetry. Alas, I’ll soon be running out of space on this latter one.
I’m pretty sure I’ve got more German books stashed away in the loft, but for the time being there is sufficient space on these two shelves to house Scandinavian fiction and Peirene Press as well. [Update: just went up to the loft this morning and can tell you there is no more space to house anything. See the picture below this one.]
Japanese literature is housed next to books on Japanese society, culture and religions (which might help you guess what the subject of my Ph.D. was). Once again, I am convinced I have far, far more Japanese books up in the loft (or at my parents’ house in Romania).
As for Romanian books – I had to set up an additional bit of foldable shelving to do it justice, although I also added some authors loosely categorised as ‘East European’ – Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Kieslowski (the film director) and Andrzej Stasiuk. The Russians are on the bottom shelf as well, although I am confident there are more of them lurking up in the attic. Apologies for the darkness of the shot, but light conditions were against me.
Then we have the mish-mash shelf: Spanish, South American and some non-Japanese Asians.
After setting up all of these shelves beautifully, I then realised that I don’t have much space left for the English language fiction, which represents by far the greatest proportion of my books. Sigh! I think I may have too many ‘professional’ books. I love my anthropology books, but I may need another office for the more business-like stuff, so that I can leave this one free for creative pursuits.
There is one more segment of wall against which I could put up additional shelves, but the study will also have to accommodate an armchair-bed for visitors, so I doubt there will be any room left over. If the alternative is no more shelves, then I may have to give visitors my bed and sleep on a mattress in my beloved library.
Or maybe I should copy this brilliant idea of ‘book-hunting’ from Belgium?
Yesterday I finally braved the loft again and got down a new set of book boxes. Sadly, quite a few boxes ended up with heavier boxes on top of them during 5 years of storage, so the books are not always in pristine condition. (Fellow booklovers who are equally obsessive about book spines remaining uncreased, corners unturned and therefore hardly ever lending books for fear of damage will understand my dismay!)
From the English collection: one of the funniest books about anthropologists and one of my favourite Barbara Pym novels; Sylvia Plath’s rite of passage, the Metaphysical poets (which we were not allowed to study at university during Communist times).
From the Austrian collection: the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Elias Canetti’s first volume of memoirs (given to me as a present by a friend who said it was his favourite book).
From the French collection, a charming coming-of-age story by Colette (perfect summer reading) and a grim childhood memoir by Herve Bazin (required reading in French class, but nevertheless memorable rather than sheer torture).
One of my favourite Romanian poets: Ion Pillat (I don’t think he’s ever been translated) – a lyrical nature-loving poet.
And finally a book that I haven’t read (there aren’t many of those in my loft): Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, because I was translating a Romanian writer at the time who kept referring to Pessoa and was writing in his style.
Here are some excerpts from the Japanese collection against a background of bins:
Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the lesser-known classical works of 18th century Japanese literature. A collection of spooky stories, it is perhaps better known as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The flowery cover is actually the paper wrapping that you automatically get at the time of purchase in Japanese bookshops for all your paperbacks. It covers Banana Yoshimoto’s Tugumi, which I haven’t looked at since I was a student (and probably won’t be able to read anymore). Finally, we were very excited to read Norwegian Wood with our Japanese professor during our student days, but this is the English language translation. And what a beautiful edition it is too, with its two small volumes encased in a golden box.
Alas, alas, only a small part of the books have descended from the loft and we are already running out of space!
It’s not the move (or, to use corporate terminology, the international relocation). It’s not the scrabbling around trying to find the financial paperwork for discussion at mediation services (and realising you are about 4 years out of date with everything and your pension is worth nothing). It’s not even the lack of internet or frenetic preparation for school, while trying not to show your older son that you are anxious about his lack of confirmed school place.
It’s not even when all of your devices conspire to let you down all at once. Unrepairable. Making you buy new ones or inherit other people’s used ones and resetting everything all at once, on a new system, on a new service provider, in a new language and keyboard. Verification after verification. Forgotten passwords. I could have handled a single phone or a laptop or a tablet, but all three at once! Then discovering you have invested in the wrong new tablet, which does not support Netgalley documents, so more than half of all your ebooks have disappeared.
Let’s add a little bit of extra seasoning to that, shall we?
It’s discovering that your younger son has been a little too eager to construct his Ikea furniture and has done it the wrong way (and now those screws can’t be taken out without causing damage). It’s finding that your walls are not receptive to ordinary nails, but require power tools so you can’t hang anything up. It’s having your parents (mercifully at a distance) blaming you for other people’s unhappiness (past, present and future) but pshawing and downplaying your own. It’s waking up every morning with backache and worrying if you will be strong enough to guide the children through the heart-breaking months to follow. It’s searching for jobs online and realising that the ones you like don’t pay enough for you to live on, while the ones you don’t like require you to travel excessively and/or make people redundant. (Think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’) It’s having your soon-to-be ex-husband coming to visit for a long weekend and being laid up in bed with a bad back for the entire time (when I was hoping he could help me bring some things down from the loft).
In short, it’s waking up to cumulative and repetitive reality.
Luckily, I’ve now found another old tablet (long may it last!) and have solved my Netgalley problem, so at least I can have my daily dose of reading escapism.
On Monday, school starts. And hopefully, so will my writing. Now we’re cooking!
I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.
I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.
The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:
Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)
As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:
Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
Marie Darrieussecq: Men
Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:
Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that
And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).
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.”
I think this picture speaks for itself: a whole coffee table full of new books. I’ve been on a terrible crime spree and my only excuse is that I will be moving soon from France, so it was my last chance to get French books and have things signed in Lyon. Actually, speaking of moving reminds me of one good reason why I should have been more moderate in my purchases…
Anyway, no time for regrets (not that I have any). In fact, I was planning to buy more, but the lack of availability of certain titles in English or certain authors who could sign the books meant that I had to scale down.
And, as I said on Twitter, at least it proves that as long as there are people like me in the world, crime writers will not starve!
From left to right, top to bottom, here we go:
Jo Nesbø: Blood on Snow – I haven’t read the last few Nesbøs; he’s a bit hit and miss for me – I love some of his books, while others leave me cold. He was constantly mobbed by admirers, so I barely exchanged two words with him.
Pascal Garnier: Comment va la douleur? – my favourite Garnier to date, I had the English translation at home but not the original in French
Ayerdahl: Tendances – recommended by the hugely knowledgeable booksellers at the Quais when I asked about a novel set in Lyon, the author (French, despite his name) died in Sept. 2015.
Manuel Vázquez Montalban: La Solitude du manager – Spanish classic crime; sadly, many of his books are not available in English (this was a 2nd hand purchase)
Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice – had never heard of the author or the book, but we started chatting and of course someone who has lived 20 years as a journalist in Japan has got my full attention. The book was only available in French on the first day, but on the second day the attentive booksellers had got hold of a few English copies, so I couldn’t resist getting it. Doomo arigatoo!
Rachid Santaki: La Légende du 9-3 – if you liked Jérémie Guez or Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, Rachid is in the same vein, 93 being one of the most troubled departements of France (outskirts of Paris).
Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père – rising star of Swiss crime fiction and practically a neighbour (he lives in Lausanne)
Antonin Varenne: Battues – you never know what to expect with a Varenne book – he never writes twice about the same subject and his range is amazing. After the urban milieu of ‘Bed of Nails’ and historical fiction (19th century and war in Algeria), this is a rural Romeo and Juliet story.
Hervé Le Corre: Après la Guerre – atmospheric story set in 1950s Bordeaux, this won the prize of Quais du Polar in 2014 and will soon be available in English from Maclehose Press.
Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en forêt – the second in a series set in French Guyana, recommended to me by none other than my ‘partner in crime’, Emma from Book Around the Corner, who has reviewed the first in the series.
Joseph Incardona: Permis C – I thought I was safe from buying anything by him, because I had his latest book, but I’ve met him at several festivals and he knows my by name. So when he produced a small pile of his very latest book, which has not yet come out in France, only in Switzerland, how could I resist?
Janis Otsiemi: La Vie est un sale boulot – he was on my list of more diverse writers that I wanted to attempt – life in Libreville, Gabon sounds like it could be challenging and interesting! Besides, I loved his extensive collection of hats!
Christophe Molmy: Les loups blessés – this was an unintentional purchase. I saw the author looking a bit lonely, sitting next to Deon Meyer, who had a huge queue of people to sign for. So I started chatting to him and discovered he still works as a policeman, in fact heads up the Anti-gang squad in Paris, so I asked him several questions pertaining to cross-border crime. After helping me with my novel, it would have been churlish not to buy his own, wouldn’t it?
Naïri Nahapétian: Qui a tué l’ayatollah Kanumi? – another writer on my diversity list, this is an Iranian of Armenian origin who came to France as a child and worked as a journalist reporting on Iran for many years. I have many Iranian friends and want to find out more what lies beneath the easy clichés about that country.
Jax Miller: Freedom’s Child – I’d heard rave reviews about this remarkable debut novel last year, but never got around to reading it. After meeting the larger-than-life Jax Miller at the conference, I was determined to follow her progress with every book (and I’m sure there will be plenty more).
Craig Johnson: Dry Bones – I haven’t read a Walt Longmire book in a while, but I always enjoyed them, and the author of course is an utterly lovely person. I also plan to make some effort to catch the Longmire series on Netflix or somewhere – any ideas?
Frédéric Lenormand: Le Diable s’habille en Voltaire – I saw Lenormand a year or two ago at the Quais, he wasn’t here this year; but a book with Voltaire as a detective, when I live a short walk from his chateau? You bet! (2nd hand purchase)
James Oswald: The Damage Done – I never thought I liked supernatural mixed up with my crime, but James has convinced me it works. Besides, we had a lovely chat about farming and cows and sheep (I come from good old farming stock, it’s in my blood)
Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent – Belgian writer who was recommended to me by a bookseller who heard me asking about Pascal Garnier books. ‘If you like Garnier, you will be struck by this book.’Besides, he had the loveliest idea for signing books: ‘Give me a word and I’ll create a sentence for you.’
Richard Price: The Whites – another outstanding noir author,with a searing (and bleak) vision of New York City, who was mortified when he spelt Sofia wrong in the dedication. As if I would be offended…
Parker Bilal: The Ghost Runner – another cross-cultural adventure, Makana being a Sudanese ex-cop turned PI in Egypt, and giving us a picture of the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. Parker Bilal is the crime writing pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, who writes literary fiction under his real name.
Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops – I adored the Marseille Trilogy by this author, but I borrowed it from the library and wanted to acquire my own copies. My favourite of the three books is Chourmo, but the bookseller couldn’t find it for me so he brought me the first one (2nd hand purchase).
Deon Meyer: Cobra – I’ve only found 2-3 of Meyer’s books at the library here, so I bought one of the books I haven’t got around to reading. I like this ‘not at all breathless’ thriller style and deep characterisation.
Raynal Pellicer/Titwane: Enquêtes générales – fascinating graphic book about real-life cases following a period of immersion with the anti-crime squad in Paris. Useful for my own research about French policing, as well as a work of art.
The pistol-shaped black notebook was a freebie from publishers Folio, containing best quotes from crime fiction. The other black notebook in the bottom right is a Moleskine-type notebook, which I used to scribble my impressions of each panel.
Right, now time to find some good hiding places for all these books, so that I don’t have to endure sharp criticism about money wasted, lack of space and removal terrors…
Other Quais du Polar 2016 numbers: 80 000 visitors (up 10% from last year), 130 authors of 22 nationalities, 200 events throughout town over this period and 35,000 books sold. (So not every visitor bought 24 books then!). Pretty good going though; I’d love to see the figures for Harrogate or Bloody Scotland.