French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

Entertainment: Sour Grapes by Dan Rhodes

Like many bookish people, I cannot resist books about writers, publishers, literary critics and book festivals. Especially if they don’t take themselves too seriously. So imagine my delight when I heard that Dan Rhodes (a former literary editor himself, I gather) had written a novel ruthlessly satirising the whole literary world and industry – it felt like birthday and Christmas and Easter had all come at once!

The quaint English villages of Green Bottom and Broad Bottom (and a few other Bottoms) are going to be hosting their first literary festival, organised by the indefatigable Mrs Angelica Bruschini, who has recently moved to the area and has a craving for presiding over a committee. Mayhem ensues, with pretentious authors, insufferable publicists and journalists, good-natured and bemused villagers all trying to muddle through.

For sheer entertainment value, the book does not disappoint, although it does get rather too heavy-handed in its humour at times. There is no sacred cow here that the author won’t poke fun at: JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Alexander Armstrong, Will Self (under the guise of Wilberforce Selfram, who keeps pronouncing the death of the novel), the diversity schemes and nepotism of the big publishers, literary festivals that are more about celebrities rather than authors, conspiracy theorists, social media scandals, millenials vs. Gen Z influencers, even Brexit tangentially, and so much more.

‘Well yes, there are a good amount of names there… but none of them are really, you know… authors. We’ve got actors with books out, and rugby players with booka out, and cooks with books, and pop stars, and game-show hosts, and alternative comedians, and people from Radio 2, and people from Radio 4, but no real authors. I mean the ones who just do books. As this is a literary festival, I thought it might be an idea to fill the last few slosts whith people who aren’t so much celebrities-with-books-out, as just, well, writers.’

The idea was not met with great enthusiasm. Everybody on the committee was very much looking forward to meeting all the famous people, and the thought of having to accommodate some obscure and serious writer types didn’t interest them at all.

I am picking those passages where the satire is more biting, rather than descending into farce, for instance:

Every few years a light from outside would be shone on the industry’s lack of social diversity. Articles would be written about how publishing was overbearingly upper-class, and whenever this happened they found themselves launching a scheme to get people from other backgrounds into the field. These would run for a while before quietly fizzling out, but while they lasted, they gave publishers the opportunity to point at this junior publicist, or that marketing trainee, and declare that their workforce was inclusive, conveying the impression that the grandees of the business were indeed committed to social modernisation.

The passage where I burst out laughing was with the Salman Rushdie appearance at the festival, the over-conscientious interviewer who never lets him get a word in edgeways, and the complete and utter mess of audience questions at the end.

At times, however, I have to admit it did all get a bit too hectic and far-fetched for my taste, a veritable slugfest, with some gratuitous murder and blood sacrifice thrown in. I think if the author had exercised a bit more restraint, the satire would have been all the more powerful. I suspect this will appeal most to an audience who knows the publishing world and to whom those sly digs apply. Will Self witheringly pronounces himself unbothered by the satire, but we have no reports as yet of the reaction of others featured in the story. A great way to relax and laugh over the weekend!

A Few Easy Reads

I’ve been reading some rather lengthy and serious books lately, so I thought I would unwind with a few lighter reads. Here are three I read in about a couple of hours each, something for every taste.

WRitingGert Loveday: Writing Is Easy

Delightful and frothy like a French dessert, this is a book for and about writers. There are a couple of deaths within its pages, but it’s not crime fiction. Instead, writers’ workshops and retreats are given the satirical treatment. The lively characterisation  really makes the story here: washed-out novelist Marcus Goddard, who is afraid he will never live up to the success of his first novel; impenetrable modernist writer and performance poet Lilian Bracegirdle; the wannabe writer of hardboiled detective fiction who gets stuck with too many dames; the fitness fanatic who firmly believes it can’t be that hard to write a book in a week; the downtrodden housewife turning to the world of fantasy fiction for comfort; the serial award-winner who still hasn’t managed to find her own voice. Not forgetting resourceful or greedy assistants, a temperamental chef, tremendous egos and past secrets resurfacing to haunt people. A romp of a novel, just the thing to make you laugh out loud at human absurdity.

InawordMargot Kinberg & Martin Edwards (eds.): In a Word, Murder

This is a labour of love: an anthology to commemorate indomitable blogger and crime fiction specialist Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology go to one of Maxine’s favourite charities, the Princess Alice Hospice. It’s a fun collection of murderous short stories in diverse styles, reflecting the diversity of authors included. There is a lot of humour, as well as darker deeds, in this collection, and quite a few of the stories have a literary bent as well: self-publishing becomes a life-saver (literally), book blogging becomes deadly, changing publishers is a dangerous game… and so on.

 

Stella Rimington: The Geneva Trap

GenevaOK, I’ll admit it: I read this one purely for the location, as I live in the Geneva area and thought it would be fun to see if the author had captured the local flavour well. Needless to say, as with any spy thriller, the locations change and also include Marseille, London, plus some godforsaken rural areas in France and England. Stella Rimington was famously the Director General of MI5 for many years, so she knows her stuff and perhaps her work is more authentic than John Le Carre or the recently read ‘I Am Pilgrim’. But oh, how much more boring authenticity is! A lot of surveillance, meetings on park benches, computer analyses… This is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, so perhaps I missed something by not starting with the first, but it just felt like run-of-the-mill spy fiction  to me. There was nothing to lift it above the average. Still, this would work well as a quick airport/airplane read.