Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the French

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

After a total of 7 years spent in France over the past 11 years, I have quite a substantial French bookshelf. Indeed, it is a whole Billy full of books by or about French (or Swiss Romande) authors, some of them translated. Many of them are unread, because I acquired them at a rapid pace, often on the basis of hearing them speak at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. Not many of these authors are truly obscure, or else I may have mentioned them before on my blog, so that excludes Pascal Garnier, Jean-Claude Izzo and other new acquaintances who became firm favourites.

Appropriately enough, I mention my French authors the week that we have some friends from France visiting.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Pilote de guerre

Of course he is anything but obscure: who hasn’t heard of The Little Prince, possibly my favourite children’s book of all times? (Yes, I still cry whenever I read the ending, much to the embarrassment of my children.)

This slim volume not only describes his war-time experiences as a pilot, but also his entire philosophy of life and a powerful critique of the society of his time (so similar to our own in the present-day). The book condenses months of flights into a single terrifying mission over the town of Arras.  Within the first few days of the German invasion of France in May 1940, 17 of the 23 crews in his unit were sacrificed recklessly “like glasses of water thrown onto a forest fire”. Starting from the idea that soldiers are expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, for an abstract concept of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Our Neighbour’, ‘Love’, he ponders on just what it is he feels he is sacrificing himself for. He criticizes the fact that we have substituted materialism for ideas, objects for culture and have lost ‘Man with a capital M’ in the pursuit of individualism. Here follows a passage in my approximate translation (and I apologise for the masculine pronouns):

What is good for the Community, these [new leaders] find that in plain arithmetic, and it’s arithmetic which governs their thoughts. And so they fail to become something greater than the sum of themselves. They hate all those who are different from themselves, because they have nothing greater to aspire to. All foreign customs, races, thoughts become a danger to them. They cannot absorb them, they seek to amputate Man, instead of giving a sense of purpose to his aspirations and a space for his energy… A cathedral gives meaning to a pile of stones. But the stones absorb nothing and end up crushing you…

Toril Moi: Simone de Beauvoir

This is my favourite book about one of my favourite writers: a detailed analysis of Beauvoir’s work as a feminist and a writer, but also a close look at her real life, the woman behind the icon. Beauvoir was a complex woman, not immune to suffering and jealousy over her famously open relationship with Sartre. Moi looks at the challenges of succeeding as an intellectual in a world which still relegated her to second place. When I first read this book, I was somewhat saddened: this was not the role model that I had adored in my teens and set out to emulate. But perhaps the fact that she achieved all that she did in spite of not being superwoman should be cause for admiration and celebration. As Angela Carter once put it: ‘Why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P? Her memoirs will be mostly about him; he will scarcely speak of her.’

This is the story of a woman who became a feminist almost in spite of herself. She initially expected to compete as a human amongst humans, not as a woman amongst men, pure brains pitted against other pure brains and talent. To her frustration, she found that not to be the case, and this remains true even now:

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with women’s problems and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, torn, disadvantaged: for women the stakes are higher,; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men.

Joseph Incardona: Derrière les panneaux, il y a des hommes 

15th of August is one of the busiest days of the years on the French motorways. The title of the book ‘Behind the road signs, there are humans’ refers to the signs at the edge of the motorways whenever there are road works, warning drivers to watch out for the men (it is usually men) in their hi-viz jackets working on the side of the road.

I’ve read and reviewed other books by Swiss author Incardona, but this is perhaps his best one. It’s the story of Pierre, who lives in his car at a service station on the motorway, where his daughter disappeared six months earlier. It’s not just a thriller but also a portrait of a transient and desperate people who don’t often get mentioned in fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to have torn readers’ opinions in France and Switzerland, receiving either 1 star or 5 stars. Not yet translated into English, but perhaps it should be.

 

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Inspiring Women and Their One Weakness…

From The Telegraph.
From The Telegraph.

I read this obituary of Naty Revuelta Clews, Havana socialite and one-time mistress of Fidel Castro, and it made me sad to see such a fascinating, unconventional woman reduced to pining and sighing after a man who did not treat her well and probably did not deserve her. Why is it that so many inspiring women have their moments of weakness (which in many cases last for years) when it comes to a man, that they succumb to the charisma and myth of the ‘great man’?

We need to see and hear about inspiring women not just for the 8th of March, but all year round. Here are some of my real-life and fictional inspirations – and their weakness:

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Katharine Hepburn

She was considered ‘insufficiently sexy’ to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara and her sharp tongue and independent manner made her unpopular in Hollywood. She even became box office poison for a while, but engineered her way back to a brilliant career by acquiring the script for The Philadelphia Story. No weak maiden waiting for a studio boss or even a knight in shining armour to rescue her! Still, one chink in her armour: Spencer Tracy.

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Pippi Longstocking

The creation of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, Pippi lives by herself (with her horse and pet monkey) while her father is sailing the seas. She may not be able to count or sip her tea properly, but she is strong, fearless, cheerful and utterly non-conformist. Her weakness: her Dad.

Deb-Harry-debbie-harry-31503812-500-507

Debbie Harry

The epitome of cool, devil-may-care sexy style, Debbie Harry had the voice and inimitable, slightly off-beat jazzy singing that I’ve always loved. She survived band break-up, drugs, caring for her seriously ill ex Chris Stein (that’s her weakness right there), and nevertheless managed to have a solo career, a reunion and lots of interesting musical projects. She is a true survivor, and a lady, without the need to be constantly in the limelight that some other rock stars have.

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Simone de Beauvoir

Philosopher, writer, feminist and political activist, Simone was so bright that she only narrowly missed out being first  for the agrégation for her year (Sartre was first, but he was a few years older than her). She is famous, of course, for her ‘open’ relationship with Sartre, but she is no superwoman – she is complex, conflicted and often prone to jealousy and sorrow. Her intellectual journey came at a cost – but she was always candid about it, bravely forging a pathway for others. For a nuanced look at her life and work, see Toril Moi’s biography. I’ve been carrying it with me for about 16 years now, across four moves to a different country.

 

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?

 

I’m So Vain, I Probably Think This Is About Me

Tomorrow evening I will be presenting something in front of a roomful of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. ‘So what?’ I hear you say.  ‘That has been your job (in various incarnations) for a while now.’ True enough: I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, trainer/facilitator and what is laughingly known as a ‘headliner’. I’ve even been an enthusiastic participant in amateur dramatics – as if you can’t tell!

So what is different this time?

Well, this time I won’t be reading somebody else’s words. I won’t be presenting general knowledge or sticking to the tried-and-tested pedagogical methods. This time I will be reading my own contribution to Offshoots 12 , the annual publication of Geneva Writers’ Group. It’s like cutting off small strips of your flesh and presenting them to the audience. I just hope none of them are cannibals.

So, of course, the question now is: what should I wear? In my corporate world, I have a ‘uniform’ – reasonably smart, modestly flattering, yet flexible enough for the temperature variations of training rooms and the mad dashes down airport corridors.

The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines
The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines

For poetry, however, something more free-flowing, more creative is required. Shall I go for the romantic look we tend to associate with poets (rightly or wrongly)? I cannot bear trailing scarves or opinion-piece jewellery. It’s not quite warm enough anymore for a strappy summer dress.  The other major staple of my wardrobe (jeans and white shirts) is an over-done look for hip, happening SLAM poets and spoken word ambassadors. Besides, I’m neither hip nor happening (as you can tell from the fact that I am using these words, which are probably a couple of decades out of date).

So what do poets and writers more generally wear to readings? Any suggestions?  Wikihow tells me (seriously, perhaps?) to either dress in existentialist black if I want to seem thoughtful, or in dramatic high boots if I want to be showy. Checking out videos of poetry readings, I notice that many have taken this advice to heart.  Meantime, I’ve found some wise words here, but no matching, colourful clothes in my wardrobe.

Scruffy mad poet look it is, then!