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.

 

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.

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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.