I don’t know how, I don’t know why
but one day
on the sly
and on the fly
my poems turned into surly teenagers.
No more tender night cuddles
no tear-smirched cheeks to smooth
seldom around for longer than it takes
to grunt and disapprove
of my repetitive attempts
to ask them
Sometimes she constrains our flow
in dismally low fixed forms, barriers and the like…
Oh, pu-leee-ze, lady, make up your mind!
She twirls us endlessly,
frets, crosses out
the best among us.
Then, too late,
she introduces us to new words
still stiff from their dictionary plaid.
So why should we be easy, pleasant and obedient?
Stop trying to make us fit in!
And that’s about all you’re going to hear from me for the rest of the week, which will be dedicated, alas, not to writing, but to amusing and feeding the children, and going through an immense To Do list.
I need to catch up with myself and my reading, but older son is now on holiday and there is still all the end of term stuff to do for younger son. So these will be three rather short reviews of books I’ve recently read.
Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit (Paris by Night)
The debut novel of a hugely talented young French writer – he was 19 or so when he wrote this and is now already on his fourth or fifth novel, aged only about 26. If you liked Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, you will find an even more brutal portrayal of life in the Parisian banlieues (or ghettos) in this book. It’s a very short book, describing the rapid descent of a young man from petty wrongdoings to more serious crime – and is representative of a whole generation of youngsters in Paris.
Abraham (known as Abe) is a young man of the streets, whose family came over from the Maghreb. His mother died when he was very young and his father has buried himself in his apartment, watching TV and barely noticing the comings and goings of his son. Together with his childhood friend Goran (from former Yugoslavia) and some other mates (Jewish, black, North African – a rainbow of deprivation), Abe hangs out in his neighbourhood and around Belleville, Pigalle and even the Latin Quarter, smoking joints, doing some minor drug dealing, fighting in bars and spending the occasional night at the police station. Then, one night, they discover an illegal gambling den at the back of a bar and decide to hold it up to steal the money. The author describes so well how the youngsters egg each other on, how fearful they really are, how they are overcome by physical nausea at their deeds, but then gradually develop a thicker hide. As they run away with their meagre earnings, they miss out on opportunities to start a new life or fall in love, and just fall deeper and deeper into a hole of heroin dealing and addiction, procurement of pistols and self-defence turning into aggression. A sobering and very noir read, which I would love to see translated into English.
Pascal Garnier: Boxes (transl. Melanie Florence)
One French writer that is being translated into English, thanks to the efforts of Gallic Books, is Pascal Garnier. In fact, he is almost achieving more posthumous cult status in the English-speaking world than in his native country, where it’s quite difficult to find his books in libraries or bookshops (other than in collectors’ editions).
Boxes is his seventh novel to be published by Gallic. It is also the last one he wrote (it was published after his death) and, to my mind, it’s not one of his best. It feels oddly autobiographical. Brice, the middle-aged main character, is an illustrator moving out of the city to a small village in the Ardèche region (which is where the author died in 2010). His wife Emma convinced him to buy an old house in need of extensive renovation, but she has now disappeared somewhere abroad and left him to complete the house move on his own. It gradually becomes clear that Emma has most probably died but Brice is in denial and eagerly awaits her return. In the meantime, he wanders around aimlessly, avoids unpacking the boxes and gets to know his eccentric neighbours, Most notable amongst these is a child-like woman called Blanche, who says that Brice reminds her of her deceased father, and who develops a rather unhealthy dependency on the newcomer. The description of her bringing packet soup as a treat for her new neighbour is grotesque and very funny.
No one can surpass Garnier when he describes the slow, inevitable descent of a person into solitude, madness, alcoholism and despondency. He also examines aspects of co-dependency and the claustrophobia of village life. As in all of his books, he takes characters that are inherently strange, somehow lacking in empathy or moral fibre, living on the margins of society and turns the screws on their suffering until they reach breaking point. Garnier is also a master at the gradual build-up of menace. Yet, overall, this book didn’t work for me (or at least, not as well as his earlier ones, The Panda Theory or How’s the Pain?) and I think this is because Blanche evoked not pity or sympathy (as previous Garnier characters have done), but simply annoyed me.
Finally, after all of these hard-hitting reads (and the middle-aged crisis reads of my preceding review post), I needed something lighter. So I turned to an old favourite, Muriel Spark, and reread Loitering with Intent (also counts as #TBR12). In many ways, Muriel Spark pokes fun at the self-introspection and ‘death of the author’ literary theories of French writers such as Roland Barthes, so it’s very suitable that she should get a review here together with two French authors who write in the first person but are not really autobiographical.
This is meta-fun meta-fiction about a would-be writer, Fleur Talbot, set ‘in the middle of the twentieth century’. Fleur is working on her first novel but needs to earn some money, so she takes on a job as a secretary to pompous snob Sir Quentin Oliver, who runs an Autobiographical Association for well-heeled individuals who have more ego than sense (and all believe they ‘have a book in them’). With tongue firmly in cheek and her usual barbed wit, Spark leads us a merry minuet of ins and outs when life starts imitating art, or Sir Oliver’s actions start to mirror those in Fleur’s novel. Or do they? This time I realised that Fleur is far more of an unreliable narrator than I had previously thought. The author mocks her just as much as the other characters, although she does show some affection for the doddery Lady Edwina, Sir Quentin’s long-suffering mother. This is Jane Austen with a good round of alcohol in her and a tongue that takes no prisoners. It is also full of interesting observations about the self-absorption of writers, as well as the joys and challenges of the writing process itself.
Chateaux and the like are all very well, but where do beleaguered artists go when they need to focus on their writing/art/belly button? As far away from the temptations of civilisation and the Internet as possible, of course.
It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.
Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?
Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1
Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2
These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.
Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).
Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.
I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.
Of the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.
Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).
My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was Child 44. I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.
Meanwhile, Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.
A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.
Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowersby Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.
Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’ Teen Spirit (which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys Loin des bras.
So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.
In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…
So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!
Is there any writer out there who doesn’t love stationery? Of course, there are plenty of stationery lovers who are not writers (just hoarders or designers or… procrastinators), so there is no immediate causal link there.
Based on a conversation we started over at dVerse Poets Pub about the tools we really need as poets, I collected a few of my favourite things in this post.
1) Of course I appreciate Moleskine and the reinvention of a brand, but my personal favourite is much simpler and cheaper. Rhodia notebooks have been the smoothest writing experience in France for 80 years now. They have all sorts of ‘nouveautés’ (novelties) every year, but I just stock up on their most basic black or orange note-blocks.
2) I like high-quality fountain pens. In fact, I have my eye on a Montblanc Virginia Woolf pen when I sign my publishing contract – or perhaps for autographing my books.
3) However, more realistically and practically, I bulk-buy Pilot G2 gel rollerballs. They work really well with the slippery-smooth Rhodia pages.
4) I’ve just discovered these rather funky notebooks from Huck and Pucker. An elastic to keep them closed is always a good idea and of course I’m bookish and proud of it!
5) Finally, a trip to London always means a stopover at Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road: a stationery-lover’s idea of heaven. Sadly, they seem to have discontinued (at least online) my favourite notebook type, so you’ll have to make do with my own pictures. It’s a chunky A5 notebook with elastic, colourful plastic covers, 5 sections (lined, squared and blank) with dividers (with pockets to stuff notes in), plus more plastic covers and a zipped purse at the back. Just the most practical, wonderful notebook ever: I carry my whole life around in it! Paperchase, please, please bring it back!
Apparently there is such a thing as National Stationery Week and it’s this week. So, let me know what your ‘cannot live without’ items of stationery are. Do you hoard lots of pretty (and empty) notebooks? Oh, and point me in the direction of your luxury items too, while we are on the subject…
Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’
The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:
The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.
She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.
In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.
Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:
…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.
It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?
I love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:
The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?
This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.