The Years by Annie Ernaux (translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, Man Booker International Prize 2019): Addendum

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I have begun this book several times and been impressed until I get halfway through. There are brilliant insights into life in France, life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the life of a girl growing up in such a time frame. Consider these quotes:

Religion was the sole font of morality. It bestowed human dignity, without which our lives would resemble those of dogs.

and

Only teachers were allowed to ask questions. If we did not understand a word or explanation, the fault was ours.

and

The future is too immense for her to imagine. It will happen, that’s all.

Annie Ernaux explores memory, both hers, her family’s, and even the world’s at large. “Where were you,” she asks, “on September 11, 2001?”

I love these quotes regarding our memories:

Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.

or

They were saddled with other people’s memories and a secret nostalgia for the time they’d missed by so little, along with the hope of living it one day…

But. Halfway through this memoir, a piece which was the co-winner of the 2019 French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction, yet was included in the Man Booker International Prize which awards the “best, eligible full-length novel”, I became so weary I had to lay it down. Endless streams of observations like this, pertinent as some may be, became exhausting to read.

Clearly the official judges, and the members of the Shadow Jury, do not agree with me. They have given reason, plausible I’m sure, as to why The Years should be included as a piece of fiction. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said: our memories are not fully real.

Do not be surprised to see this on the Shadow Jury’s short list, nor, I dare say, on the official short list. It just won’t be on mine.

(Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for a copy of The Years to review.)

Addendum: After reading this interview with The Guardian, my dislike for The Years became clearer to me.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

(The Four Soldiers is also published by New Press.)

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (It’s just magnificent!)

Here is an indication of the glory within these pages, just in Énard’s ability to write about a notebook alone:

”Michelangelo owns a notebook, a simple notebook he made himself: some leaves of paper folded in half, held together with a string, with a cover made of thick cardboard. It’s not a sketchbook, he doesn’t draw in it; nor does he note down the verses that come to him sometimes, or the drafts of his letters, even less his impressions of the days or the weather outside.

In this stained notebook, he records treasures. Endless accumulations of various objects, accounts, expenses, supplies: clothes, menus, words, simply words.

His notebook is his sea chest.” (p. 14)

Mathias Enard has written exactly how I feel about notebooks, what I have known to be true about them, but unable to articulate, since I was a child.

And then there’s this:

”You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that, and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.” (p. 54)

I could keep writing quotes until the novel ends…

The Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

They’re irresistible. The noblest of the three is Eleonore. The carriage of her head, her smooth auburn hair, which she wears in a chignon, and her Grecian profile with its pronounced, pale nostrils, conjure up a woman in an Ingres painting..More gentle and tender hearted, Laura is the most sensual in the way she moves around. As for Ines, she’s without question the liveliest of the three, pliant as the stem of a flower and very Spanish with her dark eyes and her ebony-black hair coiled like a snake around the ravishing curves of her skull. (p. 52-53)

One of the most remarkable things about The Governesses, to me, is the atmosphere. I feel that I am observing the governesses through the mist of a forest, as the little boys play with their hoops all around them. It is bizarre and winsome, at the same time.

There is a charge of sexuality underlying all that they do, or at least a very sensual aspect, as they dip their fingers into their food or let the wind whip their skirts over their heads as they lie on the wet grass in the meadow. Strangers come into the garden, and golden gates close behind them. These men are under the enchantment of the governesses, seemingly helpless under the women’s touch.

An elderly gentleman across the way observes them with a telescope through his window. He watches their antics, their cavorting with light in the garden, until one day, he turns away. Then the governesses start to fade.

This is a mystical tale, full of charm and ambiguity. It casts a spell on me as I yearn to decipher every meaning, but in the end, must simply accept it for what it is: a tale of women, a tale of men, a tale of young boys for whom the governesses were hired to watch, and the ephemeral quality of life.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a novel quite unlike anything I expected

We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don’t need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.

I thought, perhaps, that this novel might be along the likes of the ever popular, and oh so disappointing, thrillers such as The Girl on The Train. The nanny is a murderer, I thought, far from perfect at all. I did not realize, at first, that this novel has been translated from the French, nor that it won France’s prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. (The U.S. cover pictured above has been criticized on Twitter, and rightly so, for leaving all that out.)

From the very first page we are shown a horrific scene:

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put in a gray bag which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.

You can see how it would be easy to assume you were reading a typical American thriller from this opening. But very quickly, the story veers off from what would seem American, but is clearly French as it goes far beyond the external situation.

The parents live in a tiny apartment in Paris. Myriam is a lawyer, but also a distraught and exhausted mother. Paul is a musician, but also a struggling and sometimes impatient father. Like every young professional couple they must balance the needs of their family with their professional aspirations, and something always seems to come up short.

Until Louise arrives. She is blonde, and diminutive, and able to perfectly manage two children and a small apartment, making it seem spacious and clean and joyful. She prepares delicious meals, helps create delightful birthday parties, and gives the children endless enjoyment with the stories she tells, the imagination she reveals.

It seems so perfect, but there is a thread of tension running underground. For one thing, it certainly can’t be as idyllic as it seems for we already know that one of the children is dead. For another, the tension around Louise mounts increasingly with every page.

Louise sleeps in the family’s apartment when they go to visit Myriam’s mother-in-law in the mountains. Louise imagines returning to Greece with the family on holiday, but as they prepare to come back to France she will announce that she is staying. Her unhappiness is palpable, and why shouldn’t it be? Nothing in her personal life resembles the lives of those she works for.

Euphoria gives way to days of dejection. The world seems to shrink, to retract, to weigh down on her body, to crush it. Paul and Myriam close doors on her and she wants to smash them down. She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something.

And why shouldn’t she feel so overcome? Her husband has died, forcing her to sell their home and face unsurmountable bills; her daughter has caused nothing but trouble and has now run away never to be seen again; her landlord charges exhorbitant rent for a studio apartment which is in great disrepair and even blames her for the fact that the shower has sunk into the rotting floorboards beneath. Louise can clean, and work endless hours creating a perfect life for her clients and facade for herself, but there is nothing in her own life that is beautiful, or easy, or promising. No one even loves her.

It is not a novel of mystery, or a thriller, or even crime as we know the murders from the very beginning. It is a story of desparation and isolation. It is the story of the true mother being more concerned about her position as a lawyer than she is about her children. It is a tragedy everywhere one looks.

Find an excellent review on 1st Reading’s Blog.

“Let him who loves me follow me.” Femme Fatale, a collection of 4 very short stories by Guy de Maupassant

I am still thinking of the first story in this Penguin Little Black Classic which I read last night. It’s title is Cockcrow, and it is deceptively simple.

Consider this line regarding Madame d’Avancelles’ husband:

It was rumoured that they lived separate lives on account of a physical shortcoming of his which Madame could not overlook. He was a fat little man with short arms, short legs, a short neck, short nose, short everything in fact.

Everything? Oh, really. Is that why she entertains the advances of her admirer Baron Joseph de Croissard to which her husband has turned a blind eye? They cavort and tease each other all autumn long, at receptions and finally at a great hunting party.

After the baron has shown himself to be the man she has requested him to be by killing the wild boar himself, it seems that his desires will be fulfilled that night.

He scratches at her door after the chateau has fallen asleep, and upon gaining admittance is told to wait upon her bed. Which he does, until he succumbs to sleep. And in the morning, he wakens to the sound of the cock’s crow, startling him out of his slumber.

Madame d’Avancelles, who has laid awake beside him all night, tells him to, “Go back to sleep, Monsieur, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Is this mockery? For surely this uneventful night had much to do with him. Or, perhaps she is referring to her own self, seeing that she might not be worth waiting up for.

I do not have a clear answer, but I do have persistent thoughts continuously returning to this simple story which is only 6 pages long, yet full of so much intrigue.

There are three more stories within this slight volume. I eagerly begin the next right now.

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

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“Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.”

But that is exactly what Franz Ritter is doing one night; as he struggles to find sleep, he is reviewing his life, his time with Sarah and the joy he felt in her presence.

They met at a conference held at Hainfield Castle in Vienna, and have since taken strolls or eaten meals in Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo.

“I have to admit that, even though I am not what could be called a hedonist or a gourmet, the setting, the food and the excellent Lebanese wine they served there (and especially the company of Sarah, whose beauty was brought out by the Ottoman cortile, the jewels, the cloth, the wooden mashraybiyas) have fixed that evening in my memory; we were princes, princes from the West whom the Orient was welcoming and treating as such, with refinement, obsequiousness, suave languor, and all of this, conforming to the image our youth had constructed of the Oriental myth, gave us the impression of finally living in the lost lands of the Thousand and One Nights, which has reappeared for us alone: no foreigner, in that early spring, to spoil its exclusivity; our fellow diners were a rich family from Aleppo celebrating a patriarch’s birthday, whose women, bejeweled, wearing white lace blouses with strict black wool vests, kept smiling at Sarah.”

You can see how the sentences, which are often a full paragraph in length, contribute to the dream-like quality, while at the same time giving us a perfect sense of place.

And because Franz is a musicologist as well as narrator and dreamer, we are introduced to music and composers such as we may have been previously unaware. Take Felicien David, for instance, who became famous on December 8, 1844, after the premiere of Le Desert which is a symphony in three parts based on the composer’s memories of a journey to the Orient. (What a beautiful piece of music it is.)

“…memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body…”

His recounting of a night he slept with Sarah seems to embody not only their relationship, but the love-hate relationship of the East and the West. Perhaps we may admire each other, even partake in the glorious offerings each has to offer, but can we truly ever understand each other? Can we truly be united? It seems an invisible line divides us, one that try as we might, can never be fully dissolved.

11:10 p.m.

11:58 p.m.

12:55 a.m.

We spend a restless night with Franz, tossing and turning, unable to find the peace required to rest.  Each “chapter” is instead listed with a time stamp, recording the hour and the intricacies of his thoughts. They are tangled and knotted; he tries to sort out his memories, his relationships, his past which is inextricable from music and stories and historical figures.

My fellow shadow jury members are well taken with this book, and for its sense of beauty, its important themes, and well wrought sentences, I can concur. It certainly has more power than the trite Mirror, Shoulders, Signal, or cumbersome Explosion Chronicles.  I fully expect Compass to be on the jury’s short list, as well as the official short list which will be announced April 20.

Find other reviews at Tony’s Reading List, The Bookbinder’s Daughter, David’s Book World, and Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Compass by Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on March 22, 2017
480 pages

Paris in July: The Ripening Seed by Colette

The flowers to the right are sea-holly, a flower I have never seen before, possessing a blue which are the exact color of Vinca’s eyes. Yet Phil does not pick them for her, the girl that he has loved for as long as they both can remember.

He picks them instead for Mme Dallery, the Lady-in-white, the enchantress who seduces sixteen year old Philippe by first inviting him in to her home for orangeade. He feels he must reciprocate the hospitable gesture, and so he picks a bouquet of sea-holly to present to her. But then how quickly his innocence, his childhood, the unwavering trust given him by Vinca, is changed forever.

What would summer be without a love story, a beach, a novel translated from French? This little book is a mere 122 pages; you could read it in one evening as I have. But it carries the impact of Madame Bovary, another French novel of several hundred more pages, in which love is lost at the machinations of another.

Colette shows us how quickly the transformation to adulthood can take place, for after this particular summer neither Philippe nor Vinca will ever be the same.

Le Ble en Herbe, translated from the French as The Ripening Seed, was written by Colette in 1923. I have read it especially for Paris in July, so glad that I have, because nothing satisfies me in quite the same way as a classic does.