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.

Hill by Jean Giono “Do I Have What It Takes To Wrestle the Rage of These Hills?”

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The hill is “but a fold in the broad flesh of Mount Lure”, but in Jean Giono’s hands it becomes a formidable beast. Mentioned no less than 66 times in this book of a mere 144 pages, the hill is personified as a foe that the people who inhabit the four little houses nestled in the Bastides cannot seem to overcome.

“Before long we’ll be completely on our own. The whole hill has turned against us, the whole huge body of the hill. This hill that’s curved like a yoke that’s going to smash our heads. I see it. Now I see it. Now I know what I’ve been afraid of since this morning.”

Fear is a growing force within the novel; it comes subtly and relentlessly with each page turned. It came in the form of a cat (vaguely reminiscent to me of the cat in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), but also from the paralyzed body of Janet found almost drowned in the stream, and from the drying of the spring so that the people are without water, and from the sickness of little Marie, and finally from the fire which consumes the simpleton, Gagou.

“Do I have what it takes to wrestle the rage of these hills?”

It is a question fraught with ambiguity. Do hills have rage? Do any of us have what it takes to wrestle the forces which we feel work against us? Who, in fact, is stronger: nature or the efforts of mankind against it? I am reminded of this passage in Genesis:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17-19

Janet does not acknowledge that the ground is cursed outright, but he does point at a greater power over it. He tells Jaume, who has come to seek his wisdom over what to do about the calamities which have befallen the inhabitants:

“You want to know what you need to do, only you don’t even know what kind of world you’re living in. You realize something’s against you, but you don’t know what. And all this because you’ve been staring at what’s around you without really seeing it. I bet you’ve never given any thought to the great power? The great power of the animals, plants, and rock. Earth isn’t made for you alone to keep on using the way you’ve been used to, on and on, without getting some advice from the master every once in a while. You’re like a tenant farmer-and then there’s the landlord. The landlord in his handsome, six-button jacket, his brown corduroy vest, his sheepskin coat. Do you know him, the landlord?”

Giono presents a theme we’re familiar with today, using the earth as though her resources will never end. As though man can take what has been given without any thought of its cessation.

And, I’m intrigued with the mention of the landlord from Janet, who surely recognizes an authority greater than his own even if he does not call it God; who surely recognizes the need to take care of all that we’ve been given, be it animals, plants, rocks, or even one another.

In their minds, the paralyzed elder, Janet, has ultimately become the reason for the evil that they have encountered. In killing him the inhabitants of the hill have fought against the forces of nature they feel have come to overpower them. Oddly enough, after his death, the water from the fountain begins to flow once again.

The Hill is a little book with much to contemplate. The questions are deep, the writing beautiful. How I loved the personification that Giano uses; phrases such as these: “A mulberry tree makes cooing sounds as it’s tousled by the moon’s wan hand,” make the pages sing for me. Even while I tried to muddle through exactly what it is he intends to say.

I read this novel with Dorian of Eiger, Munch & Jungfrau; Scott of Seraillon, and Gary of 1st Reading. There is also a beautiful review at The Bookbinder’s Daughter, as well as Shelf Love and nonsuch book.

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (or, Why I Liked Madame Bovary Much Better)

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The best thing about Madame Bovary is Emma Bovary. Foolish, deluded Emma, to be sure, but she is someone whose story creates a powerful impact, one that has remained with me since the first time I read it at 17 years of age. I seemed to feel the dreams that Emma carried for her life, and the disappointment she felt in her marriage to bumbling Charles. I understood the intrigue she felt toward the dashing Rodolphe. I was as shocked as Emma herself when she was left by him, deceived that his intentions were for good. Even her death seemed somehow romantic, in a tragic sort of way. Emma’s character interested me the whole time I read the novel.

But as for Frédéric Moreau in Sentimental Education, what an indecisive, selfish twerp! He cannot decide what he wants to be: a lawyer, a painter, a landowner. He falls in love with Mme Arnoux, married woman that she is, but then makes promises to Louise Roque, the landowner’s daughter, and in fits of uncertainty holds dalliances with courtesan Rosanette. Toward the end of the novel he has even become involved with Mme Dambreuse, a woman he supposes to be wealthier than she is.

The women Flaubert portrays give their hearts away completely, the men not at all. They exist, in these two novels, to satisfy themselves. So how is it that the title I just finished can be Sentimental Education? Perhaps we find the answer in this quote from Oscar Wilde:

A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.

 

In that sense, it fits Frédéric perfectly. He says he loves Mme Arnoux, insists on it despite his actions to the contrary throughout the novel, but is not willing to sacrifice what it would require to make her his own.

A few quotes which struck me as I read through the book this month, not all of them ones I necessarily agree with, but interesting to think about all the same:

For certain men action becomes more difficult as desire becomes stronger. They are embarrassed by self-doubt, and terrified by the fear of being disliked. Besides, deep feelings of affection are like virtuous women: they are afraid of being discovered, and go through life with downcast eyes.

 

All the evil scattered over the earth he naively attributed to Power; and he hated it with a deep-rooted, undying hatred that took possession of his heart and refined his sensibility.

 

…let us confess that there is such a thing as poverty! But the remedy depends neither on science nor on power. It is purely an individual question. When the lower classes are willing to get rid of their vices, they will free themselves from their necessities. Let the people be more moral, and they will be less poor!

 

He imagined that he had offended them, not realising what vast reserves of indifference society possesses.

 

It was necessary to bring down the wealthy. And he represented them as wallowing in crime under their gilded ceilings; while the poor, writhing in their garrets with famine, cultivated every virtue.

 

The hearts of women are like little cabinets, full of secret drawers fitted one inside the other; you hurt yourself, break your nails in opening them, and then find within only some dried flowers, a few grains of dust-or, nothing!

 

They had both failed in their plans-the one who dreamed only of love, and the other of power. What was the reason for this?

“‘Tis perhaps from not having kept to a steady course,” said Frederic.

“In your case that may be so. I, on the contrary, have sinned through excess rigidity, without taking into account a thousand secondary things more important than any other. I had too much logic, and you too much sentiment.”

I read this this book in part for the Back to The Classics Challenge 2016 hosted by Books and Chocolate. I was also interested in picking it up after reading thoughts from Wuthering Expectations.

Paris in July: Murder on the Ile Sordou

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When I was a young bride living in Europe, I would often take the time offered to teachers in the summer to flit about my favorite countries. I would put on a shade of Chanel lipstick, which is no longer made, named Explosion; it was a brilliant fuschia which matched my maillot de bain perfectly, and somehow I felt quite comfortable on the beaches of the French Riviera wearing ridiculously bold colors. It was the 1980’s, after all.

Along the coast of the Riviera is a most beautiful city named Aix en Provence. which is about 30 km north of Marseille. It is here that the author of this mystery, M. L. Longworth, writes when she is not teaching in Paris. Her novel Murder on the Ile Sordou takes place on a fictitious island, but one that may resemble any of the islands off the coast of Marseille, and it is a novel with more ambiance than any mystery I have read.

While it may resemble the writing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Donna Leon’s Venice, this mystery has a quality all of its own. M. L. Longworth brings France in general, and Provence in particular, to life with her dialogue, her setting, and her characters. Even the meals which they enjoyed after a two hour afternoon nap seemed indescribably delicious.

I’ve made a summer menu, so let’s just forget about the storm out there: we’ll begin with cucumber and melon gazpacho and then red snapper ceviche shooters, followed by vegetable spring rolls. Once we’re sitting we’ll eat roast bass with olive oil, mussels, and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, in honor of our meat-loving host, a rack of grilled lamb with stir-fried summer vegetables, wasabi puree, and a cilantro-mint vinaigrette.

A loud round of applause rang out. “And not to forget dessert,” Emile said, holding up his hand.” A chocolate cake served with fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream, surrounded by a concoction I call ginger and lavender drizzle.”

Oh, the lavender in Provence! The seafood! The cresting waves of the sea on a summer evening…I was there in an instant, enjoying the remembered sensations even more than the mystery itself.

If I should tell you about the mystery, I would spoil the surprise. You must read it yourself to discover which of the guests who have arrived by boat will be murdered and why. But, while you are reading of the case to be solved, you will be immersed in the culture, and for me that was the most special aspect of this book.