24 February 2017

Violaine Bérot: Des mots jamais dits (2015)

Books, real books – by which I mean those not just written to make pots of money but out of a necessity to attempt to translate the writer's thoughts, evoke a vision of his or her reality – can be a source of deep revelation to the reader, an epiphanic moment. I can't remember how many such moments I've felt, and I'm not yet certain that reading Violaine Bérot's books is one of them, but it's beginning to feel that way. And there's something about the strangeness of Francophone literature that for instance contemporary English literature just can't come anywhere near to matching. Marie NDiaye, Laurent Mauvignier, Patrick Lapeyre, to name but three, have all sent me into raptures: all in their different ways are deeply concerned with (non-)communication, particularly of the non-verbal kind.

Des mots jamais dits: 'Words never spoken': yeah, that's it, we're in the realm of what it means when nothing is said. Or, how do you fill in the blanks between what's not even suggested by non-verbal means? Or, of course, how important things become if and when they're actually spoken. When we read, we are reminded (not at all necessarily intentionally by the author, who of course we've long since learned doesn't exist) of other books, or possibly words expressed in a different medium, such as song. The end of Violaine Bérot's Nue, sous la lune reminds me of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and by no means just because of Edna's suicide.

Des mots jamais dits reminds me of the expression 'Le désir incroyable de se vouloir construire' ('The incredible wish to construct yourself') written by the poet Jacques Brel in his song 'J'en appelle' (1957).) We are all constructed largely by words, although fascinatingly there are very few spoken words in the two novels of Violaine Bérot that I have read. And yet, in Des mots jamais dits the protagonist is deeply affected by words, such as Tom (the second of the narrator's lovers, and only the second of merely two named people in the novel) calling her 'la femme de ma vie' ('the woman of my life'); such as her father unsuccessfully bullying her into putting an end to his misery by euthanasia; and finally, by the cook telling her that he is there, and singing her the kind of song that she never heard in her cradle, so never sent her to sleep, and played a part in depriving her of the childhood she never had.

In a book in which alienation plays a key role, the distancing effect of the very frequent use of 'on' ('one, 'we', 'they', 'people' (?)), etc, is remarkable.

Violaine Bérot is an extremely powerful writer. As I come to read the books that she's written in the past, has yet to write, and which I shall re-read, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I have the same epiphanic moment.

Violaine Bérot: Nue, sous la lune (2017)

There's a little of Auguste Rodin's relationship with Camille Claudel in Violaine Bérot's Nue, sous la lune (lit. 'Naked, under the moon'), if only in that both were sculptors in a tumultuous relationship with one another, and that Claudel became psychologically disturbed.

But there are no names in the book, the events of which take place in a contemporary setting. We learn much of her relationship with her lover, who is violent, possessive, unpredictable, manipulative, dismissive of her work, uses women as playthings, and finds any pretext for an argument.

The effect the man has on her is devastating: she feels frightened, insecure to the point of hopelessness, and dreams of a lobotomy to purge herself of him. The reader knows that she has left him before, although this time there seems to be a sense of finality to the relationship as she puts her foot down on the accelerator and believes she could drive endlessly. In fact she stops in a small unknown place and goes to sleep on a bench, only to be taken in by a speechless, kindly, elderly woman. The reader feels that this is perhaps a new beginning, a therapy in which she is in urgent need.

Unfortunately this is not to be and like a magnet she seems drawn back towards her torturer. But the sense of finality is correct though, and her tormentor's indifference leads her to a place where he can no longer harm her, as she walks away naked, abandoning herself to the total oblivion of a lake.

 Nue, sous la lune is an extremely powerful read, narrated in the first person and addressed to her lover/torturer.

Michel Tremblay: Des nouvelles d'Édouard (1984)

Des nouvelles d'Édouard is the fourth volume of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal by the gay Québéquois writer Michel Tremblay, and for me it was a surprisingly fascinating, often hilarious, read. I say surprising because the initial pages about the ageing Édouard, a shoe saleman-cum-drag queen and the world of the drag queens weren't too interesting for me, until Édouard meets his death by a knife blade in a Montréal street. That's when both he and the book come alive.

Because we go back to 1947, when Édouard came into a little inheritance and went to Paris for the first and only time, when he wrote a diary about his journey and his findings, but intended it to be read after his death, a diary from the dead to be read by his sister-in-law the 'Grosse Femme'.

This is a tale of lies, masquerades, outsiders (whoever they are: aren't we all in some way outsiders?), and culture conflict. A common language links Québec and France, or maybe divides it: after all, French Canadian talk is different, often difficult to understand, laced with English therefore bastardised, but then so are all forms of speech, and who's to say which is better than another?

On the voyage across he meets Antoinette Beauregard – the name of course is an indication of the pedigree, or at least the pretension towards the pedigree – but in any case don't we all pretend to be someone we aren't, as for instance Édouard was pretending to be the Duchesse de Langeais when a drag queen? Why shouldn't Édouard lie and pretend to have read all of the books by (the incidentally gay and sort of mid-way between American and French) Julien Green, the author she's reading? Or pretending to read? And then along comes the Princess Clavet-Daudun, by which time Édouard's had just a gram of bullshit too many, and confesses – in broad French Canadian dialect, really laying it on thick – that he's really just a shoe seller and she may well not be a member of the aristocracy, etc. But she doesn't realise that he's speaking the truth, she just sees him as a brilliant actor. It's a bit like an Eliza Dolittle 'Luvaduck me beads!' moment, but Édouard really doesn't give a shit.

Until, that is, he has to have one in the (unmentioned by the same name) chiottes à la Turque in France, has no toilet paper and is forced to use his underpants. See what I mean about culture shock? That is before more dirt greets him in Paris, before he discovers the minuterie and has to scrabble in the dark, before he discovers there's a rez-de-chaussée before he reaches the first floor, and oh the smells, the lack of en suite accommodation, the crap food.

The Deux Magots café near the Café Flore isn't specifically mentioned, but that's where Édouard ends up late at night with a street map spread out before him, pretty pissed, very pissed off, but a certain Simone (who's with a certain Jean-Paul) is very obliging and tells him which métro to take home. But home is Montréal, not Paris, so after a ten-day journey and a mere thirty-six hours in Paris he's off home. And so a final lie is discovered posthumously: Édouard didn't spend all that time in Paris that he said he did.

A book to read before you die.

23 February 2017

Simone de Beauvoir: Une mort très douce (1964)

Une mort très douce is Simone de Beauvoir's account of the last few months of the life of her mother, who is in hospital after a fall in her bathroom, occasioning the breaking of her femur. I remember Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958), which I read many years ago and which I particularly remember for the strict nature in which Beauvoir was brought up, her reading habits being heavily vetted: later, on learning of Virginia Woolf having a completely free run of her father Leslie Stephen's library, I couldn't fail to think of the contrast.

But here is writing of a much later period in their lives, and although she occasionally dips into memories (such as of her father's infidelities) it is the present moment that holds precedence, and here her love for her mother and her concern for her welfare are of the utmost importance.

Terminal cancer is discovered and Beauvoir and her sister Poupette witness her dying moments. What also strikes here is Beauvoir's humanism, her anger with doctors who are forced needlessly, indeed inhumanely, to spin out a patient's misery when euthanasia would evidently have been a far better option for all concerned.

Very painful to read, but then it must have been very painful to write. However, if Sartre really did think this the best book Beauvoir had written, then I'm in absolute disagreement. Better, for instance, than Le Deuxième sexe – in it's original French form, of course, not Parshley's badly translated, heavily Anglicised, twenty-five per cent excised catastrophe? No.

20 February 2017

Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

The British government bought part of Bletchley Park in 1938.

'THE IMPORTANCE
OF 
BLETCHLEY PARK

Bletchley Park grew rapidly in size and importance
as the war progressed. What began with just a handful
of experts became a CODEBREAKING HUB on
an industrial scale, employing around 9,000 people
on site. TOTAL SECRECY remained essential.

Information supplied by Bletchley Park proved
crucial to Britain and its allies at several key points,
including the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of
Cape Matapan, Crete, North Africa, the Battle
of the Atlantic and D-Day. It is estimated that the

Codebreakers' work helped SHORTEN THE WAR
by at least two years, saving many lives on both sides.'


'THE TURING BOMBE REBUILD PROJECT'. Alan Turing (1912–1954) worked at Bletchley Park.


Turing was based in Hut 8, in which there is a reconstruction of his office.


'This statue was donated by
The Sidney E. Frank Foundation
and unveiled by
Abel Hadden
on 19th June 2007'

The slate statue of a man with a great brain but who was driven to suicide by the government's intolerance of his homosexuality. His official pardon didn't come until 2009.

15 February 2017

William Ernest Henley in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire

The impressive grave of the poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) in the tiny Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.

'WILLIAM
ERNEST
HENLEY'

'SO BE MY PASSING
MY TASK ACCOMPLISHED AND THE LONG DAY DONE
MY WAGES TAKEN AND IN MY HEART
SOME LATE LARK SINGING
LET ME BE GATHERED TO THE QUIET WEST
THE SUNDOWN SPLENDID AND SERENE
DEATH'


'MARGARET EMMA HENLEY
SEPT 4th 1888 FEB 11th 1894

ONLY CHILD OF WILLIAM ERNEST
AND ANNA HENLEY'

Margaret Henley, known to J. M. Barrie, is said to be the inspiration behind Barrie's Wendy of Peter Pan fame. Curiously, a village just a few miles from Cockayne Hatley is called Wendy.

Henley is most remembered for his poem 'Invictus' (1888):

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul'.

1 February 2017

Thomas Inskip in Campton, Bedfordshire

Thomas Inskip (1780–1849) was a watch- and clockmaker born in Kimbolten, Northamptonshire and who died in Brighton. He was a friend of Robert Bloomfield (next to whom he is buried in the chuchyard in Campton) and John Clare, and carried out a correspondence with both rural working-class poets, some of which is available online.

Robert Bloomfield in Shefford, Bedfordshire


Bloomfield House, 17-19 Northbridge Street, Shefford, Bedfordshire.

'ROBERT BLOOMFIELD,
THE PASTORAL POET
DIED HERE AUGUST 19TH 1823.
ERECTED BY CONSTANCE ISHERWOOD
MEPPERSHALL RECTORY.
1904.'

31 January 2017

Sitwells in Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire

Weston Hall near Weedon Lois was home to Sacheverell Sitwell between 1923 and his death in 1988. His sister Edith Sitwell was a frequent visitor. They are both buried in the parish church overspill in Weedon Lois. According to Wikipedia, Edith Sitwell's first published poem 'The Drowned Suns' was in the Daily Mirror in 1913: scarcely believable when compared to what has now become of a once quite decent working-class supporting newspaper which has completely lost its way.


'THE PAST AND PRESENT
ARE AS ONE –
ACCORDANT AND DISCORDANT.
YOUTH AND AGE,
AND DEATH AND BIRTH.
FOR OUT OF ONE CAME ALL –
FROM ALL COMES ONE.

EDITH SITWELL
BORN 7TH SEPTEMBER 1887
DIED 9TH DECEMBER 1964'

'SACHEVERELL
SITWELL
6th Baronet CH
Writer and Poet

Born 15 November 1897
Died 1 October 1988'

29 January 2017

Robert Bloomfield in Campton, Bedfordshire

'ROBERT
BLOOMFIELD
The pastoral Poet who is buried in this churchyard
[...]
Then bring me nature, bring me sense,
And joy shall be your recompense'

This memorial is in the south aisle of All Saints Church remembering the rural working-class poet buried in the churchyard. The guide to the church states that Bloomfield lived in nearby Shefford, that the memorial is in Welsh stone and was installed in 2003.

'HERE LIE
THE REMAINS OF
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD
HE WAS BORN AT HONINGTON
IN SUFFOLK
DECEMBER III MDCCLXVI
AND DIED AT SHEFFORD
AUGUST XIX MDCCCXXIII

HIS WILD NATIVE WOOD NOTES TELL THE REST'

Above is the correct inscription on the headstone. Dr Bridget Keegan wrote an essay in Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class, and the Romantic Canon (Bucknell University Press, 2006). I can't believe that she has ever seen the headstone, as her copy of the inscription of the tombstone (disregarding the fact that she chooses to write it in lower case as opposed to the inscribed upper case) has several errors and/or omissions: she manages to make a grammatical (and factual) mistake in the first line by saying the headstone reads 'Here lies'; she gets both his (correctly inscribed) dates of birth and death wrong; she also omits the exact date of his birth (inscribed on the stone) and omits the adjective 'native' between 'wild' and 'wood': in a word, she makes a hell of a mess of the inscription. I didn't read the essay itself as I had no obvious way of telling how many errors are in it.

26 January 2017

Robert Hamnett in Glossop, Derbyshire

'ROBERT HAMNETT
1855–1914
Glossop's first historian
and archaeologist
lived in the Railway Inn
which stood on this site
until 1909'

Norfolk Street, Glossop. Robert Hamnett was a 'watchmaker journeyman' with a shop at 14a High Street East and is perhaps best known for his book Glossop: A Sketch 'from the Earliest Period' (1904). Viper Press has now put this book – which incidentally contains a number of the original advertisements for businesses in Glossop – online here. The plaque was erected towards the end of last year.

18 January 2017

Olivier Delorme: Le Château du silence (2003)

Olivier Delorme's autobiographical novel Le Château du silence didn't initially seem promising to me because of the foreign politics but, far more annoying, the mention of the Nobel prize-winning 'Slovenian Balzac' Srečko Pradčik, including a two-paragraph speech from him during the prize giving ceremony, which is included at the beginning of a chapter: I had severe doubts, and sure enough Pradčik is just an invention.

The narrator is French, married to Elvire, and works as a special correspondent for a magazine. When in Beirut waiting to be given instructions reporting events in the first Gulf war, he gets tired of nothing happening and decides to take a brief holiday in Cypress, which is when the trouble starts: personal, existential, emotional, and deeply psychologically disturbing.

It starts with a cock crowing, then he learns of Polykarpos, a young Greek Cypriot who is one of the 1619 missing people taken away during the Turkish invasion of northen Cypress in 1974. He resolves to find out what has happened to Polykarpos, and it becomes obsessional, Elvire believing he's found another woman.

In fact it's not a woman he's found but men: he's discovered that he's gay, that Polykarpos was gay, and as his marriage seems to crumble around him and he counts off the hundreds of male encounters he's heading for a strong identity crisis, a double personality, only one of them is dead. What started out as appearing unpromising actually makes fascinating reading.

There's a great deal packed in here: sexual identity, politics, mythology, gnosticism, a hilarious pub crawl, etc. I could have done without the various poem sections which punctuate the book and comment on the events, but that's just a minor grouse.

17 January 2017

Boris Vian: L'Herbe rouge | Red Grass (1950)

As this is Boris Vian, the reader would expect to be thrown into a strange space, but L'Herbe rouge (translated unsurprisingly as Red Grass in English) is particularly strange, and much darker than normal. This is science fiction of a hallucinatory kind, and the time and the place unknown. Here grass is blood red (and there's a great deal of blood in the novel), a dog talks, people appear and dissolve, nothing is as it seems, no character behaves as expected, mystery surrounds the most ostensibly ordinary object.

The four principal characters are the married couple Wolf and Lil and the sort-of couple Lazuli and Folavril. Lazuli is a mechanic building Wolf a kind of time machine in which Wolf will be able to revisit his past and in so doing destroy his memories he drags behind him like a ball and chain. Lazuli says that if anything goes wrong he'll learn Brenouillou to speak it for the rest of his life, to which Wolf retorts that he'll learn it too as Lazuli will need someone with whom to speak the language.

Like Brenouillou, there are a number of other neologisms in the novel, especially in the first part. Plouk is a game that seems similar to golf, and is played on the red grass; the dog Senateur is happy that Wolf has found a ouapiti for him, a strange green animal with round spikes that goes 'plop' when it hits water; cardavoines are blue umbelliferous flowers that give off a peppery smell; and saignette is a rather nasty violent game, although we never discover the nature of retroussis, another game.

Vian was undergoing an unfortunate situation at the time of writing this, when his wife Michelle had taken up with Sartre, and he seems to be using the book as a kind of therapy, almost as a form of psychoanalysis, although he hates the practice. This comes over strongly on Wolf's visits with his machine, when he meets various people who confront him with his past: his childhood, his religion, his schooling, his love life, and so on. There's a great deal of anarchism here, the rejection of religion, of the education system, in fact of virtually any values held dear to conventional value systems.

There's far more to this book than I mention above, and a re-read would certainly tease out more of it: what should we make, for instance, of the men, all identical to Wolf, whom he kills as they appear one after another (and later evaporate) as he's getting down to sexual business with Folavril? What would Doktor Freud have made of it all?

15 January 2017

Bernard Chambaz: À tombeau ouvert (2016)


The title page of this book is interesting in itself, being inscribed by its author Bernard Chambaz to the sports writer for Libération, Jean-Louis Le Touzet in May 2016 (the official publication being 24 August 2016). Chambaz quotes Malcolm de Chazal here:

'une auto
n'ira jamais
aussi vite
que la route':

('a car
will never go
as fast
as the road' (or route)).

À tombeau ouvert is an expression meaning something like 'at breakneck speed', which is appropriate to the subject matter of the book, which is essentially a quirky biography of the Brazilain racing driver Aryton Senna. The first line of the back cover notes asks 'Oú étiez-vous le 1er mai 1994 ?', much as many people used to ask where they were at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination,* or more recently (and within most people's living memory), where they were at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers.

So for many, particularly of course those people who follow the sport, the day the hero Aryton Senna – compared to Achilles by Chambaz – lost control of his car and died in Imola, Italy, was a very significant, very tragic, event. I mentioned the word 'quirky' above because Chambaz doesn't make this a straight biography, he weaves in and out of the story line, including facts about the deaths of other people – mainly but by no means exclusively racing drivers like Senna – who died in cars.

During one of his races in England, for instance, Senna was watched by Diana, Princess of Wales, who of course died in a car crash three years after Senna's death. More significantly for Chambaz, his sixteen-year-old son Martin died in Wales in a car accident in 1992. Coincidences such as these are part of the nature of the book.

Another coincidence is the number 42, which frequently follows (we could even say haunts) Senna. Wikipedia tells me many things about 42 – the vast majority of which I would never have wanted to know – although it is interesting to learn that Lewis Carroll was fascinated by the number 42. Chambaz doesn't mention this fact, and there's no reason why he should, although Chambaz and Wikipedia both state that the word is associated with death in Japan. But we have to go to Chambaz to learn that 42 is banned on number plates in Japan.

* Although JFK isn't specifically mentioned in this book, he of course died in a car too, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated five year later: at the age of 42. (This is the kind of book that leads you to make such links.)

13 January 2017

Jamila Aït-Abbas: La Fatiha : Née en France, mariée de force en Algérie (2003)

Jamila Aït-Abbas (1954—2013) only wrote this book, which is her autobiography: it not only involves details of her enforced marriage, rape by her 'husband' and the aftermath, but also her life story up to the time of publication.

The principal issue here, the nineteen-year-old innocent born in France of Algerian parents and lured to Algeria where she was forced into a 'marriage' (including the forging of her signature on the wedding certificate) to a man whom she detested, tied to the 'marriage' bed and raped by her 'husband', ostensibly has the makings of a horror story, although it's not: there are no graphic descriptions of violence in the book, which is more concerned with Jamila Aït-Abba's struggle to free herself from the appalling fate reserved for her by relatives and 'in-laws', and her move towards a future of freedom in which she can make her own decisions, carve out her own future.

There is much drama here, particularly with Jamila escaping from her 'husband' (who even tracks her down to Rouen), being saved by a Catholic group, continuing her university education and finding satisfaction in work, later (after the annulment of the first 'marriage') finding happiness as a wife and a mother.

Not that she actually loved her second husband, a faithful, loving and hardworking man at the beginning whose behaviour becomes unsatisfactory: Jamila has shown how she has the mental strength to deal with situations she doesn't like, and her strength is shown when she (after one failed attempt to patch things up) just walks out on her second husband. The kind of book that inspires.

Below is a shot from the columbarium, with a photo of Jamila Aït-Abbas, in Père-Lachaise:

12 January 2017

Jean Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon (2001)

This is an example of a book you could read during a coffee break: it ends at page sixty-three, although eight of those pages are taken up by prelims. But this is not a 'quick read', it's a brief book to savour, a work written with love, as it's really an extended obituary, and one that tells us so much about the person who published Beckett, Duras, Claude Simon, Redonnet, NDiaye, and of course Echenoz himself. Mercifully, it's not a hagiography, but simply a portrait of a great publisher by one of his writers.

When the unknown and unpublished Jean Echenoz first met Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit he'd sent his manuscript to a number of publishers, could barely afford to have his manuscripts photocopied so many times, didn't even know if he'd ever write again, and certainly only sent the thing to Minuit as he was beginning to exhaust other sources, so why not send an MS to the distinguished publisher anyway? It's merely making the slush pile higher, after all.

Echenoz was married and living in Montreuil when Lindon (to the astonishment of Echenoz) agreed to publish his novel, which (although the title is unmentioned) was Le Méridion de Greenwich (1979), and Lindon thought his new author would be able to change his Renault 4L on the proceeds, although it didn't pan out that way: the book was a failure and only sold several hundred copies.

Then there's the anguish of the second novel, which Echenoz works on but Lindon strongly dislikes. All the same, he's possessive about his writers and doesn't want 'his' author to sell the second novel (eventually to be Cherokee (1983)) to another publisher. (Which makes me wonder about Lindon's refusal to publish Marie NDiaye's second novel, Comédie classique, published by P.O.L. (1987): how did NDiaye (and Lindon of course) see things?)

Anyway, this is is very much Jérôme Lindon's story: his mania over names (like initially wanting to change Echenoz's not-very-euphonious one, his dislike of the word 'usage' and Cherokee, etc.), his frequent phone calls (sometimes when Echenoz was still in bed), his fears that Echenoz would be another (forgotten and non-producing, that is) Tony Duvert, his honesty (Echenoz wasn't a Duras, but all the same his tiny book L'Occupation des sols (1988) followed Duras's tiny La Pute de la côte normande (1986)), and so on.

Unless Echenoz is exaggerating, his modesty and his essential shyness come over very strongly – his initial fear of Lindon, of Robbe-Grillet, and naturally the great Samuel Beckett. But most of all, of course, Lindon's humanity as well as his slight eccentricity shine through. A delightful little book.

Lindon's grave, close to Samuel Beckett's, in Montparnasse:



My other Jean Echenoz posts:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Gone
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes | My Phantom Husband (1998)

Marie Darrieussecq's second novel, Naissance des fantômes (1998) (translated into English as My Phantom Husband), gained a great deal of publicity in no small part due to Marie NDiaye's unexpected and very strong reaction against the novel. In a letter published in Libération, NDiaye speaks not of Darrieussecq's plagiarism but of her 'singerie', perhaps best translated as 'mimicry'. The letter quotes JDD (Journal de dimanche) as stating that Naissance des fantômes 'irresistibly' conjures up NDiaye's universe, and also quotes L'Événement du jeudi claiming that in many places the novel can pass for a pastiche of NDiaye's La Sorcière. Darrieussecq – who several years later was heavily criticized by Camille Laurens for her novel Tom est mort (2007) – was appalled by NDiaye's reaction, which she attributed to jealousy. Darrieussecq published her first major work of non-fiction in 2010, Rapport de police : Accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction, whose Introduction starts with a quotation by NDiaye from Pierre Assouline's blog, in which in an interview she said 'Je suis sûre que Marie Darrieussecq est foncièrement malhonnête': 'I'm certain that Marie Darrieussecq is basically dishonest'. Having read both La Sorcière and Naissance des fantômes (but as yet, not Rapport de police), I make no comment either way on the statement.

Naissance des fantômes is relatively brief (only 158 pages), and reviews of it differ wildly: from the (almost always) strong but vague criticisms to the (almost always) strong but vague praises. There is one constant in the reviews, amateur and professional, which I've read: no one seems to have anything of interest and/or value to say about this novel. And I can do no better at all, apart from refuse to make glib praises or meaningless criticisms of Darrieussecq's book. It's complex, and deserves more than the single reading I've so far given it.

Certainly we're in a kind of Marie NDiaye territory, say Un temps de saison, when the (unnamed) protagonist speaks of her (equally unnamed) husband,  who for no apparent reason whatsoever has disappeared after just popping out to buy the baguette which his wife has forgotten to buy. The reader knows from the start that the disappearance is permanent, that nothing further will ever be heard of the husband, that he has just gone for good. He will never be seen again apart, of course from in visions in memory, tricks of the imagination, maybe hallucinations, or whatever. No amount of probing relatives, reports to the police, investigations into accidents at hospitals, and so on, will ever bear fruit.

We're in uncharted territory, a weird land that Modiano perhaps missed out on, hallucinatory visions of events and people. There are no pat conclusions, no conclusions at all, just a tortuous text echoing tortuous thoughts.

My other Marie Darrieussecq post:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Marie Darrieussecq: Tom est mort | Tom Is Dead

9 January 2017

Jean-Daniel Baltassat: Le Divan de Staline (2013)

I'd always believed that it was William Burroughs who said (something like) 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you', although Google seems to pin that one on Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Which is a pity to me as it sounds very Burroughs, but it's as good a way as any to begin a few words about Jean-Daniel Baltassat's Le Divan de Staline, which doesn't seem to have been translated, and which Fanny Ardant directed as a film of the same name starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu way back in, er, 2016.

I'd be tempted to translate the title as 'Stalin's Psychiatric Couch', although many people I suppose wouldn't quite agree with me. This is a fictionalization of the final days of Stalin, written by a novelist who has claimed himself incapable of writing anything other than fiction. The main characters here are of course the seventy-year-old Stalin himself, plus the young painter Danilov chosen to design a memorial fresco of Stalin, and his much younger lover Vodieva, with whom Stalin has been for twenty-seven years. OK, I suppose we can also include the dead 'character' Freud, here labeled 'the Viennese charlatan' by Stalin.

Danilov arrives at the former palace in Borjomi, Georgia, where an ageing Stalin is living a life surrounded by bodyguards, steeped in paranoia. Towards the end of the book, Baltassat has Stalin say something which not only might serve as Danilov's life there, but also that of anyone who lived under his régime. My translation:

'Man's greatest misfortune is to be afraid of everything, even his own shadow. But his other great misfortune is to lie to himself and no longer recognize that he is afraid.'

Stalin is depicted as wary to the point of obsession: he will not eat unless someone has finished the same meal before him, he is surrounded by bodyguards, visitors are searched, everyone is mistrusted. Furthermore, he is obsessed with his own power, not allowing anyone to sleep before he's gone to bed, having visitors cross-examined, maintaining a close knowledge of everyone he comes into contact with, etc. But on the other hand, although he mistrusts anything which smacks of the perceived bourgeois avant-garde, he comes across as a highly educated mass murderer.

This could almost be read as a highly entertaining cold war thriller of the twenty-first century, except that it's also quite amusing. A quick, but riveting read in just over three hundred pages.

31 December 2016

John Ruskin at Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria

Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria. Not the most brilliant photo of an author's home I've ever taken, but there we are. The original building (much added to later) dates from the tail end of the eighteenth century, when the land was bought by Thomas Woodville. By 1852 the poet William James Linton had bought it: his second wife was the popular novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who wrote several of her triple-deckers here. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was recovering from an illness in Matlock, Derbyshire in 1871 when he bought the property unseen for £1500: he knew where it was and the view it commanded, and although the house itself was disappointing he was more than impressed by its actual situation.

'JOHN HOWARD
WHITEHOUSE 1873–1900
who saved Brantwood
as a memorial to
John Ruskin'


The study. Linton had knocked two rooms into one here. This was a centre of activity for Ruskin, where for instance he founded the Guild of St George to provide fair rent farms.

The wallpaper is to Ruskin's original design.

The drawing room, with the painting Zipporah to the left of the fireplace.


The bay window looking onto Coniston Water, and the septangular room leading from the drawing room, are additions dating from 1905, after Joan (Ruskin's cousin) and Arthur Severn had inherited the estate from John Ruskin.

The dining room.

Children's illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1907), born in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, who was a friend of Ruskin's and who first visited Brantwood in 1883.

Plaster copy of the medallion on the Ruskin memorial at Friar's Crag, Derwent Water.

The turret, again looking out onto Coniston Water.

The bed in which Ruskin died on 20 January 1900.

Finally, images from the grave of John Ruskin in the parish church graveyard, Coniston: