A.S. Byatt, Ragnarok (2011)

Let me first digress. I got to know A.S. Byatt first when I read a short story in the New Yorker: the Stone Woman. I didn’t know anything about the writer but I fell in love with this weird story, its grief-stricken yet strangely powerful heroin and its beautiful accumulation of gem-like precious words. I was unemployed and sending resumes everywhere. Needless to say, I had lots of free time. It took my fancy to translate this story, thinking that it would make me closer to its writer’s power. I still remember struggling with the vocabulary, and struggling to render anything like the beautiful sentences that I read. Needless to say, I wasn’t being interviewed for a translator’s job.

After months or years, I realized who the writer was and I felt foolish for this translation.

Ragnarok was on my wishlist for quite a long time, so long indeed that it eventually got translated into French and found its way to my neighborhood library new books’ shelves, waiting just for me to take it home.

The thing is: A.S. Byatt impresses me (from her reputation and also her book Possession), and so I don’t quite know how to write about her book without feeling completely inadequate. All the more as this one is part of the Cannongate Myth series, an ambitious project for which I have a lot of respect and admiration, and for which Byatt chose the Norse myths, that are supposed to be difficult. (Are myths difficult? Where does this idea come from? Perhaps because the Norse myths are less familiar to my own French culture than Greek ones)

The retelling of myths never ceases to fascinate me: the idea that there is still something relevant in thousand years old stories, but also that as human being writers still find something to add to these stories, like they are never really finished once and for all.

Contrary to other retelling of myths (modified or modernized), Byatt felt the need to encase the mythology in a back story, the evocation of her own childhood during WW2 when she discovered the myths and fell in love with them. How appropriate for a child whose father was away at war to wonder about the destiny of the world and to worry herself with the end of the gods in total destruction. Byatt makes no mystery of being  “the thin child” evacuated from the city to the English countryside, and this new land around her creates a natural scenery of the Norse myths.

My own knowledge of the Norse myths is rather sketchy. There’s Wagner’s music, and rather sanitized Viking tales written for children. Contrary to the original version that “the thin child” got to read, children books nowadays gloss over most of the violence, cruelty, darkness and strangeness from the stories.

Even seeing them from afar, I was fascinated by them in the same way as most apocalyptic stories both fascinate me and disturb me. To imagine the gods death is, I believe, very peculiar compared to other civilisation where myths explain the creation of the world and justify why it is so today.

It was good to have the full extent of the Norse myths presented to me, if only by allusions and short visual vignettes. Byatt gets us to realize that there is so much more out there, without feeling like complete ignoramus. I loved Byatt’s writing, recognising her for her love of lists, of accumulation of visual details and precious words. She put herself right into the book, but it only highlighted how these myths shaped her childhood and her vision of the world.

The weirdest thing, if incidental, about this book is that it made me realize how much Tolkien had been influenced by the Norse myths for The Lord of the Ring. When the inevitability of the gods’ death finally arises, I could feel the same sense of deep sadness than at the end of the LOTR when all the elves and magicians leave Middle earth. Duh! I had read about it years ago, but I had never before made the connection. Once again, A.S. Byatt makes me feel completely foolish.

But I’m grateful for the lesson nonetheless.

Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov (French 2011, English 2014)

I’ll say it before you suspect it: I am a fan of Emmanuel Carrère. So I might not be the most objective reader for his books. But in true Carrère’s fashion, it doesn’t matter, subjectivity is part of the writing and the reading process. And writing about it too.

Bear with me, it does sound meta, but not the kind you get a headache from.

Carrère is one of the writers whose books I buy without hesitation (one other writers is Siri Hustvedt, for example). But I take my time, I’m not rushing as soon as the book gets out, because I know I need time and concentration, and I want to savour them.

By the time I get to Limonov, Carrère has already published another one, Le Royaume (the Kingdom) about early Christianity, with lots of praise. I have not yet arrived to the Kingdom, but I know I’ll get there eventually.

One of the things I enjoy about Carrère’s books is the writing. It’s just as if he was talking to me (Let me clarify, I’m not delusional, nor in love with him). Carrère’s writing voice is deceptively simple, self-aware without being overly self-centered.

So, Limonov. Carrère is always writing about life and perception, about the complex layers that make events and explain people’s behavior. It’s a biographical novel (written without his subject’s consent and with only one direct meeting when the draft was almost completed), but its ambition is wider.

I hadn’t even heard of this Limonov, a Russian intellectual who has had a very contrasted life (he’s still alive, so there’s plenty of turns of the plot that may still occur). Born in 1943 in Soviet Russia, he is deemed a dissident, but the label doesn’t even start to define him. He’s been a thug, an obscure poet in an obscure city of Russia, a jet-setter in Paris and in New York, a butler for a millionnaire, an opponent to Putin, a leader of a fascist group, a writer, a model convict, and so many other things.

Carrère crossed paths with Limonov several times for brief moments, and he is both fascinated and puzzled by this man. The result of this fascination and unending puzzlement is the book itself. As always Carrère is a character in his own novel, at times fed up with his subject, at times wondering.

It seems  that this guy has had many lives already, and it’s all too easy to dislike him. He’s arrogant, vain, always vying for attention and glory. In fact, Carrère doesn’t even try to make us like him at all, his point is to retrace the steps of many life choices, however implausible they seem. One thing leading to another, and Limonov chooses the exile from Soviet Union, presumably forever, and for a while he ends up living like a bum in New York. Does that makes him a loser? Perhaps, but he kept trying and then he somehow got back on his feet.

One thing led to another, and Limonov finds himself supporting the Serbs during the Yugoslavian war. Bad choice obviously. Does this choice make him a fascist? Perhaps. But every time Carrère  explains how complicated it is, how difficult it is for us readers to judge him knowing the complete picture.

At the end he comes out as an adventurer who tried very hard to be a genius and who has never quite reached it.

From these many lives we can also see a portrait of Russia from the sixties to the 21st century, and see how a whole world exploded at the end of Soviet Union. I remember those days and the post-1989 chaos in Russia. I didn’t understand them as they were enfolding under our eyes. I certainly enjoyed that Carrère revisited them. These made in my opinion the most fascinating pages of this bizarre literary object.

Writing Birth Stories… Or Not

The blog world is full of birth stories. It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s so personal and intimate that you’d think people would just tell it to their best girlfriends.

But certainly I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s so universal and moving that it makes the perfect story, and while you perhaps don’t want to go into gory details with your own best girlfriends, especially face-to-face over a fancy coffee with friends without child, for some reasons sharing it with people you don’t know but can’t see, and who are going through the same life-changing event as you is something liberating.

Or is it?

I am very good at forgetting things. I thought I’d gotten over it nicely, and in part, I have. My oldest is 6 years old, and although I have never written at length about his birth story, I am at peace with the events of that day, the way it turned out, and the emergency C-section I got 6 years ago. If I decide to write his birth story one day, it will be for his sake, not for mine in a therapeutic viewpoint. But whether a young boy or young man needs to learn about his birth in details remains a question for me to ponder.

When my doctor told me that I was most probably heading for another C-section down the line, due to the same causes, for my second birth, it was a genuine surprise, because I had managed to put it so much at the back of my mind that I hadn’t come to that conclusion by myself. I had stuck with what one doctor had told me, that one C-section didn’t need to be followed by another, but of course as the medical reasons for the first intervention were linked to me, I should have understood that his phrase didn’t really apply.

I signed for a scheduled C-section. I was not even pressured to. I preferred a scheduled one over an emergency one, with very little odds to have a birth without medical intervention. It was supposed to be uneventful.

Clearly it wasn’t.

Over the spring and summer, I had managed to obliterate what happened and concentrate on my sweet little baby, but as winter is coming back and we’re heading towards my baby’s first birthday, it all comes back to me. Rather more forcefully than I wished.

Last week I read a blog post over at Longreads about a birth story by C-section, and I couldn’t detach myself from the screen. In fact, the post was long so I couldn’t read it all in one go, and I was obsessed by this particular story.

Within a few days it had completely gone out of hand. I found myself crying over stupid things and having flashbacks and depressed thoughts.

I was thinking about writing this particular birth story, then I feared I would relive stuff and feel even worse. I would once again go over events and choices that I can no longer undo.

As I felt my feelings recede and started to feel better, I didn’t get writing.

One day I will.

Perhaps.

Any thoughts?

Beloved Indie Bookshop Series: La Droguerie de Marine, Saint Malo

A few weeks ago we took a few days off to visit the small town of Saint Malo in Brittany, famous for its piracy past and its fortified old quarter.

As always, we took this opportunity to look for bookshops along the way. I found one most intriguing and endearing, located not in the inner quarters, but in the quiet neighborhood of Saint Servan. It’s called Droguerie de Marine (Sea Chemist’s, perhaps?), and really offers lots of wonders. The ground floor is a chemist-cum-gift shop with lots of quirky, unique, witty or simply beautiful objects (but you can also buy all sorts of scrubbing brushes for your boat, should you need).

The staircase and landing are full of knickknacks and books (as you’d guessed, babies aren’t exactly welcome there), and then the first floor is the bookshop itself, and what a bookshop! A dream place where I would have pored over books for hours until closing time (this is not polite practice in France, and that’s why you won’t normally find a comfy couch or even a chair to sit down in French bookshops: you’re here to buy and read elsewhere, not to read books here and avoid buying them). There’s a nice children’s room, and then a long place with lots of nooks and crannies. And even a couch!

What made the place even better was the large puppets (wooden or metal, I can’t tell) and boat models that seemed to be stranded amidst random piles of books. I am sure there is really an order to them all, but I loved the messy atmosphere, so conducive of snooping around for a new good book.

“A” new good book? Ahem, I didn’t resist much and bought several! I bought a Korean manga about food, a children book for Halloween and a psychology book about kids asking difficult questions. I’d have gladly bought another dozen, but for lack of space.

If you can’t make it to Saint Malo to see the place in person, you still can visit their website, they have a virtual 360° view of the place and nice pictures (nicer than what my old phone can do, ahem).

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902)

I knew for quite a while that one day I would read Kipling’s Just So Stories to my son because that’s a book my father read to me as a child and I remembered enjoying it a lot. It was part of “the” list but of course I couldn’t remember how old I was when I listened to it, so I had no clue when to read it to my son.

Maybe I should have waited another 6 months to read that book with him (he didn’t get the point of some stories at all), but my son is now so full of questions about everything that I figured that  tales of origin (“pourquoi stories” is apparently an English expression) will be very successful at this stage. And they were!

My memory of the book was kind of fuzzy, but as I read it all came back to me. The second time around, as an adult, I was able to enjoy it even more, because I paid more attention to the language and to the witty allusions that are quite above a 6 year old’s head.

I read it in French, a “classic” translation, and by classic I mean that it was the same as the one when I was a child myself… that’s telling, and that it got the Kipling’s original illustrations. The translation by Robert d’Humières and Louis Fabulet dates back 1961, and funnily enough they excluded the tale “”How the Camel Got His Hump” because they deemed it “untranslatable” due to puns. It was eventually Pierre Gripari,a children’s writer I love (because I was brought up listening to his tales read by him on vinyl disks… yeah, “classic”, I told you). who found a way to translate Kipling’s puns.

My son was drawn in right from the beginning with “How the Whale Got His Throat”, but what he mostly liked were the mariner’s suspenders and jack-knife (and the fact that after the mariner had left his suspenders in the whale’s throat he had to hold his blue breeches to go home (the French version said “culotte” as in “underpants”, ergo funny). He laughed out loud at The Elephant’s Child and how he spoke when the Crocodile had gotten hold of his nose. He also loved the stupid Jaguar who couldn’t tell a Slow-and-Solid Tortoise from a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog (in The Beginning of the Armadillos, but we had to google Armadillos next, because they aren’t a familiar sight downtown Paris).

We had fun together, which is the main point. I must say that I had a hard time reconciling these charming tales (still very readable by todays standards) with the knowledge that Kipling also wrote the White man’s burden (which I haven’t read) and was a late-Victorian imperialist.

Have you had any good or bad experience with Kipling?

 

Philippe Grimbert, Memory (French: Un secret, 2004)

It’s very difficult to disagree when lots of people praise a book. It even won a literary prize! It was made into a movie! So I’m inclined to think: what didn’t I see? What is wrong with me?

It’s even more difficult when the book is a novel closely inspired by the author’s personal family history. So I don’t want readers to think that I’m criticizing a person (even less a person’s family) when talking about a book.

It’s even more difficult when the book’s subject deals with the Holocaust. I know my post here has to tread gently.

Call me suicidal, insensitive, cold-hearted, but I’m going to say it: this book didn’t work for me.

Philippe Grimbert tells the story of a boy born after the Second World War (himself) who discovers at the age of 15 a huge secret that his whole family has been keeping from him since he was born. He learns from a family friend that his family is Jewish (non-religious obviously) and has suffered persecution during the war (instead of the rosy countryside holidays atmosphere they’d told him about). Even worse, he discovers that he had a half-brother, and that his father was first married to a woman who died with him in the camps. Still even worse, he discovers that his mother used to be his father’s sister-in-law, and that his parents have fallen in love and consummated a forbidden love that only the destruction of the war have made possible.

Wow.

Philippe Grimbert is a psychoanalyst, and you can understand how he got into this career.

The story is perfectly right and very moving, but my problem lies with the writing itself. It is so flat and verbose, so overly analytical of every feeling and meaning. It is a tale told through the (grown-up) boy’s eyes, but there is no room for the action, no dialogue at all, only indirect speech and therefore no room for any other interpretation than the one the author provides. I found this overwhelming and overbearing. I could not relate to any of the characters (although from the author’s personal point of view, I could well understand why he needed to put this distance from his own parents’ actions and emotions).

I am a bit disappointed that it didn’t work for me, but obviously the book has found a lot of other, more eager readers. On very close themes and concerns, I have yet to read a book by Modiano, who has recently won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and whom I have never read, to my great shame.

Jules Valles, L’Enfant (The Child, Fr. 1878)

Reading this book during summer was a weird experience. The more I read, the more I had this feeling of déjà vu. (By the way, I love how English speakers pronounce that word. It’s even weirder than when I say it in French).

Then it came back to me. When I was a teenager, my mother had gotten some old literature classics textbooks discarded from the school library, and I remembered being bored and hot during the summer holidays, and reading my heart out. I have this tactile memory of lying on the wooden floor on the top floor of our sun-drenched home and turning the pages for whole afternoons. What else did I read that summer? No idea. As you can see, it rather entered my subconscious brain than my readily accessible culture, because I could have bet I’d never read the book before.

But indeed I had, in large excerpts. The sad tale of this awkward child plagued with a horrible mother (and a horrible father too, but I guess he’s more pathetic) is indeed memorable. All Jacques (the child, but actually Vallès himself) wants is to roam freely in the countryside, all she wants of him is to make him a proper bourgeois. She is petty, mean, cruel, and ridiculous in her social-climbing. She’s not as cruel as the other famous evil mother in French literature: Folcoche, written by Hervé Bazin in Vipère au poing / Viper in the fist (the nickname given by her rebellious son, the narrator, is the mix between folle-crazy and cochonne-pig), but Bazin’s book was published in 1948, while Valles’ was in 1878!

What surprised me most was how modern, realist and yet very funny Valles’ writing has remained. Laugh out loud funny. This is highly readable and I didn’t force myself to read at the child’s naivety and his mother’s stupidity. Valles was a friend of Hector Malot, and Malot’s book about a miserable childhood is in my experience (one or two decades ago, so I may be mistaken) a tear-jerker that had aged a lot. If readers were accustomed to melodramatic books dealing with heavy issues, no wonder that they might have been shocked when Valles was being snarky and sometimes even resorted to slapstick comics (the one being slapped being, you’ve guessed, the poor child.)

Considering the dark subject it was indeed a pleasant surprise. Of course the book has a political background of revolt (I don’t know if American readers would classify it as anarchist or very liberal) but it doesn’t pollute the flow and the brisk pace of the book. I had very little knowledge of Jules Valles’ life, although it’s very easy to guess that he’s speaking of himself there), but when I read the Wikipedia article I connected the dots with lots of other familiar names, events and places in history, centered around the 1870 Commune and its bloody aftermath. I knew of Le Cri du Peuple from distant history class, but I didn’t know this libertarian and socialist newspaper was his idea. This made me want to try the second book of his trilogy: The Graduate (Le Bachelier).

PS. You can find the English version at the ever-excellent NYRB, or in French in free electronic format from Gutenberg.org

A Practical Question: Selling Collectible Books?

To depart from my usual concerns, I’d like to put this practical question out there:

I wish to sell two books by Alice Duer Miller, The White Cliffs and Forsaking All Others, in original print versions from the 1930s-1940s. Have you ever experienced selling collectible / old books via a platform (Amazon or other)? What would you recommend? Any suggestion as to assessing a good price? I am pretty sure that IRL French book antiquarians will not be interested in a foreign editions that don’t quite qualify as centuries-old.

A New Series: Reading Aloud With My Oldest

I have vivid memories of being read to as a child, so I always knew that reading aloud would be important to me as a parent, hoping that my child(ren) would love it too. It is therefore no surprise that in the evening routine, the reading aloud part comes to me. My husband has never disputed me that (although he loves reading too, obviously).

I have sometimes posted about picture books here, but now that my oldest is 6 (and starting reading, this is soooo sweet!), we are now turning to chapter books, which is a new territory for both of us.

The oldest son typically wants to be a big boy in all matters and read big boy’s books, but he still loves to have his share of pictures, so he loves poring over comic books that are much too difficult for him in terms of content (Tintin, Lucky Luke, Asterix are familiar heroes around here). I read them aloud to him, but it’s tedious for me, and we get both frustrated when I read jokes that only I can laugh at.

One of my long-time dreams has been to re-read with my kids those books that I loved as a child: The Just-So Stories, for example, and The Hobbit (obviously at different ages). And more recent books have added themselves naturally to the list, like Harry Potter. It’s really important for me to be there by his side when he’ll get to discover those new worlds.

In the meantime, I have started to explore this new territory of chapter books for elementary school readers and beyond (because I don’t want to limit myself to books that he will soon be able read by himself.) You will hear about the best ones over here!

As I love both family-centered blogs and podcasts (huge distraction and procrastination from reading and writing, I know…), I discovered through the Art of Simple website a podcast: The Read-Aloud Revival Podcast by Sarah Mackenzie, which is always a delight to listen to. I am absolutely not in the homeschooling, religious tribe, her primary target audience I guess, but I enjoy it and I love hearing about new titles from distant horizons (to me).

One of the advantages of reading-aloud is to give my son access to books in English, which I translate aloud (given that he will be able to read French books by himself soon enough). And not only to limit myself to books I have read myself as a child, but discover new books and have as much fun as my son.

I hope that you will follow me in this new exploration!

As a book-loving parent, what books do you (did you) love reading aloud to your kids?

Qiu Xiaolong, The Enigma of China (2012)

I am (always have been) very forgiving with Qiu Xiaolong, and perhaps too much so.

I enjoyed his mysteries because his focus is on the situation of contemporary China and its most recent social problems (here, corruption, while his previous one was on pollution) that I know firsthand to be true. I enjoyed his mysteries like you enjoy sweets you ate in another season of your life, with nostalgia: his plots are located in Shanghai, in places I know firsthand (I used to make frequent business trips to Shanghai back when I was based in Beijing in the early 2000s).

The situations he puts his characters in ring very true, and have dilemmas I used to wonder about while working in China. Because his heroes are decent people trying to make the right thing in a culture where money is king, graft is ubiquitous and those who don’t join in are just nostalgic losers, I tend to overlook poor dialogues, cardboard sidekick characters and confused plotting.

Qiu has a major excuse: he has a lot of exploding to do to introduce the context and the culture to his foreign readers. If we readers weren’t fed background and lengthy justifications about traditions and latest trends in China, many points of the story and many people’s behaviors or discussions would be hard to understand. But that slows the story down so much!

He tries to be subtle and balanced because paradoxes abound in China these days, so his characters are far from black and white in their behavior, but his writing is quite dull, or perhaps the translation from English to French didn’t help. I was irritated every time a person used the word “gros sous” as a noun synonym for loaded people. This sounds very clunky in French.

It’s too bad, I liked the idea of this mystery rather than its actual form. And something that keeps bothering me is that Qiu Xiaolong actually lives in the United States and has left China in the aftermath of Tiananmen in 1989, which is now quite a long time ago. So I at times wonder how much of his stories are based on hearsay, secondary sources about recent phenomenons, or his interpretations of them viewed through a rather Westernized filter, rather than first hand “experiences”. It’s weird to demand experience for the mystery genre, I’m actually talking about what it means to live in a country with corruption, and blogs who are trying to expose injustice.

So the jury’s out on this one. I’d like to have the opinion of someone who is or has been in China more recently than I have, but my own Chinese friends (or American friends who have married in China) don’t read his books. Is it because they are too close to home or on the contrary because they don’t measure up to the Chinese reality? I might never know.