The One that Missed The (Dark) Point

Pascal Garnier, The Eskimo Solution (French, 1996, English 2016)

I fell in love with Pascal Garnier last year (all the more metaphorically that the poor guy died in 2010) when I discovered “Too close to the edge” and “The front seat passenger“. So I was ever so grateful when a nice publicist at Gallic Books contacted me for another helping of my Garnier discovery. I love that they have set to make Garnier more visible and available to English readers!

Unfortunately, this particular book didn’t quite resonate with me as much as the previous ones. There was this narrator, Louis, a loser, who is a writer in Normandy trying to finish his book for the deadline. The narrator in his book, though, is another loser, another Louis, who comes up with the idea that getting rid of elderly people could be a sort of gift to humanity – especially to his friends who have problems with their elderly parents or who badly wish to inherit some money. He compares it to the Eskimos who apparently put their old ones on ice to starve to death (I didn’t it, ugh).

As you see, this theory firmly puts the book into cynical and dark humor territory, but I didn’t really manage to follow it all the way there. Perhaps it was me, but I have the feeling that this book was a bit all over the place, and switching from one Louis to the other didn’t help. Also, I learnt that this book was his first published, so it might be an explanation. As losers go, I much rather enjoyed the pathetic one from The Front Seat Passenger.

But one occasional miss doesn’t make me less enamored with Pascal Garnier’s books, and I’m just getting ready for the next one!

Two Maigret for the Road

Georges Simenon, L’amie de Madame Maigret (1950 / Eng: Madame Maigret’s Own Case)
Georges Simenon, Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue (1950)

Coming back from holidays, I find my WordPress drawers accumulating dust and drafts. Quick, quick, I want to mention a few more books before the summer ends!

In June when I went to the writing retreat we were lucky to have a wonderful library at our disposal. They were second handbooks, old paperbacks and yellowed classics, but I found the crime shelf particularly inspiring.

I borrowed several Maigret mysteries because I wanted to study them rather than getting absorbed by the plot itself. After all, I’d come to write and not to read! Simenon may have been a not very nice person in life, but as a writer he’s certainly an impressive figure to behold. He wrote hundreds of novels and hundreds of stories, often completing a full draft of a novel within one week! He’s famous for his enormous production, but also for his very simple and straightforward style, very concise yet highly readable, and for fleshing out a character in just a few words, one sentence or two, enough to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

Researching this post I stumbled upon an article by Peter Foorde about the inaccurate translations of Simenon’stories into English, that demonstrated that in the 1930s and 1940s a certain amount of padding was added to Simenon’s texts because his style was deemed too simple.

How did he achieve this without characters being mere clichés? Taking random paragraphs of one novel was a very good exercise, as was the systematic comparison of first paragraphs for his short story collection “Maigret and the tail-less piglets”. I had watched the TV version of several of these stories and so the story became easily secondary compared to the characters and description. Not one word was wasted. Sometimes it is even terse, and it’s not particularly flattering for characters presented this way.

When the two books were finished, I was awed by Simenon’s craft. The stories were nuanced yet simple, the characters had depth yet were shown with few sentences. Simenon said that the most important piece of advice he received on writing was not to be literary. He sure isn’t, and yet his books are literature, not just commercial pulps.

What an inspiration! What a teacher!

 

The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, On the Other Side (1979, Persephone 2007)

This precious Persephone book is a collection of letters written from October 1940 to January 1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg to her children while she was living in Hamburg, separated from them by war (4 of her 5 children were living overseas by then, most in Allied countries). She wrote moving letters of her life under the constant air raids, especially the bombings in 1943 which practically destroyed everything in the city. She wrote letters but had no means to send them, so it actually reads like a rather down-to-earth diary, although perhaps the cool tone and the stiff upper lip are all for the sake of her children (and maybe the Nazi snitches who might have stumbled upon them, so she barely touches any political subject before the very last days of the war).

Is there anything more depressing to read that the diary of a woman who survived the massive terror bombings in Hamburg, Germany during WW2? Well, to start, I could think of a few even more depressing ones about that period, to be honest (If you want to go that way, there’s the diary of the anonymous woman from Berlin, or of course the Diary of Anne Frank). Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg wasn’t your average German citizen on any account: even without knowing anything about her, I knew, from having been to Hamburg, that there is a big street named after her family and a metro station too. Born in 1879, Mathilde was married to a university professor who was never a Nazi, but she was indeed a woman of considerable means. She had domestic help throughout the war and knew people who could help her with permits, with resources, who could secure a hospital stay when needed and sometimes a letter from the overseas children. Luckily, her home was never bombed out and she didn’t lose everything in the fires or destructions. In short, there were many people a lot worse than herself.

But still, the book is a harrowing read, because Mathilde is such a nice little old lady and she sees her life gets smaller and smaller every day. Every comfort disappear until very little is left. Parents and friends die around her. She’s never sure if she is going to come back home alive when she goes queuing up for hours to get some food. Very little food. She’s left with her memories of past family reunions, of past Christmas, of past luxury, and you can’t help but feel for her.

The quality of this writing is that it hasn’t been retouched later on with the knowledge of what was going to happen next (or at least it doesn’t feel so). Each letter is written with the mood of that day, the latest peril still fresh in mind. It’s heartbreaking to feel that at the armistice her hopes were so high that the situation is going to improve soon, and yet the state of Hamburg and the German population at that time is in such disarray that the situation actually worsened before it could improve. For an Anglophile such as Mathilde, the general distrust of the occupying British army, that often regarded the whole German population as Nazi collaborators without exceptions, was a bitter disappointment too.

I had a summer job in Hamburg once while I was a student. The city seemed very unwelcoming to me. Very unromantic, tough and cynical. There were traces of the bombings if you knew where to look: so few buildings were dated pre-1945, and so many were just ugly concrete, hastily built buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, and there was the lone spire of Nikolaikirche, an old Gothic church that was destroyed during the attacks except for its tower that is still standing as a memorial against war. The city must have changed beyond recognition within just a few years.

I guess my appreciation of the city would have improved if I’d read Mathilde’s letters back then. I’m glad that the letters were saved and published, it’s a precious testimony, both intimate and universal, from a viewpoint that rarely gets to light, especially for the immediate after-war period.

The One with Sex And The City of Hong Kong

Amy Cheung, Hummingbirds Fly Backwards (Eng. 2016, Cantonese 1995)

I don’t normally go to Netgalley to look for foreign books (which I usually read in French anyway), but when I saw the name of the author, distinctively Cantonese, and saw from the short line of bio that she was *not* Chinese-American but a popular writer in Hong Kong, I realized how few such titles are featured on Netgalley. And I also knew that it was high time I read this title and certainly, if possible, a few other Chinese books in the coming months.

I used to read a lot of Asian books but I fell off the bandwagon a few years ago, because they were harder to find and also nobody gushed about them on the Internet (in the English or French Internet, at least, and I don’t have a clue where to look for Chinese book-bloggers, if such thing exists). All this to explain how I was delighted to read this book translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie and published by AmazonCrossing. Hong Kong writers are so little known in the West, you see. Even in Asia, as other Asian capitals love to argue that Hong Kong is only a business place and not a place with soul.

Amy Cheung is apparently categorized in the romance category (see this Chinese article in English), but I’d rather put her firmly into chick-lit territory: her heroines are cheeky and spunky. They are fiercely independent and buy sexy lingerie for themselves, and if some thug tries to steal it from their balcony (imagine flats stacked by the dozens…) they aren’t afraid to hide and give him the fright of his life. They are both pragmatic and romantic and reminded me of the 4 friends of Sex in the City. I’ll let you guess you’d be the Carrie, the Charlotte, the Samantha and the Miranda (well, to start with they’re only 3, so my comparison only brings me so far), but you’ll probably have a better grasp of the book.

The lingerie bit is not a detail that I put here to attract dirty spammers, no (hell no!), it plays a role to highlight the freedom (financial, emotional) and the struggles of each of the women (insecurity about one’s body is universal). The main character, Jeoi, owns a lingerie shop, she reunites with an old friend who comes shopping there, and the story was originally published under the title 《三个A Cup的女人》(Three women who wear A-cup bras). AmazonCrossing decided that this title  in English would *not* attract the right kind of readers, and I totally see the point (I searched under this name and… oops, you don’t want to try, trust me). As other Cheung’s bestsellers, and if my Chinese skills are not too rusty (I would never manage to read novels in Chinese, but I grasp the overall meaning of Wikipedia articles), this novel has been serialized in a popular newspaper, but it doesn’t show in the final edition.

I may be biased because I had this strong nostalgia of Hong Kong places while I read it, and I don’t usually read romance books of any kind really (although my venture into Amish territory might qualify) but I enjoyed the trio of girls. Even if the book is not meant to be highbrow literature, these women may epitomize Hong Kong spirit as I understood it, a blend of Chinese and Western, and I am grateful that AmazonCrossing gave me a chance to discover that author and that book.

 

The One with the Lonely Curious Daughter

Marie-Pierre Farkas & Marianne Ratier, Françoise Dolto, L’Heure Juste (French, 2011)

I find myself a bit slow and stupid that it’s only after reading the third graphic novel that I realized that this small press, Naive, has set to publish a whole collection of famous women biographies in graphic form (I got Isadora Duncan to Mr S. and he got me Virginia Woolf). This time, it was about Françoise Dolto. Do I need to introduce her to you, reader?

In France anyone born from the 1960s on has been raised according to the principles of our “national pediatrician” Dr. Françoise Dolto (or against them). She’s a household name, maybe like Dr. Spock on the other side of the Atlantic (he’s not well-known here). In the 1960s she even had a radio show that helped spread her ideas nationwide. So nobody in France starting this biography comes with a blank slate. I haven’t read anything by her, but as every French I feel that I know something of the style of education that she advocated for: she considered that the child is to be listened to, trusted and respected, that parents need to talk to their babies and children about everything, even if they think their children are too young to understand. She was specialized in psychoanalysis for young children and was fiercely against lies and family secrets. She also defended women’s rights.

What I knew nothing about was her own education. And that’s what the book focuses on, from her very first years until 1939 when she finished her studies in medicine, a few days or months before the war. She was born in 1908 in a very traditional family. Her mother was a fervent Catholic and believed that educating women was a waste and damaged a girl’s marriage perspective. Her daughters were educated at home by a nanny and later by a governess. It was also clear from the start that the mother’s favorite was Jacqueline, Françoise elder sister. Françoise was short, plump and rather awkward, while Jacqueline was fair, graceful and perfect. Françoise asked difficult, impolite questions. So when Jacqueline died in 1920, not only did the mother sink into a deep depression, but she blamed 12-year-old Françoise for not having prayed hard enough for her sister. Even though Françoise was brilliant in her studies, her mother didn’t allow her to study, she even took away her graduation certificates so that she couldn’t register to university!

What a dysfunctional family! No wonder Françoise Dolto was so interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. Her family had nothing to envy to those of Freud’s Viennese clients suffering from hysteria. The graphic style of the book, with a fine, almost trembling line and lots of white space successfully convey the impression of loneliness and the stuffiness of bourgeois upbringing, where children are supposed to be quiet and behave.

The subtitle of the book is “L’heure juste”, the right time. During those years where Françoise had to fight her mother to win the right to study and choose her own life, she thought she was wasting precious time, that she was coming late. But when she finally got her professional license, it was exactly at the right time. Just two days after, a government decree forbade women to become physician.

A very interesting and thoughtful book where art and content go hand in hand. I can’t wait to see what are the other titles in Naive’s collection of women biographies.

The one with the problematic translated title

Pascal Garnier, The Front Seat Passenger (English 2014, French 1997)

Oh my, two Garnier in less than a month’ time, you can tell how much I’m hooked! I liked my first better than this one, but only by a thin margin, because I could hardly put it down. Like the previous one, it’s a novella easily read in one or two sittings.

The difference is that the main character of this story has hardly anything for him. Let’s see, what are the stereotypical features of a hero? Successful, daring, loving, courageous, honest, a good son, good friend, good husband …? Fabien Delorme is the opposite of all this. He’s weak, untrustworthy, egoist, unlucky and bland, judgmental and narrow-minded. Definitely too narrow-minded to make sense of what happens to him. He just lost his wife in a car accident, a wife for whom he had no longer feelings but still remained married out of comfort and convenience, and he discovers that she was in a car with a lover. Widower and cuckold in the same instant! His life is upside down, and will be even more so when he decides to get in touch with the lover’s widow.

It’s hard to root for Fabien, while it was so easy to root for Eliette in Too close to the edge. But we can’t help but follow him and find him excuses for his poor choices. What a loser! Even when he thinks that he has all the cards in hands, he’s being played. It’s slightly ironic, very down-to-earth and very very dark. The ending is a bit hasted but it could have been way worse.

If I had one reservation about the book, it’s the English title, which is technically, literally translated from the French. Fabien’s wife was seated next to the driver, her lover, in the front passenger’s seat when she had her fatal accident. I guess it’s called riding shotgun? But in French we have a colloquial expression for this seat: it’s the dead person’s place (because it was a very dangerous place to be back when cars didn’t have safety belts and that rules were nonexistent on the road). The French title is clever because “place” has so many different meanings. More than just a car seat’s question, it can read as the dead person’s space in the widower’s life. Or it can be Fabien’s attitude, metaphorically or literally, especially as Fabien doesn’t know how to drive a car and has to be driven or take a train to go somewhere. I felt that the book’s English title was narrowing it down, but I have no clue what else they could have chosen.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for giving me a copy of the book!

The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

The one with short hair in the damp Seoul heat

Helen S. Kim, The Long Season of Rain (1996)

August 1969 in Korea isn’t the summer of love, at least in Junehee’s family. She’s eleven and the second of 4 sisters in a conservative family. Junehee’s father is in the military and frequently overseas, but whenever he’s in town, he isn’t much at home and remains distant towards his wife and daughters. The one who runs the household is Junehee’s paternal grandmother, who doesn’t let her daughter-in-law have much say in the girls’ education. Much say at all, for that matter. Junehee’s mother had to quash all her dreams and desires, even the smallest ones like wearing dresses in the color she likes or cutting her hair short.

Junehee has no brother, and that’s something everyone openly regrets, because Korean traditions strongly rely on patriarchy: even in 1969, women must obey men, sisters their brothers and younger sisters their elder sister. A family without a boy is much pitied, while girls will go to live in their future husbands’ families. A mother unable to birth a boy is a failure. Through Junehee’s eyes, we witness her mother’s struggles and sacrifices. A young orphaned boy is sheltered in the family, and could be adopted if only Junehee’s father and grandmother agreed to it. Unfortunately, while her mother warms up to this shy boy, Junehee’s father is incensed by his arrival and tells the women that the orphan needs to go as soon as possible.

That summer, Junehee will mature a lot and understand many secrets that the adults don’t want children to hear. This novel is for middle-grade readers, but as a grown woman it nearly made me tear up because it reminded me of the machismo of traditional Asian societies. The tone of the book is soft-spoken but many deeper issues around gender and marriage are addressed. It was hard to read about the mother’s fate, but fortunately the book brightens up at the end and leave some hope that Junehee’s life will be a lot different from what was traditionally expected of little Korean girls.

The one for the story that wasn’t meant to be

Henri Perruchot, La vie de Gauguin (French, 1948)

May I interest you in a little detour?

Once upon a time I visited Copenhagen, Denmark and I saw there several paintings by Gauguin. It was rather incongruous, but I then learnt that Gauguin had married a Danish woman in Paris and that at one point had come to Denmark for business.

I couldn’t reconcile the strict Protestantism of this Nordic country (simple lines, clean natural design, all straightforward, nothing hidden) with Gauguin’s universe of earthly pleasures, lush nature, transcendental mysteries, sensuality, exoticism, violent colors). How come these two had gotten married? How could Gauguin enjoy Copenhagen? Apparently they too had wondered about it, because I learnt in the same breath that they later had separated.

I got mildly obsessed with Gauguin’s wife. Not that he’s my favorite painter, by far. His colors are too violent for me, his Vahine women too naive. But his wife, this Danish woman, how did she come to Paris? how did she marry Gauguin, then a businessman of some sorts, and how did she react when he threw all that away for… paintings… art… Tahitian women? It must have been a shock, a disappointment… I thought it would be a good story. A story about a marriage going south (pun intended).

Until I got into the research itself. I ordered this (used) book, this huge biography by a serious biographer from the 1950s. The book was 400+ pages long, all yellow and faintly smelling of tobacco. The police size was 8 with footnotes even smaller. No margins, and no index whereby I could jump in the middle of Gauguin’s life to find the topic I was interested in.

I was in for the long run, and anyway what’s the hurry? It took me one full year, reading it bit by bit, when the mood stroke, which wasn’t all that often since I wasn’t really passionate and Perruchot’s sententious and respectful tone wasn’t making things easier. To Perruchot’s credit, he really investigated his subject’s life in details, down to the last cent of his budget (Gauguin had serious money issues, he nearly starved to death at different points, so it’s not stupid to follow this line of inquiry). But it didn’t make his subject sympathetic.

The portrayal of his wife was even worse. Mette Gauguin, born Gad, had traveled to Europe with a wealthy friend and she fell for the honest, successful financial advisor that Gauguin was at the time. She aspired to a comfortable bourgeois life, and I guess she couldn’t understand how her husband could reject all that for art’s sake. Perruchot makes her into an insensitive, selfish, superficial woman. She hated the financial hardships that followed Gauguin’s decision to stop working. She decided to take their children and herself back to Denmark, and her attempt to get Gauguin back into the fold of the traditional bourgeois values failed. Perruchot only mentions her when it comes to money, that she was very greedy about her estranged husband’s growing success at the end of his life and how she was insensitive when she announced bad news about their children (their only daughter Aline died in 1897).

Perruchot’s book is of course very one-sided and focused on understanding Gauguin’s life and artistic choices, although he’s rather objective about Gauguin being a tough one to be friend with (and even tougher to be married to, I guess). During the course of this year Perruchot almost convinced me that Mette Gauguin wasn’t a good subject for a story.

But now that I have finally turned the last page, I still wonder. What is her voice? What is her story? She obviously couldn’t follow Gauguin into his life choice, but then is she really to blame? I’m not sure I’ll write a story about it anymore, but her character will surely stay with me a long time still.

The one with the Loch Ness monster as a guest star

Patricia Wentworth, Fear by Night (1934)

The name of Patricia Wentworth features high in the lists of what Miss Marple’s fans are supposed to enjoy, so I had to try it sooner or later. Mr. S. borrowed this mystery at the library at random, and I understand that this book is not the typical Patricia Wentworth’s fare. Let’s just say it was a bad pick.

Do we need to tell more? I guess so, but I’ll be brief.

The plot in a nutshell: girl without money and connections cannot marry boy without money. Girl seeks job, boy disapproves. (this being the 1930s, girl still does what she wants, but the bottom line still proves that she’d better listen to boy). Girl actually is an heiress, but doesn’t know. Job proves to be a treacherous trap to prevent girl from getting inheritance money. Boy finds out and rescues girl. Baddies are punished. Girl and boy marry. The end. Setting = Scotland, its fog, islands, deserted cottages, old women with a heavy accent and… lake monster.

I’m sorry for the spoiler, but I foremost want to warn you against a rather dull book that will waste a few precious hours of your time. I’m sure there are better Patricia Wentworth’s books out there. The interactions between the girl and the boy are rather sweet, but also awfully bourgeois. The girl is supposed to be scared by the eerie atmosphere, but for me it didn’t work because she wasn’t consistent and the fear was simply not there. She is plucky and decisive at the beginning of the book, but in the end she still needs her prince charming. It definitely helped to imagine a black-and-white movie star of the 1920s like Mary Pickford with exaggerated eye-rolls and expressive hand gestures in a silent movie. But when you think of the heroines of the 1930s, little Ann Harding is a pale comparison to the likes of Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, or Norma Shearer, who were a lot more assertive and seductive.