The One with the tender music of old Europe

Pawel Huelle, Moving House and other stories (Polish 1991, English 1996, French; Rue Polanki et autres nouvelles, 2000)

Confession: I started typing this blog post on my (3 year old) phone and the WordPress app got all weird on me. Also, I have come to the conclusion that a post draft I started in April disappeared into the ether, so I’m trying to catch up on book reviews for those I have finished ages ago, before they disappear too!

So let’s stick to the facts (mmh, who am I kidding): this short-story collection was very interesting and I’m so glad : a- that this Polish writer got translated into French and English; b- that my parents gave me this book several years ago; c- that my 2017 “read-from-my-own-shelves challenge” finally made me pick it up; d- all of the above.

Anyway, I bet that you’ll want something a bit juicier than that. And the book is largely worth it. It is set in Gdansk, the Polish town that used to be German up to 1945 (under the name of Danzig). No, strike that, it’s much more complicated! Gdansk has forever alternated between German and Polish rulers and even became a “free harbor” with some autonomy. At the end of the WW2 it suffered a massive population exode (Germans from Danzig, but also from Eastern Prussia and beyond, making for hundreds of thousands of civilians desperately making their way west, under heavy air raids and the threat of Soviet army). Gdansk is also the place where, in the 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement was born, a rebellious force against the Communist ruling party, so strong that it led to its demise.

This bit of history is fascinating to me, but imagine what it means for someone to be born in this place! In many stories by Huelle, Polish characters have to live with the past and linger in a weird nostalgia. The stories are all set in the postwar, Communist era and several are in fact coming-of-age stories.

The title story made me sigh: a little boy is soon moving away from a house shared by several households. This house used to belong entirely to an old German woman, Madame Greta, who has been dispossessed by the Communist regime and only has one room now, filled with her piano and memories. The boy’s parents forbid him to go there, because they hate and distrust everything German, but as the parents are preparing to move the boy is attracted by the music and he gets to meet with Madame Greta.

There’s a story about a table, a household object that the narrator parents got from a displaced German who left Gdansk at the end of the war. The narrator of another story, “Snails, Puddles, Rain” goes with his father to chase snails. We get to learn that his father has only found this odd job after being kicked from several more qualified jobs, because he doesn’t toe the Communist party’s line.

I have a feeling that the French collection does not have the exact same stories as the English collection, but if you have a chance to read it, don’t be intimidated by Polish names and by the obscure history of this small part of Eastern Europe! This is probably the first Polish writer I’m reviewing in this blog (in 10 years, can you believe it?), but I hope not the last.

The One with the Artists Retreat

Alison Lurie, Real People (1969)

Wow. I had finished a string of books that left me between “meh” and “blah”, and I was starting to fear that it had something to do with me. And then, luckily, a book that grabs me and within days makes me feel and think at the same time. So unexpected! (Somehow, despite Alison Lurie’s reputation, I had feared that this book had aged… not at all)

Real People is set in the fictional artists colony of Illyria in New England (apparently very much inspired by famous Yaddo, near Saratoga), where Janet Belle Smith, a mid-range short story writer, has been admitted again for the summer. We readers get to read her diary.

I had read things by Alison Lurie in the late 1990s-early 2000s, pre-blog obviously, so I don’t remember what. But this book, short, highly readable, perceptive and funny, made me want to read her all over again.

It talked to me at so many levels. It’s both deep and funny, and when you start to wonder if it’s not a bit too cliché she surprises you with an abrupt switch or a deep observation. Obviously, I could not help but identify with the main character, the struggling short story writer, mother and wife. She brings her own insecurities and doubts and snobbery and naivety to the plot. She is forced to ponder how honest she can be in her writing, how honest about herself, and to wonder if she hasn’t been “too nice” in her writing as in her life. But at the same time she has this moral superiority about her that makes situations both witty and awkward for the reader, and that will certainly bring her comeuppance at the end.

Artists colonies are so fascinating, and I’d been wanting to attend one forever. I was lucky enough to go to one last year in June, with a small group of supportive women, and I wish I can go there again next year. I could not help but compare what goes on at Illyria and what I experienced last year. In Illyria, there’s a covert spirit of competition and a sexual tension. Artists in Illyria went there with something to prove, if not to themselves, but to the other artists and the retreat’s organizer. It might be okay for some people, but don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere I personally would need to create. I guess you go to an artist colony to be removed from the world, and if the colony recreates the usual stress of the world, it’s not worth going.

On a lighter note, it reminded me of another novel set in a writing retreat, an Ann Cleeve’s mystery, the Glass Room. And of course, there’s a body in the library…

The One with the Sorry Self-Made Jerk

Georges Simenon, Le Bourgmestre de Furnes (1939)

Wow, does this man know how to dampen the mood! He called these novels “romans durs” (tough novels) but not because they are violent, but because they are gloomy and hopeless. After the tragic fate of the young man fresh out of prison, I tried another one, the fate of the mayor of a small town in Flemish Belgium. No less tragic this time again.

This book is the wonderful, chilling portrait of a powerful, heartless man. Joris Terlink was the son of a poor shrimp fisherman in a tiny hamlet, but through intrigues and sheer ambition he has become a wealthy manufacturer of cigars and the mayor of the small market town of Furnes, near Ostende. Everybody in town treats him with deference and calls him Boss, but it’s more out of fear than respect. He has enemies in the traditional Catholic upper-class of Furnes. He stands firm against corruption, but he refuses in the same way to help people with a small job and money, because he made his own fortune without help. He’s a bully at home and a bully at work, a solitary man whom you don’t pity. Unless you take a peak at his private life and you discover that the people around him are also horrible, and that the only human being for whom Terlink shows any feeling is his adult daughter who is mentally deficient and whom he keeps in a room at the top of the house.

Well, I told you it was no picnic, right? I bet Simenon could push any positive-thinking expert over the edge in less than 200 pages. Poor Pollyanna would have to take antidepressants…

This is not a murder investigation, but there is one dead guy though. An employee of Terlink’s, a guy who needed money to finance his girlfriend’s abortion. The girlfriend is 16, un wed, and the daughter of a powerful Catholic man, a direct competitor to Terlink’s position. Would you expect for one second that Terlink would lend this guy money? I don’t think so. So the guy kills himself and tries to kill the girlfriend, making it into a huge public scandal. Of course Terlink benefits from the scandal, the girl’s father resigns and the girl is sent to a nearby seaside resort to give birth to her child far from the judging eyes of Furnes people.

What happens next is probably akin to a burnout or a midlife crisis, in my modern eyes. Terlink should rejoice or launch himself into more business. Instead, he dithers and wavers. He ditches boring meetings, plays hookie from the town hall and instead finds himself increasingly often at the seaside resort, attracted (in a non-sexual way) to the 16-year-old girl, who, instead of being shameful and repentant, enjoys life on her own with two other carefree women. This girl clearly would be his own fantasy daughter, if only his own wasn’t ill. He discover an alternate lifestyle, free of duty, work, Catholic sin and social pressure far from his little town. This is also a sign of social evolution, between the old society based on fishing and market and field work, and the new one with tourism and restaurant, dancing, entertainment …

Would you think that Terlink starts over and become a joyful guy, enjoying his money and buying himself the pleasures of a young lover? Come on, that’s Simenon! Terlink could, but that’s not who he is deep down. The novel ends rather gloomily, this breather being short-lived and doomed to become the mayor’s downfall.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who feels under the weather but otherwise it’s really interesting to watch a man you would judge as a jerk at first sight become a complex, flawed and pitiful human being.

The One with the Pestering Widow

Georges Simenon, La Veuve Couderc (French 1942, English title: The Widow)

Part of my plan for 2017 was to read more Simenon, which meant in my mind more Inspecteur Maigret. But it turns out that the volume we own at home is a collection of his serious novels (“les romans durs”, “the hard novels” according to Simenon’s own terminology), not the lighter Maigret police investigations (although one can discuss if Maigret is lighter, at least it’s more plot-driven and was definitely written to entertain). So the hard way it went…

I chose La Veuve Couderc at random, because I was maybe expecting a glamorous widow (like the NYRB cover?). But it is anything but glamorous, bucolic or romantic.

The widow in question is Tati, a 40-something year woman (which in 1942 made her an old woman), uneducated, ugly (she has a huge mole on her face) and rather unsympathetic. She has been a farm girl, a servant from the age of 14, and she slept with the master’s son (and the master himself) a few years later. She managed to get herself married to Couderc and after the master fell into dementia, her husband died and the thriving business went bankrupt, she hangs on to the farm and takes care of the old master, fighting her two sisters-in-law who want to get rid of her.

But we don’t get to know her first thing. We enter the novel through a vision of a man walking in the sun as seen from a crowded bus. We are in a peaceful countryside, a quiet canal and sunny meadows. It is the scenery as seen by Jean, whom we discover is a young man fresh out of prison. He is free, without any destination, any project, any money. He meets Tati on the bus coming back from the market and she hires him as a farm hand.

Jean and Tati are an unlikely couple. He is 28, educated, son of a rich businessman in the city. Yet Simenon manages to make it a very linear story, as if nothing was surprising. The atmosphere is slow and heavy and the two characters seem doomed from the start.

There are moments of lightness, when Jean discovers the farm life and takes joy in simple manual activities and the routine of life with the animals. He was adrift, and the farming life grounds him for a time, but not for long: soon his guilt, his restlessness and his nightmares come back to haunt him. Tati, on the other hand, has felt frustrated for years, stuck in the farm with her father-in-law. She bosses Jean around, but when things get more personal between them it gets out of hand.

It’s not an easy read by any means, not because its gore but because of its hopelessness. Yet as I am finished with this one I am quite ready to continue with another “roman dur” by Simenon.

 

The One with the Temptation of Nostalgia

7cavaliersT3Jean Raspail, Jacques Terpant, Sept Cavaliers (French 1993 novel; graphic version 2009-2010)

I have started a post a while back, an enthusiastic one. Then I added a few sentences, a bit more reserved. And then nothing for a while. Now this post is nowhere to be found on WordPress, but that’s not that bad. Because I don’t quite know how to put this in writing.

I have discovered this graphic novel at my workplace library, an adaptation of a novel whose title is really unique: “Seven riders left the town at dusk by the Western gate that wasn’t guarded anymore”. Have you ever seen a book whose title is a full sentence?

The graphic story is set in 3 volumes and the art is exquisite, using the traditional French-Belgian “ligne claire” (clear line design). Except for the clear line, nothing is clear in this story. We discover a dying kingdom, a beautiful country of mountains, countryside and seaside where the population has died or disappeared. There has been a civil war, one guesses, but we aren’t told whom against whom. Except, by hearsay, we gather some evidence of terrible destructions and deaths. Children have broken loose and turned against their families. The few survivors hide and attack the passer-by in fear of new exactions. No trains arrive at the station, no boats follow the lighthouse’s indications and there are few supplies left anyway. The king commits suicide just after the seven riders leave the town, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler. They are a band of loyal men, young and old, who decide to try to reach a bridge on the other side of the country, both by desperation and bravado. What else can they attempt?

This story is really fascinating and charming, but it works like a spell. You can’t stop reading, and your judgment is suspended, and then when you close the book (in my case, the three books), you don’t quite know what happened.

7cavaliers-1What is the writer’s purpose? Is it only fantasy? In some moments I was really reminded of Lord of the Rings’ saga, especially the feeling that the great kingdoms of the Elves or Rohan have passed their heydays and now only doom and gloom remain. The feeling that Frodo and Sam try to do their duty even if their quest seems hopeless at some point. Not a particularly uplifting mood, but a very powerful one nonetheless.

Those seven riders are the last remnant of civilization, they stand for loyalty, aristocracy, Christian faith and moral values. It felt nice, until it started to feel icky, especially when bands of ennemies started attacking and they were distinctly African or Arabic clichés.

There was greatness to serve among the last to the rear-guards of a finished world. (my translation)

I won’t say that the graphic novel is overtly racist, but it is promoting a reactionary philosophy to say the least. When I looked up the author, Jean Raspail (born 1925), I discovered that he was indeed a deeply conservative, old-Catholic, pro-monarchy, controversial journalist, novelist and adventurer. Not really my cup of tea at all.

It’s quite worrisome when those ideas are presented with muted colors, elegant sentences and impeccable grammar rather than the yelling abuse of some recent political meetings we have grown used to. Because they seem so fine at first. Then you can understand their lure of nostalgia for some people who are taking refuge in the extreme.

Still, the end of civilization is not yet at our gates, with 65% voting for Macron yesterday. Whew!

 

 

The One that Smells like a Dump in Summer

Jean-Paul Nozière, Bye-bye Betty (French 1993)

With the selfish goal of discovering more small presses or imprints that publish novellas, I continue my investigation of the noir genre in YA fiction.

I stumbled upon this one purely by chance, attracted by the dark cover and the thin back. The library shelves quickly told me that Jean-Paul Nozière is a rather prolific writer for middle-grade readers and this novel is rated for 14 years or above. But I knew nothing more.

As far as noir conventions go, this novella fits the bill to perfection. The atmosphere is oppressive, set in a French small town near the Spanish border in summer. An illegal dump has been set up in town: it stinks, literally and figuratively. The only industry there is a fruit company that uses (illegal) immigrants to pick fruits, then sells them or can them. The factory is owned by a powerful family who reigns on the town because it also owns hotels and houses that they rent out to employees. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Pyrenees, to paraphrase someone famous, and one local girl has decided to fight it: Betty. This young girl, oblivious of local rumors and risks, wants to become a photojournalist and sends her pictures to the big media companies in Paris.

As the book starts, the narrator, Salfaro, a Parisian photojournalist deep into depression due to his wife’s departure, is sent to the small town to meet with Betty. His motivation is murky at best. He used to be a famous war reporter, but he hasn’t worked at all for a while, and this assignment is a sort of last chance given by his boss, although the job clearly is beneath him.

The atmosphere is well painted. Even deep in the winter months, I could almost feel the heat and the stink. The sense of doom and hopelessness that you often see in noir novels were pervasive too, but not in a way that would be too terrifying or harsh for a young reader. Still, I couldn’t really root for the main character. He seemed nor to care much about anyone but himself, and he seemed naive or  unobservant. It made it unbelievable that he would be a famous war photographer. It made me think about stakes.

I haven’t really though it through, but I will be looking more carefully in the next novels: what is at stake for the main character in the story? Here, I felt that the stakes were too low. My interest waned because the reason for Salfaro investigating Betty and the village seemed like only a pretext. If he had turned his back on this assignment, not much would have been lost. Sometimes, the author puts the stakes too high, and here too there is a problem of believability. If everything is a matter of life and death, the story becomes hysterical and the reader, quickly exhausted (at least in my case).

But this novella really made me want to read noir classics again, like Simenon, Dashiell Hammett or Chandler. I also could use another installment of my favorites, Philip Kerr or Michael Connelly. Who’s your favorite noir writer?

Parallel Reading

Colmar Toibin, Nora Webster (2014)

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947, Persephone reprint 2003)

No, this post is not a sneaky attempt to post about two books for the price of one, diminishing drastically the pile of books to be reviewed. Bear with me…

I blame myself that I read too many books at the same time. I’ve been known to have up to 9 books on my “currently reading” list of Goodreads. Ugh… It’s not that I have a magical power to read one book with one eye and a second with the other (I wish!). I start one book, then get distracted with another, then come back to the first for a few evenings, then start an exciting one from the library… But the advantage is that sometimes my readings collide.

Take Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, a shiny new acquisition from the library, on my left, and The Blank Wall, a Persephone shiny grey book from my own bookshelves, on my right. Apparently, not much in common. A 1940s American noir / suspense novel (that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in part), versus an Irish contemporary psychological / literary novel. Both vying for my attention (and my limited free time!)

Where in one hand a dead body has to be dealt with in the first twenty pages, and the whole book takes place within a week, Colm Toibin’s novel in the other hand spans several years and nothing dramatic really ever happens. It’s a slow-moving book where buying new furniture for the living room carries a weight and a meaning that leaves you rooting for Nora, while in The Blank Wall, issues were more life-and-death, scandal or prison, but it took me a longer time to warm up to Lucia.

And yet, despite the differences, under my eyes, Nora began to talk to Lucia, and Lucia to Nora. These two books were really worth reading side by side!

Both features wives and mothers of teens and grown kids. They are alone and obliged to act and take decisions because of their husbands’ absence (Mr Webster died recently and Lucia’s husband is at war in the Pacific). Both women are not used to assert themselves, they express strong opinions in their mind but look proper and meek in front of others. Both are not really likeable characters at the beginning (in my 21st century eyes) because they are so limited in their thoughts and actions, and then by the end of the book they have both evolved, have discovered that they can decide, act and stand for themselves and I grew to like them.

Nora lives in a small town in 1960s Ireland and Lucia lives in a small town in 1940s outside New York. The context in both books provided in each case some new level of reading for me: the political events and the women’s movements for Nora, the war and the home front for Lucia. Both books are quiet feminist manifestos in a sense, full of delicacy and subtlety.

In both books, children are not painted under the positive light you’d expect. Lucia’s kids, Bee (around 17) and David (14-15) are selfish and spoilt. David behaves like a little master and gives orders to his mother, while Bee rolls her eyes at her mother who can’t understand anything. Nora has 4 kids, two nearly graduating daughters and two younger boys. Nora, as a typical 1960s parent, is not one to talk much about feelings or to show her love. There is a real distance between Nora and her daughters who obviously have a much more liberal, modern mentality.

Lucia’s daughter would be of Nora’s age, if I am not mistaken, but Bee is so empty-headed (the whole book comes from her poor choice of a boyfriend, this girl begs to be grounded for a few months) and Nora so provincial that they would probably have nothing to talk about together. But I’m sure Nora would have loved to have the opportunity to travel to the States, given the opportunity.

This was my first brush with Colm Toibin and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who is deemed the Godmother of Noir. Definitely not the last I hope!

The One on the Tiny Desert Island

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (Swedish 1972)

Goodreads informs me that I started reading the Summer Book at the end of August. It took me a semester to finish! But I hasten to add that it’s because it was so good that I took my time, not because I didn’t like it. It’s not the kind of books that you should hurry.

It’s a very atmospheric book and you should wait to be in the right mood to savour it, otherwise you’d miss all the fun. The more I stayed with the book, the more familiar I grew with little Sophia, 6-year-old, her grandmother and the tiny island on the gulf of Finland where they spend the summer.

The stories are told with a few evocative steps, the writing is fresh and simple and the reader is left to fill it in with her own comprehension. It’s easier to miss tiny changes of mood, because it’s not only about nature and the sea and the isolated island they live on, it’s more about the feeling of mortality, the inevitable change and passing of time. At the very beginning, the reader is informed that Sophia’s mother died recently, but only because Sophia notices that she doesn’t have to share her bed anymore. Not another word will be added to the gate of the mother and the grief of the family. We also guess that Sophia’s grandmother has some health problems, but neither Sophia or the grandmother seem to worry. The summer is short and soon the bad weather will return and the island will be deserted, so you’d better live one day at a time.

I wouldn’t want people to imagine that the book is full of heavy subjects. On the contrary, it’s light and witty, full of scenes where Sophia is stubborn and the grandmother is too. They both like to play and pretend, they like to create. Strong-willed and fanciful, they create worlds and adventures out of ordinary days in a tiny island. Nature is a huge presence in the book, and summer in the gulf of Finland is not like a sandy beach on the Cote d’Azur, it’s full of rocks, moss and perpetual winds.

If you know Tove Jansson from the Moomins, you will get the same sense of seriousness and fancy mixed together. You can see glimpses of Moominpappa when Sophia is full of bad faith, both philosophical and adventurous. You can see glimpses of Moominmamma in the grandmother’s practical attitude, in her open-mindedness and stubbornness. It’s a tiny, perfect gem of a book, that needs to be re-read at leisure, even in the depths of winter.

The One with the Golden Dream of the American in Paris

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

I can’t remember who recommended to me “Paris to the Moon”. It might be back in the spring when I was looking for books about expats in Paris for my workplace library, to stock up on English language shelves for the foreign employees. Or maybe in one of those literary  podcasts with an episode on travel writing. I thought it would be fun to see my own city through the eyes of a foreigner, especially one who comes with the reputation of the New Yorker in tow.

This collection of essays, a chronicle of tiny details or brief introductions to life in Paris (French cuisine, cafés, gyms, maternity hospitals, playgrounds, etc.) gives snapshots of his life together with his family (he had a young son, and a daughter was born in France during his stay) in Paris from 1995 to 2000.

The high point of the book is Adam Gopnik’s writing. His sentences are precise and evocative, they carry feelings as much as cultural explanations. He has a great understanding of French people, it’s not patronizing or exotic. The portrait of his kid playing in the Jardin du Luxembourg almost brought tears to my eyes. His voice makes you want to buy a ticket to go… But wait! I’m already here! Or am I?

Adam Gopnik’s Paris is more than 20 years old. I took my time reading the essays, because it was like finding pictures from the past. I know some things never change and we French people are very resistant to change, but still you should not think that the book is still valid nowadays. Yes, the Ritz is still there (but has undergone a 2 years renovation). Yes the Jardin du Luxembourg is still there, but those tiny details that are so precious in the book, well, they mostly no longer exist (just an example: gyms are pretty normalized now in Paris). The impact of globalization has made his remarks on French culture not completely false, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter. Beyond the particulars of Paris in the late 1990s, you can see the deep love of Gopnik for all things French and Parisian, the culture shock he goes through, the misunderstandings and the progressive adaptation of the author and his family to a new culture and environment. Missing your own country while wanting to stay… This is universal and I remember all too well the contradictions of my own life as an expatriate in Asia not to relate with everything he writes.

But the thing that made me ambivalent about the book is that Adam Gopnik’s life was very privileged. I don’t know about many Americans in Paris, and I don’t remember if the exchange rate of the dollar at that time helped much, but the flat he rented, the lifestyle he had, the restaurants he patronized regularly, most of it is not within the average Parisian’s budget. The chapter where Gopnik movingly writes about the maternity ward where his daughter was born, brought tears to my eyes because it was so well written, but made me cringe at the same time, because he had selected a very exclusive private clinic, where everything, I’m sure, was perfect, because nothing was paid for by French social security. (ok, right, I might have been jealous)

This book is more literature than journalism. More personal memoir than travelogue. If Americans read it before arriving for the first time in Paris, they might be very disappointed, but it’s not my case. It’s an exquisite, pricey pair of rose-tainted glasses to look around me at the city of Lights, to remember some, to wonder and to explore some more.

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!