Tag Archives: Paris

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.

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The Pink and the Green by Stendhal

I came across The Pink and The Green, an unfinished novel by Stendhal. I’d never heard of it before–and the title, of course, echoes The Red and the Black. I was a bit hesitant to read an unfinished novel. Would I be left hanging? Was it unfinished for a reason? And of course there’s that bigger question looming in the background … should unfinished novels be published? Since I decided to read more Stendhal last year, I’ll answer a big yes to my last question. My copy of The Pink and the Green, a New Directions book and translated by Richard Howard contains the unfinished novel of the title and a complete short story Mina de Vanghel. Both are clearly connected and offer different versions of the same young woman. When I started reading this book, I thought that I’d probably prefer the short story simply because it was finished, but no, I much preferred the unfinished novel. No idea why Stendhal abandoned it, and it is a pity that this novel was not completed.

the pink and the greenMina Wanghen is the heroine of The Pink and The Green. A resident of Königsberg, and the only daughter of Pierre Wanghen, the city’s “richest banker,” Mina, as the sole heiress, is a highly desirable catch. We first meet her at a ball in the year 183_. It’s three in the morning, and Mina has no shortage of dance partners. In spite of this, she chooses to sit out some of the dances in order to listen to the stories of 45-year-old Major-General Count von Landek, recently returned from Paris:

The general was describing the magnificent fountain of Saint-Cloud as it soars skyward, those charming wooded hills of the Seine valley only an hour from the Opéra Comique. Can we say that it was this last image which caused Mina to forget everything else? In Prussia there are indeed great forests, very lovely and very picturesque, but one league from such forests there is only barbarism, poverty, and a vigilance indispensable if one is to avoid destruction. All things wretched, coarse, inconsolable–and which produce a love of gilded salons.

The general, who still smarts from the humiliations suffered by the Prussian army at the hands of the French, begins “abusing French society,” and he lists a few examples of the failings of “this frivolous people.” Mina, who is “intoxicated with France,” cannot stop listening to the general’s stories–although, of course, she believes that French society is greatly superior to that of Königsberg.

A few weeks after the ball, Mina’s father dies unexpectedly. Left with seven and a half million francs, Mina in the company of her still-young mother, is besieged by young men, and the two women are hounded by suitor’s for Mina’s hand. The Wanghen mansion is situated at the “northern end of the Friedrichstrasse,” and it’s a tradition for the young women to sit at the windows of their homes in the afternoons while they do needlework. From this vantage point, the young women can observe the males outside as they strut around on horseback, looking their best in their finest clothing. “Little romances” are created and are fed in this established courtship ritual, but Mina takes her needlework and flees to another room in the mansion as she is so tired of the men parading past her window. The poor girl can’t go outside without being waylaid by would-be suitors who even bribe the servants in order to get information about Mina’s schedule. The pressure is on….

In an aside in which Stendhal tells us that we may be “shocked,” we are told that in Prussia, the girls expect to marry for love:

Yes there are countries where on has the misfortune of not behaving precisely as we do in France.

There’s a lot to find amusing in The Pink and the Green. Mina, fed up with being pursued by the fortune hunters of Prussia, decides to move to Paris–after all, in her idealized view of all things French, she thinks that her life will be significantly improved, but the reality is far different.  Mina imagines that she’ll have peace from the Prussian fortune hunters–a rather naïve thought given her great wealth–all those novels have fed her imagination. For one thing, in Paris there’s a fresh set of French fortune hunters sniffing around, and then Mina’s idea of French society doesn’t match reality. Here’s Stendhal on the subject of Prussian vs. French marriages:

One terrible consequence of this honest freedom is that very often a rich young man will marry a poor girl on the absurd pretext that she is lovely and that he is madly in love with her, which casts a notable shadow on the respectable class of sullen young ladies possessing neither wit nor beauty. Whereas in France the basis of our unwritten legislation relative to marriage is to protect all rich and ugly young women.

And here’s poor Mina after a disappointing evening of French society:

“The coarseness of these people,” Mina sighed. “Have I been deceived?” she went on, her voice slow and pensive.
“Are these the amiable French? Does the agreeable society I have dreamed of exist on this earth?”

What a shame that Stendhal didn’t finish this novel. The introduction states that “Stendhal had no patience whatever, and his time seemed in short supply. He had waited too long before beginning fiction.” The novel may not have a conclusion but Stendhal left “several plans which suggest a possible ending.” These notes are included.

The short story Mina de Vanghel starts off in a similar fashion as The Pink and The Green. It’s still Königsberg–although there’s a different take on Mina’s father. Now instead of being a rich banker, he’s a disillusioned Prussian general “closely observed” by the Berlin police. After his death, Mina retreats to Paris–partially because she sees Prussia as “ungrateful” for her father’s service and partly due to the police surveillance. Of course, she too has an idealized view of French life thanks to novels. Part of this story just didn’t gel for me as something that Mina de Vanghel does seems out of character.

When reading The Pink and the Green, I was reminded of Turgenev’s The Nest of the Gentry and the main character, Lavretsky who is dragged off to Paris but feels out-of-place in the superficiality of its salons. Here’s Turgenev on Lavretsky’s wife, Varvara Pavlovna unleashed in Paris:

In Paris, Varvara Pavlovna bloomed like a rose and succeeded, just as swiftly and skillfully as she had done in St. Petersburg, in making a little nest for herself. She found an exceptionally pretty apartment in one of the quiet but fashionable streets of Paris, ran up a nightshirt for her husband the like of which he had never seen before; she engaged a chic maid, a superb cook and a nimble footman, and obtained an exquisite little carriage and a delightful piano. A week had not gone by before she was making her way across the street wearing a shawl, opening an umbrella or pulling on gloves no less expertly than the most pure-blooded native of Paris. And she had quickly acquired a circle of acquaintances. At first only Russians came to visit, but later came Frenchmen, extremely charming and courteous bachelors, with beautiful manners and euphonious names; all of them talked very fast and a great deal, bowed with easy familiarity and very pleasantly puckered their eyes; white teeth flashed behind their rosy lips.

That slightly predatory image comes right before Lavretsky discovers that his wife, who’s gone native, has sealed the deal by getting a young French lover.

So there are two examples of the foreigner in Paris; French Stendhal writing about a Francophile Prussian heiress fleeing from Prussian fortune hunters in Paris, and Russian Turgenev (who lived outside of Russia every chance he got) writing about poor cuckolded out-of-place Lavretsky–a native of a country whose nobility admires all thing French.  Finally, Stendhal’s most famous novel is The Red and the Black, published in 1830. Stendhal worked on The Pink and the Green in 1837 before abandoning it. Were they intended to be companion novels?  I know what The Red and the Black means, but as for The Pink and the Green…. The only meaning I can guess is love and youth. If anyone knows a different meaning, I’d like to know.

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Life is Short and Desire Endless by Patrick Lapeyre

I’ll admit that thanks to its title I wasn’t sure about Patrick Lapeyre’s novel Life is Short and Desire Endless (La Vie est Brève et le Désir Sans Fin). I’ll back up and say that I’m not much of a romantic and largely consider such storylines as twaddle, but I decided to give the book a go as I am a sucker for the complex ideas of French cinema. French books, French cinema…there has to be a common ground there somewhere, right?

While ostensibly this is a novel about two men who are obsessed with the same elusive woman, there’s much more at play here than the classic love triangle. The novel begins with forty-one-year-old married translator, Parisian Louis Blériot on his way to visit his parents who live way out in the boonies. His cell phone rings and it’s Nora, a British woman he had an intense affair with two years before. They didn’t exactly break up, but rather Nora ‘moved on,’ and as it turns out, this is an established pattern of behaviour.

Nora is, apparently, back in town. Just as she swoops back into Blériot’s life without warning, she also left her London-based, American financial services lover, Murphy Blomdale in a similar fashion. Blomdale comes home to the “chilling sense” that Nora is gone, and he’s right. So we have two men on edge: one, Blomdale, dumped without an explanation, and the other, Blériot, picked back up after a two-year-absence by Nora who acts as though she might have stepped outside for five minutes to go collect the post. She’s back, she says, to begin a career as an actress, and when she runs low on funds, there are no less than two men (Blomdale and Blériot) to fund her venture and extravagant spending.

If it sounds as though I didn’t like Nora, then you’ve guessed correctly. I didn’t. But I loved the book and the way the author competently explores complex relationships between people who are behaving badly. This is not a common variety of love triangle with two men panting over one woman. Instead the story line expands to other people who are impacted by Nora’s behaviour–Blériot’s wife, Sabine whose sangfroid is propped up by her superior financial position, and then there’s also Laura, a former friend of Nora’s who never quite recovered from their teenage friendship.

The novel goes back and forth in time to crucial moments in the relationships between the characters, including the day Blériot met Nora, the day Blomdale met Nora, scenes of Blériot’s marriage and the occasions various characters meet to try and make sense of what happens and just why, precisely, two men allow Nora to wreck their lives. Here’s Blériot trying to get sympathy from his gay friend Léonard who acts as “spiritual advisor” and “dissolute priest“:

“You see, my lovely, I’m afraid I don’t really understand your heterosexual misery,” says Léonard. “I really must be from a different species, with different pleasures and different kinds of suffering.”

“On top of all that,” Blériot continues, not believing a word of what Léonard has said, “I now find myself the proud owner of the sum total of two shirts, one pair of shoes, and fifty-seven euros in my bank account.”

“I left you some bills in the dresser drawer, but if it’s not enough, you can ask me for whatever you want.” Léonard tells him, apparently convinced this is a case of monomania.

“Would five hundred be too much?” asks Blériot at the precise moment that, in a London park, Nora’s tapping into Murphy’s pocket–they could be a couple of professional cadgers in action.

Léonard who “adores issues of conjugal sophistry” has problems of his own with desire. He’s ill for one thing, and his current lover is Rachid–a man who’s relegated to the kitchen and forbidden to talk to visitors. Having hot-tempered Rachid in the kitchen doesn’t stop Léonard from desiring other men, and he admits that as his disease progresses all he can think about is “sex and more sex,” as if he’s trying to pack in experiences in the short time he has left.

By far my favourite character here is Blériot “who amazes himself with his psychotic ability to lead this double life.” He’s arguably the most flawed of the bunch in terms of culpable behaviour–even surpassing Nora (for reasons I can’t expose). He has a good sex life with his wife–a woman who gives him a lot of rope even if it’s frozen with ice, and yet Blériot desires Nora who is unstable, unreliable, unfaithful, and a spendthrift:

he married the most intelligent and devoted of women, the one best equipped to make him happy, and if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

His conjugal affection has never actually been as vehement as he claims, and their relationship, despite intermittent bonds of complicity and tenderness, has become more or less incomprehensible.

Blériot describes his wife as having “her finger hovering over the red button for years.” Is part of Blériot’s problem in the marriage that his wife is wealthy and immensely successful? It’s certainly not a relationship of equals and Blériot’s erstwhile occupation as a translator is mainly hobbled together and partially serves as a cover to stay at home and do nothing much at all. We are told that Blériot has experienced “confiscated credit cards, frozen bank accounts” There’s still undeniable passion between Blériot and Sabine, and yet Nora seems to fulfill Blériot’s need to be irresponsible.

It’s incredible, he realizes, just how much damage this girl can do to him. You would think she was one of those hallucinogenic substances that dilate our perceptions while simultaneously destroying our nerve cells.

Some scenes yield glimpses of Blériot’s parents, and here’s another pathological marriage  with unaddressed complexities that in some ways echo Blériot’s relationship to Sabine. Blériot’s father experiences “expiatory humiliations constantly inflicted on him (preferably in public)” and these “have broken his last scraps of resistance.” As a result he spends an inordinate amount of time in a basement room, and Blériot suspects that “one day the old boy will sneak down there with his sleeping bag and never come back up.”

The novel explores, as the title promises, the subject of desire. Why do we desire what is bad for us? Why do we pursue someone we desire when common sense screams otherwise? Lapeyre seems to argue that desire has its own logic and its own timetable. The novel is not without wicked humour, and most of this comes from Blériot’s frantic efforts to keep both his unhappy marriage and his turbulent affair–which is not grounded in reality–afloat.

Some of the back and forth in time was a little difficult to follow, and Blomdale is not a fully realised character, but those quibbles aside, author Lepeyre captures the insanity of an affair, the pathological aspects of a marriage in crisis, and the highly addictive aspects of desire. Somehow I suspect that our reactions to the novel may say a great deal about who we are. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Review copy from the publisher.

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The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine

“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”

Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.

In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.

“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.

For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.

As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.

Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives  in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:

“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”

Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”

“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.

There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.

Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.

 Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:

On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …

Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….

The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012′ list.   

The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

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The Vatard Sisters by J.-K. Huysmans

What a stroke of luck to come across another Huysmans novel. The Vatard Sisters is the second novel from Huysmans, and while it’s a great read, it’s also an interesting marker of this remarkable writer’s career.  Huysmans is best known for the novel, Against Naturea quintessential book of the Decadent period. Huysmans’ first novel, Martha places the author closer to Naturalism, and he’s still in the Naturalism phase with Les Soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters), so it’s no surprise that the book comes with a dedication to Emile Zola from “his fervent admirer and devoted friend.” Huysmans is not yet at the height of his talent, and while The Vatard Sisters lacks the social power and observation of Zola’s  L’Assommoir, Zola’s influence in this marvellous novel is apparent.  Huysmans was initially attracted to the novels of Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, but in 1875, Huysmans bought the early volumes of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and became a dedicated reader and defender of Zola.

The Vatard Sisters (1879) is a fairly simple story wrapped about the love affairs of two Parisian working-class sisters, Céline and Désirée Vatard. Céline, blonde, bold and vigorously healthy is very different from her dark, quiet, “rougishly attractive,” younger sister Désirée.

Désirée, an urchin of fiteen, a brunette with large, pale eyes that were somewhat crossed, plump without being fat, attractive and clean; and Céline, the carouser, a big girl with clear eyes and hair the colour of straw, a solid vigorous girl whose blood raced and danced in her veins, a great minx who had run after men ever since the first onset of puberty.

It’s the 1870s and the sisters work long, tedious hours as bookbinders. Huysmans brings the Débonnaire company to life with vivid, lively descriptions of the social interactions between the workers:

They all detested each one another and they all, men and women alike, understood one another like thieves at a fair when it came to deceiving the supervisors, but outside the shop, they scarcely ever got together except to exchange blows or scratches. Once the morning work began the sight of a late arrival barely able to drag herself to her place or still wearing heavy, black eyeshadow was cause for great hilarity, with everyone leaping about in rowdy abandon. If the owner, exasperated at seeing some great devil of a guy as drunk as a polack, bouncing from one pile to another, paid him off and fired him, that did not prevent the woman this drunk honoured with his caresses and blows from getting up and leaving, dragging with her the whole group that took her side. This always provoked some booing from the other workers, punctuated by a scattering of doleful remarks from the older, more worldly-wise women who complained “Isn’t she stupid to follow a man who beats her! I would get rid of him!” Ironically, the same older woman would arrive the next day with a black eye or with marks on their faces and then energetically defend their own man when the others called him a thief and coward! Gossip was a way of life in the workshop. So and so was running around like a bitch in heat after a man who did not care at all about her. She whined all day long at her work and ended up tearing out the hair of the other woman who was dishonest enough to have stolen away her lover and tease enough to have put it up to her face. With all these little disputes embittered by stupidity, with all this hatred enflamed by contact with the male population, it was a miracle that ten or twelve of the same women remained at the end of several days. The Débonnaire sieve was not stoppered, like a stream of dirty water all its personnel of men and women rolled in waves to gush out through the hole of its doors into the street.

Huysmans gives us some delicious glimpses into Parisian working class life–both at work and at play. In one scene the company owner is plagued  by a bill collector who’s owed money by an employee, and in another, a debt collector comes around with an account book in which he records payments for amounts owed by the workers.

The women worked just enough to allow them to stuff themselves with fried potatoes and buy cheap jewelry. The men worked simply because it allowed them to put away great quantities of white wine in the morning and spend their afternoons lapping up liters of cheap red wine.

Reminiscent, of course, of L’Assommoir, but Huysmans’ picture of working-class life as seen through the lives of the Vatard sisters isn’t as bleak as the life of Zola’s Gervaise. While the married women at the Débonnaire company complain about the drunkards they have for husbands and sport black eyes and bruises to prove it, Désirée and Céline are still unmarried. Marriage may seem to be inevitable, but neither sister is in a hurry to wed. Who can blame them? Not only are they surrounded at work by squabbling spouses, but the Vatard home life isn’t exactly perfect. Madame Vatard is an invalid who spends her days in a paralytic state “like a lump,” and that places the burden of the household onto the sisters. Vatard accepts that Céline is the flightier and more promiscuous of his two daughters and conveniently concludes that “if she wanted to live like a slut, he would rather have her cheerful and not nasty and mean like all those girls embittered by celibacy.” On the other hand, he encourages his favourite daughter, Désirée, who considers herself “a real lady” to remain celibate and set high expectations when contemplating a future husband. Incidentally, Vatard has a vested interest in keeping Désirée at home at night in order to help with household chores. Céline warns Désirée that she’s too picky, and she’ll “end up badly.” Désirée has learned much from Céline’s example, and she’s seen how Céline, quick to offer sex to lovers, has been quickly abused and abandoned by them. Consequently, Désirée is “guarding the flower of her maidenhood, very determined not to lose it except for good cause.” 

 When the novel begins, Céline’s latest lover in a series of disappointing men is a rather sly, opportunistic character named Anatole–a man who holds great appeal for most women. Céline has the habit of dragging fifteen-year-old Désirée out in the evening in order to make up a foursome with Anatole’s friend, Colombel, but he fails to capture Désirée’s attention. Unlike Céline, Désirée has no intention of having sex until she’s married, and she dreams of a bourgeois paradise complete with the sort of bric-a-brac she’s spied in shop windows:

She wanted a husband who did not have spots on his shirt, who washed his feet at least once a week, a man who did not drink and would permit her at last to realize her dream: to have a bedroom with flowered wallpaper, a walnut bed and table, white curtains on the windows, a pincushion made of shells, a cup with her initials in gold on the dresser, and a nice picture hanging on the wall, perhaps a print of a little cupid knocking on a door.  

Into Désirée’s life enters Auguste, a former soldier who takes a lowly, poor paying job at the Débonnaire company. He catches Désirée’s eye, and in turn, she has a definite appeal for him. As for Céline, she tires of Anatole and after listening to another girl bragging about her wealthy lover, she decides to catch a rich, older lover–someone who will buy her presents and new clothes. Céline enters the life of artist Cyprien. And it’s with this character we see a glimpse of Against Nature.

In fact, he was really quite debauched. His taste ran the gamut of all the nuances of vice, provided they were subtle and complex. He had been fortunate enough to have made love to third-rate actresses as well as to the dregs. Frail and excessively nervous, haunted by those unheard ardors that rise from exhausted organs, he had reached the point of no longer dreaming of anything other than sexual fantasies spiced with perverse faces and baroque trappings. Where art was concerned, he understood only the modern. Caring little about the vast-off clothing of old periods, he asserted that a painter ought to render only that which he was able to visit and see. Now since prostitutes made up the bulk of his acquaintances, they were the sole subjects of his paintings.

The Vatard Sisters takes a generous look at the foibles of  human nature and is a delight to read with its scenes of noisy cafe life, the Absinthe Hour, tawdry fairgrounds and shabby music halls.  Céline and  Désirée are on the brink of their lives, poised on the edge of making decisions regarding marriage and children, and they make different choices. Through the lives of these two women, Huysmans examines the development and decline of relationships, the roles of love and sex, the confusion between the two, and adds frank mention of sexual frustration and masturbation.  For this reader, the novel’s reaches its apex with Cyprien poignantly reminiscing in bed alone at night–and through this passage, Huysmans allows us to forgive this character who has had a sort of comeuppance.

Overwhelmed by the memory of all those broken liaisons, stirred by all these faces passing before his eyes with their bedroom smiles and the spit they had thrown in his face upon leaving him, he extinguished his lamp.

Translated by James C. Babcock

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Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

I came across the novel Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan thanks to Emma. The novel seemed to have a considerable impact on her, so when the book became available in English late last year, I was lucky enough to get a review copy. I really like modern French fiction, but most of it, of course, doesn’t make it to translation.

Underground Time has to be the ultimate novel for its portrayal of the toxic work environment, and I suspect that the story will strike a chord for those readers who’ve ever felt trapped in their jobs. I’m not talking about a job in which someone is underappreciated, underpaid or bored to tears. No, I’m talking about psychological warfare waged between an employee and a boss, and a boss who plays dirty but still sticks to the rules. Employees always have the option to move on if a job becomes too stressful, but in this case, Mathilde, a single mother, a widow with three children, doesn’t have the luxury of a second income. She needs her job, and the question becomes, as the novel continues, just how much she will take before she goes postal.

The novel begins on the morning of May 20 when Mathilde wakes up to the day a clairvoyant told her would be significant as a “man would save her at this turning point in her life.” So what does Mathilde need to be saved from? What is going on in her life that is so terrible? The answers to these questions gradually roll out as the novel continues, and it’s a matter of Mathilde’s workplace environment becoming gradually and indescribably untenable.

Mathilde has spent ages looking for where it all started–the beginning, the very beginning, the first clue, the first rift. She’d take things in reverse order, tracking backwards, trying to understand how it had happened, how it began. Each time she would come to the same point, the same date: that presentation one Monday morning in September. 

Mathilde is the “deputy director of marketing in the main health and nutrition division of an international food company for more than eight years.” It was a good eight years until it started to go sour following a meeting between Mathilde, her boss Jacques and a “well-known institute.” The meeting doesn’t go well, and Mathilde ventures an opinion which contradicts Jacques. Up to this point, Mathilde who was picked by Jacques from an approved pool of job candidates, felt grateful for his confidence in her, and she “was used to agreeing with him.” Jacques has a reputation for being notoriously difficult and temperamental, but this has never been an issue between them before. 

The problems between Jacques and Mathilde begin following the meeting. It’s all very subtle at first, but make no mistake, this is pyschological warfare. Jacques begins by feigning surprise when she leaves at 6:30 and then come personal comments disguised as ‘concern.’ Suddenly her handwriting is “illegible” and she looks like “crap.” At first Mathilde is the only one to feel the sting of these remarks, but then she’s cut out of the loop of communication, and things become increasingly worse….

That was the day she realised that Jacques’s plan to destroy her was not confined to her own department, that he had begun discrediting her further afield and that it was completely within his power to do so.

Of course, Mathilde tries various approaches but each one seems to bring reprisals in this “absurd, invisible struggle.”

As Mathilde’s story unfolds, a parallel narrative forms of Thibault, a Parisian doctor who once dreamed on being a surgeon until an accident claimed several fingers. Chapters alternate between Mathilde’s story of  trying to survive the stress of total alienation in the workplace and Thibault as he breaks off an emotionally unsatisfying relationship with a woman. Both Thibault and Mathilde are revealed as lonely people who long for the communication which seems to be denied them:

His life is nothing like those of the characters in that French soap opera which was such a big hit in the 1980s. The doctors in that were brave and alert–they dashed through the night, parked on the pavement and ran up the stairs four at a time. There’s nothing heroic about him. He’s got his hands in the shit, and the shit sticks to them. His life does without sirens and flashing lights.His life is made up of sixty per cent nasal inflammation and forty per cent loneliness, That’s all his life is; a ringside view of the full-scale of the disaster.

I have a problem with passive characters, so I was annoyed in spots with both Thibault and Mathilde. I wanted them to do something, and at one point in the novel, I silently urged Mathilde to take drastic action. The chapters that tell Mathilde’s story have a stronger resonace than those which describe Thibault, well for this reader at least. Mathilde’s story is told with the stinging pain of experience while I wasn’t entirely convinced about Thibault’s decision to dump a woman with whom he has great sex but who is disappointing when it comes to affection. But that small issue aside, Thibault’s story shows a barren life with depressing encounters as he visits patient after patient in their homes–people locked into lives of disappointment, disease and loneliness.

  Underground Time reminds me of the premise of the film Crime d’Amour–a film that started out very strongly in its depiction of the powerlessness of an employee when faced with her boss’s desire to annihilate her career and destroy her mentally. Crime d’Amour took the easy way out, however, by turning into a thriller. I would rather it had stayed focused on the psychological warfare between a boss and her underling. Underground Time does just that, and the author creates incredible tension between main character Mathilde and her boss even as she paints the picture of this difficult relationship complete with Jacques’s quirky, tantrum-driven behaviour which on one level seems eccentric until Mathilde becomes the target of his viciousness.

For Emma’s review go here

Underground Time translated into English by George Miller

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Filed under de Vigan Delphine, Fiction

A Second Home by Balzac

“The fatal blunder of mistaking the enchantment of desire for that of love.”

Balzac’s novella A Second Home (Une Double Famille) begins in 1815 with an impoverished mother and daughter slaving away as embroiderers and barely making ends meet. They live in the Rue du Tourniquet-Saint-Jean–a rather dingy place by the sounds of it, with the widest stretch of the street “less than six feet across.” This bit of description serves to explain just why Madame Crochard and her daughter Caroline, who rent two cellar rooms with windows “their sills about five feet above the ground” watch and are in turn watched by those who pass by. Caroline, the heroine of the tale, is of course, young, sweet, beautiful and modest, and the mother, Balzac tells us “almost seemed to be offering her daughter, her gossiping eyes so evidently tried to attract some magnetic sympathy by manoeuvres worthy of the stage.” If this is indeed the plan, it eventually works as Caroline’s beauty and plight touches the heart of a passerby–an intense and rather unhappy man of about 40 who bears the evidence of “long mental suffering.” He’s attracted to Caroline, and she to him, and over the course of many months, long looks through the windows lead to a relationship. Although initially Caroline and her mother nickname him “the Gentleman in Black,” he tells them his name is Monsieur Roger.

The story takes one glance backward but also three leaps ahead in time. The first leap ahead finds Caroline installed in a house in the Rue Taitbout. It’s 1816:

Hangings of gray stuff trimmed with green silk adorned the walls of her bedroom; the seats, covered with light-coloured woolen sateen, were of easy and comfortable shapes, and in the latest fashion; a chest of drawers of some simple wood, inlaid with lines of a darker hue, contained the treasures of the toilet; a writing table to match served for inditing love-letters on scented paper; the bed, with antique draperies, could not fail to suggest thoughts of love by its soft hangings of elegant muslin; the window-curtains, of drab silk with green fringe, were always half drawn to subdue the light; a bronze clock represented Love crowning Psyche; a carpet of gothic design on a red ground set off the other accessories of this delightful retreat.

Caroline is now Roger’s mistress–although the uglier side of things is not referred to, and Caroline must be innocent indeed as she simply doesn’t seem to ‘get it.’  She drops her name Crochard and calls herself Caroline de Bellefeuille. Roger doesn’t visit every day, and often gives work as an excuse, but of course, that’s not the only reason.

The second time leap takes us forward to 1822. Caroline is now the mother of two children, and Roger (Caroline still doesn’t know his last name) arrives and gives her a “deed of gift of securities” for 3,000 francs which will be their daughter Eugenie’s “marriage portion.” In contrast, their son, Charles gets 1500. It’s difficult to completely swallow the story that Caroline never questions Roger about his absences, his identity, or his life away from her, but Balzac argues

Finally, invincible curiosity led her to wonder for the thousandth time what events they could be that led so tender a heart as Roger’s to find his pleasure in clandestine and illicit happiness. She invented a thousand romances on purpose really to avoid recognising the true reason, which she had long suspected but tried not to believe in.

Of course Caroline’s world comes tumbling down, and eventually Roger’s secret is revealed, and the third leap in time takes us forward to 1833. It’s at this point that A Second Home takes a strange turn, and it’s almost as though Balzac does an-about face with the moral of the story. All the moral justification and explanations about Roger’s behaviour have led to disaster…

In the story, Balzac, ever the bon vivant displays his loathing of religious maniacs:

And besides, bigots constitute a sort of republic; they all know each other; the servants they recommend and hand on from one to another are a race apart, and preserved by them, as horse-breeders will admit no animal into their stables that has not a pedigree. The more the impious–as they are thought–come to understand a household of bigots, the more they perceive that everything is stamped with an indescribable squalor; they find there, at the same time, an appearance of avarice and mystery, as in a miser’s home, and the dank scent of cold incense which gives a chill to the stale atmosphere of a chapel. This methodical meanness, this narrowness of thought, which is visible in every detail, can only be expressed by one word–Bigotry.

One point Balzac makes is that there’s a danger in a religious wife who will listen to a priest over her husband. Ah, the pathology of authority….

In Prometheus, a biography of Balzac by André Maurois, there’s the following passage:

A bourgeois of the Marias, a lover of aristocratic women, he had no wish for violent change. He condemned the extremists on both sides. In the Scènes de la Vie Privée he deplores the follies of the counter-revolutionary and anti-Bonapartist purges. All forms of bigotry shocked him. In the Abbé Fontanon, the confessor of Angélique de Granville (Une Double Famille), he gives us a picture of an ambitious, hypocritical priest which might have been drawn by the anti-clerical Stendhal

What I liked most about A Second Home is that while the tale has a veneer of sentimentality, underneath the sugary sweetness is some rather nasty stuff, and Balzac, ever the expert on human nature, explores the power politics of marriage and how one man who breaks out from bigotry causes immeasurable damage to others. What would Roger (and his creator) have made of the Frank Sinatra song: The Tender Trap?

Some starry night, when her kisses make you tingle
She’ll hold you tight, and you’ll hate yourself for being single

And all at once it seems so nice

The folks are throwing shoes and rice
You hurry to a spot, that’s just a dot on the map

You’re hooked, you’re cooked, you’re caught in the tender trap

A Second Home is translated by Clara Bell and available FREE for the kindle.

The Tender Trap lyrics from Cahn/Van Heusen

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The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac

“You know what kiddo? Dragging myself up in Belleville for the last month’s at least taught me one thing: wrinklies can wander the streets at night, stark naked, with diamond studs in their navels and the family silver hanging round their necks and not one smackhead’ll so much as touch them.”

I’d had my sights on the crime novels written by French author Daniel Pennac for some time, so when Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to do a virtual book exchange for Xmas, I was happy to see that one of Pennac’s novels made my list. This brings me to The Fairy Gunmother (La Fée Carabine), the second book in La Sage Malassène, a series of novels concerning Benjamin Malassène and his idiosyncratic family.  The first book is The Scapegoat (La Bonheur des Ogres) which introduces the main character, Benjamin.

The title, The Fairy Gunmother may give you a hint of what you’re in for as the writer loves wordplay, and if I had to compare this author to anyone else I’ve read, then that would be Raymond Queneau–specifically Zazie dans le Métro, which I loved incidentally. But back to the plot and more about the wordplay later.

The book begins in Belleville on a cold winter’s night with police Inspector Vanini hanging out on a street corner. There have been a number of old ladies robbed and murdered with their throats slit in Belleville, and with no suspects (other than Arabs in general), Vanini is on the lookout for suspicious persons and old ladies in trouble. As fate would have it, Vanini spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:

Then the old dear’s shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She’d lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn’t like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.

So we know that Vanini isn’t hanging around in Belleville for the love of old ladies. In fact he’s hoping that this particular old lady will slip and fall and give him a good laugh in the process. So why is Vanini in Belleville on a freezing winter’s night? Simple: he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the vicious crimes, and he has very specific ideas about Arabs:

He was Nationally Frontal and made no bones about it. And that’s just why he didn’t want people to say he was NF because he was a racist. No, like he’d once learnt at school. This was not a case of cause and effect. It was a case of consequences. That blond head of his had become Nationally Frontal as a consequence of having objectively thought through the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. And he had quite sensibly made up his mind that all scum should be chucked out of the country as soon as possible. Firstly, with a view to saving the purity of the French livestock, secondly because of unemployment and, finally, to uphold law and order. 

So although Vanini would love to see the old lady slip on the ice, he notices two Arabs standing opposite, and since he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the latest elderly whackings, he decides to go and help the frail old lady and to act as a “deterrent” to the Arabs’ imagined bad intentions. To the astonishment of the bystanders, the old lady pulls out a gun and blows Vanini “to smithereens.” The Arabs, knowing full well that no one will believe their story that a geriatric woman just felled Vanini, run from the scene of the crime.

The Fairy Gunmother then follows the fallout of Vanini’s murder as Chief Superintendent Cercaria swoops into Belleville on a mission to catch the killer. There’s a dramatic division within the department with Cercaria’s mob believing that the Arabs are to blame for everything, but meanwhile Inspector Van Thian argues otherwise. And he should know since he’s living disguised as “wrinklie” granny, the widow Ho in the middle of Belleville.  But since the police are unable to catch the granny-snuffers, Belleville grannies don’t count on the police for help, and instead  they begin arming themselves…

Benjamin, the main character of the series, is employed by Queen Zabo at Vendetta Press. He lives with a sprawling family with so many members it wasn’t easy keeping track of them all–especially since they tend to ‘adopt’ various old men–some of whom have been led into a life of ruin by drug pushers. The story has various threads which cover a number of crimes under investigation (with Benjamin becoming a suspect in all of them), and while the story may seem to swing out of control at times, by the end of the novel, all the loose ends are neatly tied together. Gentrification, racism, and the care of the elderly play no small role, and while there are a lot of laughs, the story’s message is deadly serious. Pennac’s tale is rife with playful humour, and many parts of the novel, bolstered by Pennac’s use of language, are laugh-out-loud funny:

Minus twelve weather can freeze your balls off, but Belleville was still bubbling like a devil’s cauldron. It was as if every copper in Paris was getting in on the act. They were crawling up from the Place Voltaire, parachuting onto Place Gambetta, doing pincer movements from Nation and the Goutte d’Or. With sirens blaring, lights flashing, tyres screeching left, right, and centre. The night was on fire. Belleville was vibrant. But Julius the Dog didn’t give a damn. In the half-light that goes with doggish pleasures, Julius was licking up a sheet of Africa-shaped black ice. It tasted delicious to his dangling tongue. A city is a dog’s favourite dinner.

During this razor-sharp night, it was as though Belleville was settling all its old scores with the Law. Side alleys rang to truncheons. Information highways stretched through Black Marias to the Station. Pushers were having their sleeves pulled, the Arab hunting season was open, big mustachioed pigs were out for a barbecue. Apart from that, the neighbourhood was much the same as usual, that is to say, ever-changing. It’s on its way to being clean, on its way to being smooth and on its way to being expensive. What’s left of the old Belleville housing sticks out like fillings in a grinning set of Hollywood teeth. Belleville’s on its way.

Translator Ian Monk

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You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

“Fear. That is what separates the hero from the common man. It’s crossing the room. It’s not complicated.”

After concluding Alexander Maksik’s novel, You Deserve Nothing, I began to wonder just who the  ‘you’  refers to.  Could it refer to Will Silver, an American who’s ditched his wife for vague reasons and now teaches at a swanky Parisian school for over-privileged teens? Could it refer to Marie, a young girl who develops a huge crush on Will? Could it refer to Gilad–another adoring pupil of Silver’s? But then again, by the time the novel ends with an emptiness created by absence and a lack of explanations, perhaps  ‘you‘  refers to all those involved in this page-turner tale of teacher-pupil classroom power dynamics & transference.

The story unfolds through three perspectives, and the first three short chapters are narrated by Will, Gilad and Marie post trauma and scandal. The story then moves swiftly back to the past, and we see Will Silver, a young teacher separated from his wife, living in Paris and teaching under dream conditions. By dream conditions,  I should clarify that Will teaches a sum total of four classes; all of the students are bright, inquisitive, already wrapped in a sound education, and what’s more the class size is very small–perhaps, as it turns out, too small….

Will is a dedicated, dynamic and charismatic teacher who’s teaching for the third year at the International School (ISF) in Paris. His reputation in the school is such that students look forward to his classes; he has a way of posing vital questions to his students even as he challenges their cocooned beliefs. Parents–mainly diplomats, high-ranking military personnel and wealthy businessmen–invite Will to their homes and thank him for his genuine interest in their children. Most of the students, while wealthy and privileged, lack stability in their lives, and Will is the intellectual figure that all the students aspire to impress and imitate. While some of the students are extremely cultured and sophisticated, other students suffer from the other issues:

These kids like Mike Chandler who were fluent in several languages and cultures, who were so relaxed, so natural in exquisite apartments at elaborate parties, who moved from country to country, from adult to adolescent with a professional ease, were not the standard at ISF.

Most were kids who’d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt. The move only strengthened their faith in conservative American politics. They refused France. Their rebellion was, by default, an adamant rejection of their new home and all things French. Their families bought food from the commissary at the American Embassy. Kid’s who’d return from weekend trips talked excitedly about the Taco Bell and Burger King they’d found at Ramstein.

You Deserve Nothing covers some very familiar ground, but Alexander Masik’s first novel rises above the crowd for its treatment of philosophical and moral issues. While this is manifested in the choices made in the multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives, the moral and philosophical issues also exist as an undercurrent to the drama that takes in the lively and realistic classroom scenes. Silver designs a senior seminar course which includes coverage of Sartre, Camus, Macbeth and Existentialism. He leads the discussions with the aim of sparking independent thought & intellectual curiosity, but Silver runs into some fairly common problems when it comes to the topic of religion, the issue of choice, & taking responsiblity for the decisions we make. The classroom dynamic, however, also begins to encompass Silver’s not-so-secret personal life, and Silver, who’s been put on a pedestal by most of his worshipful students, does not live up to their expectations or follow the creed he teaches. While classroom discussion is supposed to dissect and discuss hypothetical situations, Silver’s behaviour gradually comes under condemnation from all those around him.

It’s very easy to jump in on the band wagon and call for Silver to be run out-of-town, that’s not the only issue here.  Undercurrents of jealousy run between the students, and classroom politics impact what happens–everyone idolizes Silver, and it’s painful for worshippers to witness the fall of someone who’s been judged to be morally superior. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel, at least it is for Gilad who finds the entire distasteful episode devastating. To Gilad, who’s half in love with Silver, his hero is a positive male role model–perhaps the man he’d like to be, and certainly a man to be contrasted to his own brutal, half-drunk and abusive father. Gilad is essentially the confused outsider–someone who tries to make sense of it all, and although he’s not directly involved, he’s certainly impacted by the events that take place. Gilad, a sensitive and idealistic young man, can’t understand his parents’ troubled relationship, but as his mother explains, life isn’t always what you expected it to be:

People used to tell me when I was young that I didn’t know what I was capable of, that my intelligence was limitless, that I could do anything. Which I’ve come to realize is true in both directions. I never imagined that I was capable of this life. It would have seemed impossible to me when I was younger, but god do we surprise ourselves. They never tell you that what we surprise ourselves with may be disappointment.  

There’s an incident in the novel that I’m still mulling over. Without ruining the novel with spoilers, both Will and Gilad bizarrely walk way from a horrific event and don’t consider offering to be witnesses. The subject simply never comes up. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of the novel or if this is an intentional development which illustrates both Will and Gilad’s detachment from events. I think I’ll land on the latter.

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Death in Paris: A Sobering Thought

I recently read Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King. Since writing the post, I’ve been dwelling on a passage that I didn’t add to the review. It’s a sobering section of the book that gives a sense of the desperation of the times, and it’s important enough to merit a post of its own. In the chapter, German Night, David King describes the atmosphere in Paris when the Germans arrived:

For years before, many of Paris’s richest and most privileged residents began fleeing the capital. The Duke of Windsor; Prince George of Greece, Princess Winnie de Polignac and her niece, Daisy Fellowes, the heiress to the Singer sewing fortune, had all departed. The Aga Khan set out for Switzerland. Peggy Guggenheim stored her art collection in a friend’s barn and drove away in her Talbot, in the direction of the Haute Savioe ski resort of Megève.

Not far behind were a number of writers, painters, and artists who had turned the City of Light into what the New York Times art critic Harold Rosenberg called “the laboratory of the twentieth century.” James Joyce left for a village outside Vichy before continuing into Zurich. Alice B. Toklas departed for Culoz, near Annecy. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Réne Magritte, and Wassily Kandinsky headed south. Vladimir Nabokov secured the last ocean liner to New York. Walter Benjamin hiked across a mountain passageway into Spain, but made it no further than Portbou, where he committed suicide at age forty-eight.

A mass exodus started in May 1940, and King tells us that “of France’s forty million people, an estimated six to ten million inhabitants clogged the roads” in a futile attempt to escape from the ever-advancing German army. On June 14, 1940 the German army was  “goosestepping … down an otherwise silent Champs-Elysées.”

At least sixteen people in Paris took their own lives that day. The neurosurgeon and head of the American hospital, Comte Thierry de Martel, stuck his arm with a syringe filled with strychnine. Novelist Ernest Weiss, Franz Kafka’s best friend, swallowed a large dose of barbiturates, but when this overdose failed to have its intended effect, he slashed his wrists, dying twenty-four hours later. The sixty-four-year-old concierge at the Pasteur Institute, Joseph Meister, shot himself in the head rather than obey the German invaders–he had been the first person cured of rabies by Louis Pasteur.

King’s powerful, amazingly visual, chilling  descriptions capture the desperation of those who understood the consequences of the German army’s arrival.

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