Tag Archives: Paris

Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell

 

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Three Novels: Nina Berberova

“Alyosha tried to explain to his mother that the proletariat were the people who smelled.”

Nina Berberova’s Three Novels is really three novellas: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, and Astashev in Paris. While these three stories are very different, there are underlying themes of displacement and fate, as we see Russian emigres on the move, settled in Paris, and bitterly unhappy. (There’s another book titled Three Novels from Berberova, but it contains three different novellas.)

The Resurrection of Mozart is set in France, June 1940, “just at the time when the French army was beginning its final and irrevocable retreat.” It’s a “quiet warm evening” thirty miles from Paris at the country home of Vassily Georgievich Sushkov and his wife Maria Leonidovna Sushkova. The handful of guests talk about war and “the omens of war,” and the conversation turns to a dead friend and what the dead would say “if they were resurrected and saw what is going on now.” From this point a discussion ensues with each guest offering an opinion of who they would resurrect if they had the power. One man would “spare his parents” while another man says he’s resurrect Tolstoy:

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you dear sir, who denied that role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took such a cynical view of vaccination? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just look at the result.

Everyone has an opinion, and the hostess decides she would resurrect Mozart. Gunfire is heard in the distance, and the dinner party breaks up. It’s an evening which will never be repeated, for when our characters gather again, it’s under vastly different circumstances.

The Waiter and the Slut is set in Paris, and is the story of Tania, the daughter of a “Petersburg bureaucrat who had risen to the rank of full councillor of state–a distrustful, unhealthy and discontented man.” He’s transferred to Siberia and when revolution begins, the family flee to Japan. Tania seduces her sister’s lover, and they marry. Little does she know that this is the high point of her life, for soon she’s in Paris penniless, alone, and aging. This novella reminded me of Jean Rhys for desperate Tania is loitering in bars with the hope to pick up a man who will support her–true her friends scrape by with menial work, but Tania’s life has been defined by seducing men, and so it continues.  She’s

in search of something she couldn’t give a name to but without which she couldn’t imagine living in the world. This indispensable thing consisted of idleness and physical pleasure, in other words, in her private language, Parisian happiness. 

After a series of liaisons, she meets an older Russian waiter who can’t believe his luck when she allows him to take her home. He was once a handsome cavalry lieutenant but now he’s poor–employed, yes, but in a humiliating capacity.  He connects with Tania, a woman who theoretically he could have danced with at a ball in the grand old days. To Bologovsky, Tania is “his last treasure.”

She had somehow managed to come back to him, bringing with her all he had lost.

While the waiter is grateful, Tania isn’t. Bored by her waiter, she becomes obsessed with lurid crime stories and hatches a plot. …

The last novella, Astashev in Paris is my favourite. Astashev is a middle-aged bachelor, an insurance salesman who has managed to replicate the bones of his life in Russia. In Russia, as a child, he moved between his mother’s impoverished home and the gaiety of his father’s household which was under the direction of Astashev’s glamorous risque stepmother. Decades have passed but Astashev moves between his mother’s grimy, dilapidated little apartment (which is “delightfully situated,”) and his stepmother’s salon. Astashev doesn’t regret the lost of Russia and he seems perfectly at home in Paris. As a salesman, meeting people who worry about the future and the meaning of life, he tries to sell financial assurance but in his private life, he’s amoral and completely corrupt. He meets a respectable young woman who works at a theatre, and the meeting results in tragedy.

This book is not to be missed for Berberbova fans or for those who like Russian emigre writing. The three stories illustrate phases of Russian emigre displacement. In The Resurrection of Mozart, displaced Russians are about to be displaced once more. In The Waiter and the Slut, Bologovsky prizes Tania for what she represents–his lost world. In his memories, Bologovsky has images of himself as a dashing young cavalry officer:

Tight white gloves on his little hands, and his long cadet’s overcoat, and something proud and awesome which happened after he joined the Corps. The wild and wonderful freedom of spring, and again the azure December weather, and that intersection near Exchange Bridge where for some reason he always imagined an ocean liner entering the Neva through the mists, bursting its banks, and growing and growing until it towered over the Peter and Paul Fortress; and something else: sobbing strident brass, the curl of regimental trumpets over his father’s coffin. Sand and snow. And quiet. And in the black northern sky a comet he had glimpsed one night from a window. And something else, something…

In Astashev in Paris, Astashev is, materially at least, much better off than older Russians. He’s built a life for himself in Paris; he doesn’t long for his past as his present offers a smorgasbord of illicit, deviant possibilities, but there’s a void where his moral center should be, and there’s the idea that while he’s done well, somehow, he’s been corrupted in the process.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.

monsieur

The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.

the-black-notebook

The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy

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Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

Review copy

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After the Circus: Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.

The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?

Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.

This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.

after the circusOn the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”

At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”

At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a  locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.

I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.

And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.

After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.

I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.

With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.

What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.

This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.

Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Henri Duchemin and His Shadows: Emmanuel Bove

Lost, desperate, isolated characters inhabit Emmanuel Bove’s short story collection Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (1928). While the characters are sometimes isolated due to circumstance, it’s primarily their inner thoughts and private fears that separate them from mainstream society.  The dominant threads here are broken relationships, absorbing disillusionment and coming to terms with a less-than-satisfactory life. Naturally, most of the disillusion occurs in relationships between men and women.

Night Crime is set on Christmas Eve with the title character, Henri Duchemin, mired in a life of poverty turning desperately to a stranger for sympathy, but he’s told that if he’s that unhappy, he should just kill himself.

He closed his window and, motionless in front of the only armchair, he saw women everywhere, in the depths of the walls, standing on his bed, languidly waving their arms. No, he would not kill himself. At forty a man is still young and can, if he perseveres, become rich.

Henri Duchemin dreamed of supplicants, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed the disorder of his room had grown, in contrast as it was with his reveries.

This is a nightmarish, surreal tale in which Duchemin is tempted by a stranger to commit a crime which will supposedly solve all of his problems.

In Another Friend, a poor man is befriended by a wealthy stranger. The poor man imagines that he has met someone, finally, who will be an understanding friend, only to discover that the stranger collects poor people and gets some strange satisfaction from giving them a meal and listening to their tales of woe.

Henri ducheminIn Night Visit, marital woes between Paul and Fernande spill over on to Paul’s friend, Jean. Paul worships Fernande and describes her in the most glowing terms, but Jean finds Fernande to be a “rather corpulent, rather common woman.” Who can explain why we love some people while we ignore others who are far more suitable? Here’s the story’s final passage which, on the surface, would seem to have little to do with the subject.

An automobile on its way to Les Halles passed very close to us. In the pure, freezing air, it left such a circumscribed scent of vegetables that when we took one step to the side, we could not smell it any more. In the middle of the sleeping city, beneath the sky, we were alone. The moon had disappeared. And without it, as if they lacked a leader, the stars seemed to be in disarray.

In What I Saw  the narrator, Jean (possibly the character from the previous tale) tells the story of his girlfriend, Henriette. While the narrator stresses how much he loves his girlfriend who is “as sweet as an angel,” we get the impression that beneath the surface, there’s an undercurrent of problems. Some of these problems are manifested in the narrator’s insufferable attitude towards females in general: “One shouldn’t ask too much of a woman,” for example.  There are hints that he’s been unfaithful perhaps, but he’s always forgiven, and when he tests her love with questions, she always gives the right responses.

 Even though she is beautiful, she recognizes that a man’s lapse is not as great as a woman’s.

Through the narrator’s description of his girlfriend, a picture of Henriette gradually builds. There’s nothing to fault in what she says or what she does, but somehow, once again, there’s a feeling of unease.

Candy, cake, fruit-she always goes without in order to offer them to me and, if I don’t take them, because I know how fond she is of them, she insists with so much love that I would be hurting her if I continued to refuse them. Nothing exists for her. She sees all of life through me.

Is this woman a saint? Or has she honed her manipulative skills to a fine point? Or is she merely holding her own in this relationship in which the narrator completely underestimates the female sex?

In Is it A Lie?, my favourite in this collection, a much older husband, Mr. Marjanne must confront his wife’s infidelity when she provides a very flimsy story excusing an overnight absence. This short story takes us through Claire Marjanne’s ridiculous version of events, and as a result we become both witnesses and participants in her fabrication. Taking the moral high ground, she grasps the power in the marital relationship and then Claire manipulates her husband, drawing him into her web of lies, liberally casting details and logic as though these will base her story in reality.

“None of that tells me where you spent the night. You had to sleep somewhere, after all.”

“If you interrupt me one more time, I’m warning you I won’t tell you another thing. You think it’s amusing to recount everything in such detail? Listen to me now. So I leave Le Printemps. It was exactly six-thirty and I say to myself “Robert must be waiting for me, I’ve got to hurry.” But instead of taking a cab in front of the store–you know how crowded it is there, I would have waited for an hour–I go on foot to boulevard Malsherbes. And right then, when I am on the corner of rue du Havre, I run into–you’ll never guess who. Who do you think?’

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, guess.”

“Maud!”

“No, no. I told you a moment ago that I had left her at Madeleine’s “

In Mr. Marjanne’s mind Claire was only trying to give the illusion of truth. To be less alone with her lie, she wanted to make her husband participate in it. But he was determined not to let himself be dragged into it and simply answered: “I don’t know” and “What can I say?”

Is he wise to accept his wife’s ridiculous story and ignore her suspected infidelity or has he just opened the door to future misery?

Bove is not a first tier writer–well at least not for this book. Some of the narrators, who suffer from a sameness in tone, ramble, repetitively before getting on with their stories. One of the blurbs connects Bove’s stories to the female characters in the novels of Jean Rhys. I’d disagree, and if you’re hoping to find Jean Rhys-type stories here, you’ll be disappointed. Bove’s main characters are lost males, and if there are women in their lives, then the women are lying to them, cheating on them, or simply moving on. The story Henri Duchemin and His Shadows gives a glimpse of café culture, reminiscent of Rhys, and a hard, acid-tongued woman who tells the title character to stop whining and just kill himself. Ultimately the women here are the tough ones–they survive and move on leaving their men wondering just what went wrong.

Resurrected by New York Review books. Translated by Alyson Waters

Review copy

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Filed under Bove Emmanuel, Fiction