The Woman From Bratislava, Leif Davidsen

Standard

TWfBratislavaI came across Leif Davidsen while traveling to Copenhagen. I hadn’t heard of him before. Though there’s been quite a surge in Scandinavian crime fiction, I was somehow disappointed with them, and wasn’t sure I’d enjoy yet another crime investigation from up north. But the passenger next to me, who happened to be an English teacher in Copenhagen, promised that I would not disappointed.

8 months later, I can confirm she was right.

I don’t know which label to give to this book. The cover’s tagline says “One of Denmark’s top crime writers”. I wouldn’t say this book is a crime novel, not in the sense of police procedural novels, nor is there a detective sniffing around, or CSIs revealing last-minute scientific truths. I wouldn’t also say it’s a spy novel, even though the word Bratislava tricked me into thinking that when I picked it up. Let’s say that it’s a genre of its own.

Set against the backdrop of the NATO bombing on Serbia and Kosovo, the story is told from the perspective of the three main characters: Teddy Pedersen, the history professor who is on tour in the Balkans, Per Toftlund, the PET (Denmark’s Internal Security Intelligence Agency) detective assigned to the case, and Irma, Teddy’s sister the main suspect in the case.

The case is nothing more than a suspicion that PET has about a mole inside of NATO; a mole that was potentially operating as a double agent for the Russians during the communist times and who might have caused the liquidation of Danish spies by the Russians, at the time. A mole who goes by the lovely name of Edelweiss. The reader forms a clear idea of the case in the second part of the book when the perspective of the story shifts to that of Per Toftlund.

To get to that, we first spend 100 pages with Teddy. I loved that character: he is sarcastic, funny, with his marriage falling apart, mostly because of his mistakes, wishing that he could fix it, while at the same time admitting that he is a serial cheater, who couldn’t be bothered to phone in home to check on the family. Still, he’s able to admit that:

We imagine that we live in an age when our hearts cannot be broken, but betrayal and broken promises hurt as much as they ever did.

In his touring of Eastern Europe, Teddy notes the transition between communism and capitalism. The book was published in Denmark in 2001, and so the remarks he makes were pertinent for the time. In Bratislava, he remarks:

Nowhere in the world will you find finer street musicians. And always there is a beggar with no legs, a little old lady swathed in shawls or a cripple covered in running sores. The communists hid them out of the way, Capitalism has driven them out into the open in all their pitiful wretchedness. It is easy, in today’s post-communist world, to feel like a socialist.

In Bratislava, Teddy encounters the woman from Bratislava, who turns out to be his half-sister, who harshly reveals to him that his father did not die in Hamburg when Teddy was 3, that he led a full life in Bratislava with his wife, whom he met during the war when he was fighting on the side of the Nazis, part of the Danish Legion. A bit too much even for our embittered Teddy. What’s worse, his sister Irma and his brother Fritz knew about the resurrected father in Bratislava. His half sister leaves him with an envelope of pictures and documents proving her story to him and upon her departure Teddy is hit by a lumbago that prevents him from continuing the trip further to Budapest. This saves his life. The room he was supposed to book is ransacked at night and the colleague who substituted Teddy is found murdered.

I wished the book was told from Teddy’s perspective. I’m beginning to warm up to first person narratives, but I suppose for our case, we needed the lucidity and the detached look of Per Toftlund.

Per is the opposite of Teddy. A calm individual married in love and expecting a child. Per had messed up a surveillance mission he had and was disciplined by being transferred to Immigration & Customs. His former boss throws him a bone, and gives him a chance to reintegrate PET by assigning him on the Edelweiss case. What was supposed to be a tracking of a mole inside NATO takes on a different form when a Stealth bomber is shot down by the Serbs. A catastrophe since those bombers are not supposed to be detected. With the Russians implicitly taking the side of the Serbs, shooting down the bomber will give their engineers a chance to deconstruct it to obtain the technology they are missing.

Irma, suspected of leaking out the information of the flight path of that Stealth bomber to the Russians or to the Serbs, is arrested as she returns from Stockholm and held in solitary confinement in Denmark. The third perspective opens up on another first-person narrative in a letter she addresses to her half-sister, the woman from Bratislava, in which she details her childhood, her Nazi-collaborating father and the turn of events in her life that led her towards the radical left in the 70s.

The joy I got from reading this book did not come from solving the case, from the twists in tracking down Edelweiss, from uncovering who killed Teddy’s substitute in Budapest. I liked the changing perspectives, the realities of politics and international security that are never stable but that shift with changing parties, changing ideologies and changing interests, to the point where one wonders who is a traitor and who is a hero. Similarly, these changes are cascaded upon the main characters of the novels, and they undergo changes when realities change.

Teddy, for example, cannot view his father as being a servant of his country when he takes up arms and joins the Danish legion to fight alongside the Nazis, encouraged by the then Danish government, which quickly rids itself of the more outspoken Nazi-collaborators once it became clear Nazi Germany was going to lose the war.  At the same time, the Estonians do not view the pro-Nazi Danish Legion as evil because they helped them backing off the Russians on their borders and prevented a massacre. Per Toftlund gradually realizes that he can no longer act fearlessly and almost carelessly in his missions when he knows there is a wife and a child waiting back home, and that working for PET, there were no clearly defined rules of right and wrong as matters are in Immigration and Customs.

I also loved the walkthrough details of the Easter European capitals, Prague, Tirana, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. Ten years after the fall of communism the change is still not visible in the building and the infrastructure but in the advertisements and in the pervading English. Posters that called women forward towards the great socialist revolution now advertised cosmetics “for the better you”, hotels, restaurants and pubs that once had a particular Bratislavian cachet now resemble any other hotel anywhere around the world. It is not unlike how it was for us in Lebanon during the war, especially with the political posters or the figures of resistance that were plastered everywhere one’s gaze landed were replaced almost overnight with corporate logos, Coca-Cola and Johnny Walker and the like (in the case of Lebanon it was more Pepsi and Dewar’s) and gradually French lost its distinguished appeal over people and everyone, with time, shifted to a form of English.

To quote about the above from the book, here is Teddy explaining to Teddy about Albania post-communism:

When all the apparatus of the market-economy spilled into this country in the early nineties the population was totally unprepared for it. It was like putting a virgin in bed with a porn star.

I highly recommend this book: it is funny, it is shocking at times, and it is quite informative for someone, like me, not well knowledgeable about Eastern & Central Europe and their transition into the market-economy. I will be picking up more titles from Leif Davidsen. Perhaps in the others the intrigue will be more prominent the writing less entertaining, but I am sure, as it is in this book, they will balance themselves out to my pleasure.

 

L’Horloger D’Everton, Georges Simenon

Standard

 

421_001

Simenon wrote L’Horloger d’Everton in 1954, in Lakeville, Connecticut. It is one of the 25 works – romans-durs and Maigrets – that will be produced during his 5 years in America. That’s 5 novels per year, on average. Perhaps, because of his abundant productivity, his writing did not change between France, the US or Switzerland. What is noticeable though, in this book, is the abundance of items that are given their american labels: living room, dad, slacks, rye, high school, federal building, etc… italicized whenever utilized.

L’Horloger d’Everton is the story of a father, Dave Galloway, living alone with his son Ben, 16, ever since Ben’s mother, Ruth left them when the boy was 6 months old.
Dave leads a monotonous life among the inhabitants of Everton; he is familiar with most of his neighbors because of his watch-repairing shop. Every Saturday night, he heads off to his friend Musak, and they spend their Saturdays playing trictrac with their rye drinks.

Heading back home on one of those Saturdays, Dave finds that Ben is not there. Brought out of his house by the cries of his neighbor, Mrs. Hawkins, dragging her drunkard husband up the stairs towards their home, Dave is made aware of her concern that it is a little too late for Ben and Lilian to be at the movies. This ludicrous scene, between the cries of the drunk Mr. Hawkins, his wife trying to shut him up, forcing him to stand still, while informing Dave that Ben has been a frequent guest of their house for the past three months, shakes up Dave’s impression that he and Ben were on the same page, that they understood one another, that they were a good team. In this badly-lit hallway, Dave starts to realize that his life with Ben  as he thought he knew it, is no more.

In the early morning light, the missing elements of Ben’s disappearance start falling into place: a visit by the police tells him that his son stole an Oldsmobile after, as it might seem, having murdered its owner; he is riding on the interstate along with a girl, Lilian, most probably.

The events that follow are very American in their appearance, and I got the feeling that Simenon couldn’t have written them as such had he not spent time there, whilst retaining his own rendering of Dave’s grasp of this new reality. A manhunt is set on track after Dave’s interrogation by the police and the press invades Dave’s little privacy. In a matter of hours, America knows about the police chasing the dangerous suspect Ben through the news flashes that interrupt the radio programs transmitting baseball games.

I won’t say more about the plot; it is a quick read but one that I don’t recommend. I haven’t read Simenon in almost two years, having finished Assouline’s biography of him in January 2013, and I thought it was about time to pick up something by him again.

I suppose if one is familiar with Maigret and picks up this book, then yes, I can understand being taken by L’Horloger d’Everton. However, What I saw was a repetition of characters, a repetition of expressions and almost the same setup of other romans-durs. For example, I wonder if Simenon ever wrote a novel in which the protagonist spoke or expressed himself much more than just absorbed what is going on around him, passively grasping the reality of things, acting more than just a mere observer of life. Rare are the books where the protagonist is a woman, or where woman have a positive influence on the plot.

There are variations among the novels, to be sure: cigarettes or pipes, murderers vs innocent, married or single, rich or poor, but nothing deep. These slight variations do not hold my interest much long. The plot structure triggered by a murder that transforms the reality of those affected by it without them having any influence on the course of events is a structure that works in Maigrets but not in the romans-durs.

This is why when I’ll be picking up Simenon again it will be a Maigret. At least in a Maigret, I know I will be jumping in a pre-defined environment, the Quai des Orfevres, Paris, the shady individuals, the extravagantly rich people, the wife of Maigret in the background, the heater of Maigret, his temper, his compassion with the victims, his understanding of the complexities of family life… If I read a dozen of similar Maigrets, I’m not bothered. But stumbling upon the “serious” novels which explicitly and repeatedly borrow from the Maigret is something I no loner enjoy.

To be fair, how much can an author change in 400 novels, novellas and short stories, not forgetting that I didn’t read half of those. Judging from the titles, I suppose there are novels that do not quite resemble those I’ve read so far, for example: La Veuve Coudère, Lettre À Mon Juge, and Pedigree.
Though I don’t recommend it, L’Horloger D’Everton is a book praised by TS Eliot who was also a fan of the Maigret novels, and it fared well when it was published. Perhaps, this is why there are so many covers of this book, a surprise I received when searching for a cover image to add to my post.

I picked the top cover because at least the image reflects a scene that is present twice in the book when Dave crumbles down on his bed first after suspecting that Ben might have completely taken off, and the second time when he is done with the press and is completely beat. The image also resembles his incomprehension when Ruth left him.

The grey cover right below does not reflect the content of the book because we’re only in Dave’s workshop in the first pages of the book, the second one in red plays on the mystery of the Oldsmobile, the Livre de Poche cover is too abstract for our story, and the last cover promises a love story as it seems.

cvt_LHorloger-dEverton_9875

077_L230
9782253142843-Tromanpatr_Horloger dEverton

L’Ardeur des Pierres, Céline Curiol

Standard

l-ardeur-des-pierres-500534-250-400

I took a chance on this book. The blurb didn’t particularly interest me and I haven’t heard at all of the writer but I guess an old marketing trick worked on me: my copy appeared to be the only one left in the bookstore, so better snatch it before the next reader. I do fall for this trick: this is how I bought my last books even though I had plenty of unread ones on my shelves, but the fact that they suddenly show up in the bookstore in singletons triggers a buying reaction form me, as if by doing this I’m snagging a one-of-its-kind opportunity.

A missed opportunity it would have been, indeed, had I not picked it up again, even though in the beginning I abandoned it after a rash tweet to Curiol that I am reading her book and very much enjoying it. I abandoned it because I didn’t know anything about Japan, I didn’t know about Japanese gardens, nor about patchinko (even though it’s only mentioned once in the book). It’s strange that a book by a French about Japan got me curious about the culture, and a classic Japanese (Snow Country, Kawabata) failed to do that. Both are slow reads (is it something about the country?) but with Curiol I felt that I was feeling my way through the book, much as she was, I would suppose.

This book challenges my stubbornness in refusing to admit that I learn anything from literature. In a way it’s true I didn’t learn anything from the book itself, but the book triggered my curiosity, which would have been otherwise dormant vis-a-vis a country like Japan. Et donc, armed with my tiny knowledge about Japan and with a tweet committing me to finish the book, I present to you L’Ardeur des Pierres.

Almost every page of the book felt to me like going through a cycle: the writing would get a hold on my attention but the inactivity and the silence of the lieu would distract me until the writing would reclaim my attention again, all the way until the climatic ending.

The story is framed by factual dates and names both in the beginning and in the end and this would have normally irritated me had it not been for the fictitious which quickly takes over:

Sidonie, a black French woman, travels to Japan on vacation. Her first, real Japanese encounter is with her ryokan‘s receptionist, a man who dyes his long hair blonde, not a sight Sidonie would have expected as she remarks to herself.Her black skin, her thick hair, and her uncanny presence in such a place will trigger the imagination of the two main characters, Kanto and Yone.

Kanto is presented to us as a man who will go about with his life refusing to apologize, a one-time thief of kamo-ishi (rare stones), maintaining the garden of a Frenchman in Kyoto, the owner of a villa which is unlike its surrounding Japanese structures. Thus, in a few pages, all the clichés that a foreign reader might be expecting of Japan are demolished yet without taking out from us the consciousness that the plot is taking place in Japan.

A floor above Kanto, resides his neighbor, Yone, a big man within a 35m2 apartment, who -though familiar with Kanto- will only once make contact with him, towards the end of the book. The two men live in unsettling isolation which will only worsen time moves forward setting them face to face with their obsessions.

In his scarcely maintained apartment with its faltering bonzais and expiring food, Kanto places the two kamo-ishi having psychologically endured in physically removing them from their habitat:

A découvert, il céderait presque à la tentation de se mettre à courir par précaution, l’imagination nourrissant la peur et la peur, l’imagination, un hélicoptère de la police surgit derrière les cimes des arbres, vrombissant de toutes ses palmes, assigné à la seule surveillance de Kanto le voleur.

Kanto transports the two stones into his van away from curious eyes, or eyes he imagines might be curious of the content of his van, and in this long journey to the safety of his home, he manages to offend his boss, to distance himself from his friend Fumito, and to risk getting caught by the police. Whenever he moves away from his stones, whether physically or in his imagination, like a magnet he is drawn back to their presence, or to their idea. The anxiety weighs on him so much that the precious stones start appearing to him as if they are in mutation, as if they are alive. The awareness of this imaginary characteristic of those stones is so trying to his nerves that it even pulls him deeper into his own seclusion.

Away from the reclusive Kanto, our first impression of Yone is that of successful, happy fellow, working as a questions writer for a popular television game show, Gradually however, we realize that this man is in search of his own identity: he doesn’t know who his father is, his bulky build is a cause of his insecurity around people, and to top it all, he doubts his own virility. In such a frame of mind, Yone becomes intrigued by the story of Ichihachi, a murder not yet caught by the police, and whose story Yone is attempting to write… literally one phrase at a time. His obstinacy in writing this novel takes on epic (in the traditional sense) proportions once he sets his sight on a complex typewriter whose mechanism produces one sentence after an eternity of maneuvering, and he does all what it takes to acquire the machine.

I was surprised that such a scene worked, it didn’t struck me as fake, even though it is implausible; I suppose it’s the blowing up of what should be a simple tool that works in this case, and blends fiction and reality in this story. Our machine will be present in the end scene, but what is the role of Sidonie in all of this? How will Yone and Kanto be brought into contact, and why? I will not reveal those juicy details; instead, I invite you to read the book and check out for yourselves.

In fact, the interest in reading this book lies in the banal situations which Curiol renders so vividly, as in her recounting of the swiftly stolen second stone:

Avec de meilleurs réflexes, il redescend la pente tel un tarzan de liane en liane, un professionnel skieur sur pieds, en moins de temps que prévu atteignant la rive qu’il remonte sans ralentir, certain à présent de sa direction. D’une main arracher le ruban, puis se mettre à deblayer la neige, pas une seconde à perdre, les gestes répliqués à l’identique, les mains encore plus froides devenant outils.

Or in her writing of Sidonie’s effect on Kanto:

Il doit se convaincre de rentrer, de l’oublier, d’oublier toute espèce de divagation dans laquelle elle puisse figurer.

Within such a short book (200 pages) light touches like the above are enough to convey the right image to the reader. I was also impressed with her knowledge of the Japanese culture, and I cite here an example that reminded of Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case wherein the European priest, who got accustomed to Africa, remarks the following: “Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”

Curiol writes about Kanto prying into the contents of the living room of his boss

Mais il espère qu’en ne bougeant absolument pas, qu’en jouant au Japonais détaché, impavide, une ruse nationale, qu’il parviendra peut-être à dissuader le propriétaire d’insister, par respect des coutumes étrangères.

The books is recommended even if the slow reading pace might discourage some readers. I will definitely be reading more books by Curiol: a very fine discovery, one that could only have been done inside a bookstore.

Le Premier Amour, Véronique Olmi

Standard

48498224

Another book bought from the Salon du Livre à Beyrouth. I hesitated a lot before even considering this book as a potential buy, because I had no intention of reading something with the word Amour in its title. I also didn’t know what to think of the blurb in the back, a woman abandoning everything because she wants to rejoin her first love. Classically corny.

And since I didn’t learn my lesson from assuming too much based on blurbs, this time I was pleasantly surprised. Somehow, even though I wasn’t a 48-year old married woman with three daughters, I identified quite well with the leading character, Emilie.

It’s her 25th wedding anniversary. She regrets not being able to celebrate it in New York (wise choice), and so decides against dinner at a restaurant and opts to stay in. She takes the day off and thoroughly prepares the food, takes care of her clothes, lingerie, even bed sheets, and heads down to the cellar to pick-up a bottle of wine. The bottle of wine is wrapped with a newspaper on which is a classified with the words:

Emilie, Aix 1976. Rejoins-moi au plus vite à Gênes [Meet me as soon as possible in Genoa]. Dario

She leaves home, takes her car and heads south to Italy fully conscious of her act, which is something I appreciated in the story. Questions arise in her head, certainly, but nothing to make her doubt her whim. Gradually, she starts wondering about how the others would react, primarily her husband, Marc, whether he would bother her parents, whether he would call her daughters, and what would he think of her act.

The book is split into two parts, before and after Genoa. The before part is the more interesting one to me precisely because the entertainment aspect of the story is missing from it. The second part is a mere plot development: we want to find out if all this was true, if she will meet with him, why did Dario ask her to join him, etc…

The first part is the one of the flashbacks to 1976, to her first encounter with Dario, to her teen years growing up in a family in Aix with her sister who has Down’s syndrome, and a mother with whom she longs to connect. Incidentally, I like how she introduced the reader to her sister:

Souvent je pense à cette grande soeur qui avait quelque chose de plus que moi, un chromosome pas très sympathique, le 21.

[I often think of my elder sister who had a little something more than me, the not so nice chromosome 21]

In the first part is the dressing up of the balance sheet of her life: her marriage to Marc, having a family while being employed, taking part in society, in the community, among her colleagues, playing the social role of hostess and friend, raising her daughters. She reveals having done all that in beautiful writing:

Je voulais me marier, avoir des enfants, un metier, des amis, des vacances et des Noël. J’ai eu tout ça. J’y ai mis tant d’énergie, de peur et d’attention, j’ai suivi tant de conseils, lu tant de livres, de magazines, passé tant d’heures au téléphone avec des amies qui avaient des enfants du même age, des maris trop sérieux ou volages, trop présents ou pressés, et qui me donnaient des adresses de Gîtes de France, de médecins compétents, de psychologues disponibles, on échangeaient nos colères et nos fatigues mais jamais pour s’en débarrasser, toujours pour les surmonter, les faire passer pour une défaillance passagère, on avait tort.

[I wanted to get married, have children, a job, friends, holidays and Christmases. I had it all. I put so much energy, fear and attention, I followed all the tips, read all the books and magazines, spent so many hours on the phone with friends who had children of the same age , overly serious or promiscuous husbands, too close or inaccessible, friends who tipped me on hotels and vacations, competent doctors, available psychologists, we exchanged of our anger and our fatigue but never to get rid of them, always to overcome them and making them seem to be a temporary lapse, we were wrong.]

After this passage that encompasses the lifetime of a working mother, I thought it is understandable if she jumps ship and decides to have her little adventure. But apparently it’s still not the case for women, even in the Western world: our narrator wonders if she is allowed to have an adventure at her age, and what are the rules and judgements that govern such a behavior? There are none.

This is the beauty of literature; in those social grey areas one can postulate many hypotheses and test them in a book. In Le Premier Amour, Emilie, as much as she tries, cannot extricate herself from her role as a mother, a wife and a sister. As the book moves forward, her surrounding catches up with her, and what could have continued as an escapade, slowly turned into conscience clearing. She takes advantage of her proximity to her sister to visit her after so many years, to relive with her some of her childhood dreams, she visits her daughter whose decisions dragged her away form her mother.

Though at times her words seem childish – I’m going to meet up with the only man whom I ever loved, she tells her daughter – there is too much spur-of-the-moment rebellion in her, following that distant call from Dario, for her words to be taken seriously. Internally, she rebels against this motherly status that stuck to her, without her knowing it:

Nourrir, soigner, consoler, comprendre, pardonner [Feed, care, comfort, understand, forgive]

As we get closer to the second part of the book, the narrator wonders if her monologue would have been different -indeed if it would have even existed- had she been a man? The question is posed without too much moralizing writing following it, and I’m glad for that, because I suppose Olmi trusts the reader enough to arrive at his/her own answer to this question.

Like I said in the beginning, the writing quickly grabbed my unfocused interest as I wasn’t too content reading about Emilie’s arrangements for her wedding anniversary, but its fast pace kept me hooked well until the early part of the second half of the book. This fast-paced writing somehow obliterates the stereotypes associated with genre writing, and though I expected to drudge through a book about love, I felt closer to it than I did to the office life partially portrayed by de Vigan.

Before I conclude with my recommended label for Le Premier Amour, I must note the shock I received when I found out that Marc, Emilie’s husband, is a taxi driver. I have no idea why I pictured in my mind a bourgeois family enjoying every now and then mid-level luxuries. I suppose I associated, early on, the reckless behavior of abandoning one’s family to follow one’s first love, as something a bourgeois character might indulge in. I was very happy to discover that such was not the case.

Sous Le Soleil de Satan, Georges Bernanos

Standard

As far as I know, this book is no longer available in English; if it is, Amazon prices it in the hundreds of dollars, and I don’t think it’s worth that much. The French original version is freely available here

I can’t remember how it was that I came to know of Bernanos except that he was mentioned in several online articles as being one of those excellent writers who are now forgotten. I had no idea that he was a Catholic so that while I was reading the excerpt on the back cover I thought that I will be reading something akin to The Lord of The Rings, a battle between manifest good and evil. I was wrong.

Bernanos said that he wasn’t a Catholic writer but a Catholic writing books, and I hope this will bring back the readers who might have mistaken the title for being a dogmatic pamphlet. It is not, and Bernanos himself was not a theologian, nor dare I say was he interested in theology per se. This makes the book even more worthy to be reviewed, for this was the first work of a regular man, impressed by the ideas of his age, politically engaged yet still an average father and husband.

The book is split into a prologue and two parts, though the prologue is a hefty one and I wonder if such a construction is due to rookie’s mistake or whether it was setup on purpose. The prologue introduces us to Germaine Malorthy, fondly referred to as Mouchette, a 16-year old who collapses one day in front of her mother as the early symptoms of her pregnancy are revealed. This is how Bernanos introduces to us the enamored Mouchette (all the translation is mine, a hell of a job!)

À seize ans, elle savait aimer (non point rêver d’amour, qui n’est qu’un jeu de société)… Elle savait aimer, c’est-à-dire qu’elle nourrissait en elle, comme un beau fruit mûrissant, la curiosité du plaisir et du risque, la confiance intrépide de celles qui jouent toute leur chance en un coup, affrontent un monde inconnu, recommencent à chaque génération l’histoire du vieil univers.

At sixteen, she knew how to love (not so much dream of love which is but a parlor game)… She knew how to love, that is to say she nurtured in her being, like a ripening fruit, the curiosity of pleasure and of risk-taking, the intrepid confidence of those who gamble their lot in one shot, confront an unknown world, and repeat with every generation the age old story of the universe.

The fingers are pointed at the Marquis de Cadignan, a known womanizer. In the ensuing rage between the Malorthys as to the proper action to be taken, Mouchette takes a bold step and confronts her lover who refuses to assume his responsibility. Realizing the futility of this relation, Mouchette kills the Marquis, attempts to peg her pregnancy on another lover, and a month later delivers a stillborn. I’m not sure why Bernanos elaborated so much on the above tragedy; only Mouchette’s character survives the coming events.

Part one of the book opens up on a very sophisticated discussion between two abbots: Menou-Segrais, the dean of the Campagne village, superior of Father Donissan, the main character of the novel, and Abbot Damange.The ambiance is calm, poised and quite distant from the flare ups at the Malorthys:

De tous les embarras de l’âge, l’expérience n’est pas le moindre, et je voudrais que la prudence dont vous parlez n’eut jamais grandi aux dépens de la fermeté

Of all the embarrassment brought on by old age, experience is not the least of which, and I should want that prudence, of which you refer, ought never to have grown at the expense of firmness

Father Donissan is talked of as being clumsy, of limited education, more zealous than wise, ready to work but always botching things up and lacking the eloquence of his superior when celebrating mass. Father Donissan is aware of his shortcomings and in a very elliptical conversation with his superior suggests that a convent might be a better place for him. This is the first episode of a series of doubts and insecurities that will fail to leave Father Donissan in peace until the very end of the novel. Thrusting his disciple forward through the good parish work that is needed in Campagne, Abbot Menou-Segrais concludes his preaching to Donissan with the below:

Alors, la prudence humaine n’est que pièges et folies. La Sainteté! s’écria le vieux prêtre d’une voix profonde, en prononçant ce mot devant vous, pour vous seul, je sais le mal que je vous fait!

Therefore, human prudence is but traps and follies. Holiness! cried the old priest in a deep voice, in pronouncing this word before you, for you alone, I know of the pain I will cause you!

This is a most marvelous sentence to me, because it defies conventional wisdom, and could only be uttered by a religious person. It opens up the human spirit to exceed Aristotle’s limiting prudence and to thrust himself into the unreasonable, into faith itself.

The essence of the book is here for holiness without wisdom is but folly, and the Christian faith, as our dear Donissan will find out, is rooted in love not performance. In a very 19th construction, the word holiness acts as a reinvigorating elixir for Father Donissan and he sets himself to work filling up the gaps in his education, improving his parish work, excelling in his visits to the faithfuls and for a while I wanted to believe that bubble will last, but unfortunately, the insecurities still linger, and to punish himself for doubting the grace of God, for thinking that he could have done better, should have done better, Father Donissan never gives up his self-inflicted mortification in a description that spans up pages and is of the most disturbing for readers sympathizing with Father Donissan.

There doesn’t seem to be a way out for Father Donissan’s insecurities: for they do not come about as he interacts with the outside world. To him, Satan does not reside in the pale temptations of the flesh, but traps the solitary faithful in his prayer, in his fasting and the deepest corners of his heart. That may be true and Bernanos, through fine traces here and there, sends his readers the message that Christianity is not the religion of the solitary, no matter how much the solitary soul would like to give more, do more and spread out the greatness of God. In fact, Father Donissan is tempted the most when he is face to face with his conscience, when indeed he is inactive, when his preaching and confessions and visits have come to an end. This understanding of Christian faith doesn’t surprise me form someone who wasn’t insensitive to his surrounding, and who was, on the contrary, even politically engaged.

IMG_20150104_162735

Another aspect of Christian faith was left out of Father Donissian’s reach and that is Christian love. For Father Donissan, towards the middle of the book, having overcome the presence of Satan during a long and dark journey to another village, receives a gift, the gift of a true believer, and that is to look past the sinful human flesh and penetrate into the depth of the soul of any human being. The good priest puts indeed that gift into use in his parish work and visits to the faithful. Sadly for him, his zeal consumes him and exceeds both his capacity to love and his wisdom.

Consequently, on his way back to his village, Father Donissan encounters Mouchette and is able to pierce through her, revealing her long-kept secret’s details and urges her to repent in an effort to vanquish Satan. There is no compassion nor understanding in his approach to her, just his obsession to vanquish Satan residing in her soul. Twice, Father Donissan attempts to rescue or save a soul but he does it in a showoff with Satan to vanquish him, he tests God, and Bernanos at the end of one Donissan’s messed up interventions, writes: ********SPOILER QUOTE ONLY********

Et ce signe ne lui sera pas refusé, car la foi qui transporte des montagnes peut bien ressusciter un mort… Mais Dieu ne se donne qu’à l’amour.

And this sign [from God] would have been given to him, as faith that moves mountains may as well resurrect the dead… But God offers himself to love.

Bernanos does not come out of this book as the enchanted Catholic standing by his clergy in their redemptive endeavors. On the contrary, when the priest fails in the matters of this tangible word, a man of science is standing right next to him to provide support for the poor devouts who placed too much faith in the works of another human being. If I remember my catechism correctly, that is hardly a Catholic message.

I will not add more to the plot of the story, and would like to note the writing of Bernanos, complicated and convoluted as it seemed, some passages I found myself referring back to them, and I think it is one of the books I tweeted the most quotes from.

Bernanos evokes the problematic Time for our Father Donissan frequently throughout the book; as one temptation is vanquished, in a matter of minutes another one sweeps in, as after Father Donissan has overcome the temptation of Satan in a long scene that spanned several pages, only to be doubting its occurrence phrases later:

Chaque objet reconnu, des habitudes reprises une à une, rendaient plus incertaine et plus vague la grande aventure de la nuit. Bien plus vite encore qu’il n’eût pensé, elle perdait ses détails et ses contours, reculait dans le rêve.

Each recognized object, habits repeated one after the other, made the great adventure of the night more uncertain and more vague. Faster than he could have fathomed, the night was losing its details and contours, retreating into a dream.

Or when he writes:

Souvenons-nous que Satan sait tirer parti d’une oraison trop longue, ou d’une mortification trop dure.

Remember that Satan can take advantage of too long a prayer, or of too hard a mortification
I hope that this book, if it will ever be picked up by any courageous reader of this blog, will be read as a serious piece of literature, and that the reader will not limit him or herself to the confines of Catholicism in interpreting this book. It’s true it’s got priests galore and temptation is the central theme, but there is more to that: the priests are a product of their (then) time: Donissan’s superior advises him to stay silent on his visions, his gift and his battles with Satan, for the “fashion of the time is towards neurology” and proceeds that the clergy itself would probably find the mentioning of Satan a ludicrous term. The setting and the themes are Catholic yes, but their treatment is Christian, and as the debut novel of a writer, it is very much worth one’s time.

Les Heures Souterraines (Underground Time), Delphine de Vigan

Standard

les-heures-souterraines

I picked up this book after a long period of erratic reading from my part: I had started several books that I was just unable to finish. I attribute my failure to the old-time setting of the stories: early 20th century Iceland, mid-century Japan, 1960s Rome… Consequently, I awaited with impatience the start of the Salon du Livre in Beyrouth, and promised myself to buy books with more modern themes, characters and settings.

And so I landed on Delphine de Vigan’s Les Heures Souterraines. I had seen a couple of Youtube interviews with her; her book No et Moi had received much praise, was translated and later turned into a movie. Her later novel Rien Ne S’oppose A La Nuit was well received and was rewarded with literary prizes

I pick up this book, check out the back cover and note the praise form Le Monde, L’Express, and the mysterious blurb that the book is the story of two wandering souls who might or might interact within a bustling city. Nice.

My pleasant surprise grew when I read that the main soul of our wandering souls, Mathilde, is a Marketing Assistant (my background), well placed within the company, working nicely alongside her boss, Jacques, who delegates her the planning of marketing studies, conducting meeting with key clients, and even allows to be present at upper management’s meetings.

All this will change when, one day, the poor soul makes the unthinkable of recommending to listen to the complaint of a client, against the wish of Jacques, who was looking to hastily dismissing the claims and wanted to wrap-up the meeting.

What follows is psychological torture that grows in magnitude and in creativity as Mathilde is gradually stripped from tasks she was undertaking for Jacques. Then follow the many bullet points of her job description which are handed over to other colleagues, who suddenly form the circle of Jacques’ assistants. Add to the loss of one’s missions the loss of those un-coded perks that some employees enjoy, a nice office location for example, access to certain printers, bathrooms, etc… Or the obscuring of the content and details of meetings and bi-lateral discussions. As anyone who has worked in an office knows, those perks and one-on-one meetings are sometimes as important to the well-being of the employee as are the salary and the financial compensations. They can contribute to an increase in the performance of the employees, as they form part of the psychological well-being the employee seeks within (especially) a large, impersonal enterprise.

Because she documents the tumbling of Mathilde as a result of psychological office torture, I gave the book 2 stars. Otherwise, I would have given it one star. It amazed me how much the writer failed in attracting me to the main character or to the events of the book, noting that I am not unfamiliar to this world, and that I was psychologically prepped to read a novel set in a time and place with which I could identify.

The problem, in my opinion, lies in the structure of the book. The book is not lengthy enough to magnify such a harmless mishap into the (almost epic) proportions given to it by de Vigan. The style is crude to the point that I associated it with the non-fiction writing of weekly magazines. There is too much listing of office and computer jargon, of an enumeration of tasks that add little to the story. It didn’t help my perception of the book as I plodded through it my knowing that de Vigan was a statistician at a company before focusing exclusively on writing. It seriously diminished any merit she had in the few touches she used to portray the realities of office life.

On the counterpart of Mathilde, is Thibault. Thibault for a couple of pages struggles with the idea of breaking up with his girlfriend and soon musters his courage and does it. Interspersed between the various episodes of Mathilde’s life, we drive through the streets of Paris with Thibault as he visits studios and apartments administering medical care to those who call the hospital’s emergency line. Like Mathilde, Thibault is given a backstory -of the most classical essence- which I found added little to the story or to its ending.

In the end, I do not think it is only the structure of the story itself that irritated me but the writing style of de Vigan. Normally, a plot I dislike is something I easily forgive a writer, but not to feel the beauty or the rhythm of the writing is something I cannot tolerate, and as such, I doubt I will give de Vigan a chance again.

Oh… Philippe Djian

Standard

IMG_20141226_210746~2

Yes, indeed. Another Djian. Why not. I blame Emma.

The book’s “ouverture” is similar to that of Vengences in its confusion of the characters who will populate it and their relation towards each other. I had to draw a mini tree of characters in the beginning to understand who is dating whom and who is the father of whom, and is our protagonist male or female (fortunately the French e muet always helps in separating genders) and to whom, our Michèle, our main character and narrator, was married. Or is she still?

This commotion of characters and the ensuing confusion to the reader is created, as always is the case, over dinner hosted by Michèle. Michèle was married to Richard for twenty years. They have a son Vincent, boyfriend of pregnant Agnès – impregnated by another- who is looking for an apartment in Paris to move in with Agnes and her future child.

The reader’s opinion is quickly formed as to who is the more genial, the more obnoxious, the more abusive, or the more dependent among the bunch, especially as Michèle is singled out as the more mature, the more stable and the more responsible among them.

But let’s back up a tad, to that first sentence of the book:

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue (I most definitely scraped my cheek)

This light injury of the cheek has nothing harmless about it; Michèle was raped, a couple of days before the dinner, and the reader only knows about it dozens of pages later. At this stage of the book, one has nothing but compassion towards Michèle: she decides to support her son financially in finding an apartment in Paris, even though she objects to him sticking to Agnès, she silently bares the trauma of the rape, not sharing it with her best friend and longtime business partner, Anna, her mother, at 70, takes up a lover half her age, and pretty soon her father is revealed to have been the murderer of 70 children in a Club Mickey!

As disturbing as the above might seem, there are light touches of humorous writing surrounding Michèle, and this humorous writing is revealed as we start discovering that Michèle and Robert have regular sex. Robert is Anna’s husband; Anna, the godmother of Vincent to boot. Michèle is quite candid in why she started sleeping with Robert: out of boredom, solitude and because he was there. The problem Robert is unaware of is the presence of an even closer Patrick, the neighbor of Michèle, having recently moved with his wife to their neighborhood, and towards whom Michèle is now developing a purely sexual attraction; an attraction that she is actively trying to sparkle within Patrick, whose wife is now on a pilgrimage trip to Lourdes! Add to this foreground an immature son and an insecure ex-husband constantly calling in and requesting support, and I start to laugh, even now.

That said, at times, the reader wonders if our narrator will get any kind of break, and in a succession of phrases Michèle moves from being busy seducing Patrick (maybe because his wife is a Lourdes pilgrim) to dealing with terribly tragic news that floor her. Yet, she gets up on her feet again and alone bears it all and still finds the strength to act again as the focal point to her dysfunctional surrounding.

I leave out several details, several twists and changes in order to get the readers of this review excited about buying this book and reading it. Though the rules of morality seem completely insignificant to her, still I’m drawn to Michèle and I completely sympathized with her, even when she is at her lowest, and she does have these decisions where I wished she wouldn’t take them, but she does.

Michèle, and incidentally the other women in this book are strong. Strong in the conventional sense of able to bear and in the modern sense of liberated, and consciously bearing the consequences of their independence. I admire their refusal of the status quo, sometimes imposed by too much solitude, but at the same time setting down their own boundaries. They lead their men; they make more money than they do, and they provide the security and the stability that these men are lacking. I wonder if it’s too much to say that it is reflective of a changed society; but at the very least, the well-defined microcosm in which the characters of Oh… evolve certainly has the traditional roles reversed.

Michèle’s body itself is a captivating literary creation. It bears injuries in the beginning and throughout the book, is split between three men who crave it, withstands violent sex, blackmail sex, and still provides enough support for the woman herself to be revealed as the source of support and dependency of men around her, after the gratification craze has abandoned them.

A highly recommended book.