Au Bonheur Des Ogres by Daniel Pennac

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English title: The Scapegoat

I liked this book. I really did. Why? Because I enjoyed it. I thoroughly did. Simple answer, but it isn’t to me. I’m always searching for “serious” books, books I want to learn something from, books that challenge my thinking, get me to ask questions.  But I don’t know why I fixate on this, since I know that I rarely (if ever) learn anything from literary fiction, and so I should remind myself that “learning” is not why I read fiction. If a book, or indeed any work of fiction, deals or addresses these general issues like spirituality, socialism, feminism, etc… whatever the complexity of the work, to me, the scope of the study will always remain narrow. The writer, or the director, or the composer, never really offer a thorough study or an alternative to the issue they discuss, but at best they might offer characters that symbolize the pro or the con, characters who might react differently or strangely under the circumstances set out in the work of fiction.

I don’t say to belittle works of fiction, on the contrary, but to reaffirm the limited study possibilities given the choses medium. What I get is a slice of society magnified to a point that engulfs me in a matter of pages and so I gradually find myself connecting or disconnecting from this microcosm laid out before me. And I love or hate or am warmed up or disgusted and this playing on emotions and feelings is what captivates me and always leaves me with the sensation that I exited a world of a different dimension once I near the end of a book. As grand as the scope of the study might be, a work of fiction remains to me the opinion of the writer, his wishful thinking, her vision or reactions towards circumstances, but not more. If I want to learn about a culture, or about a historical period, or about the evolution of a thought, I would consider a book of sociology, a historical study, a philosophical treatise, a political snapshot of a time period… And I know I would struggle with them, and they will rarely provide me any joy… until they incorporate the lives of real people, when their period studies start to borrow from literary techniques, when out of the blue a study of the Gulag becomes visible through the exchanged love letters of a prisoner and his wife (Orlando Figgs) or the daily actions and decisions of unknown Arabs in tumultuous times (Robert Fisk) whose names become familiar to me like those of Emma Bovary or Eugénie Grandet. In such works, I find again the joy of reading, for the sake of reading.

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Which brings me back to this little gem, Au Bonheur Des Ogres, whose author I knew of via Emma’s “Book Around The Corner”. This story is the first of a saga of 6 books, and I don’t normally fancy tying myself to a saga, but since this one was the first, and readily available to me, and I trust Emma’s recommendations, I thought what could go wrong…

This book is what I personally insist on fiction being: fictitious. Fictitious to the point I don’t have to worry or to question about how realistic the people or the events might be (thankfully, not in a science-fiction style though!) Belleville, where the action of the book takes place, is very much real. In a Magasin, constantly referred to as such, an old man is torn apart by an exploding bomb. This act is repeated and the main character is thus mildly suspected as being the perpetrator. I wonder had this book was published in this or the past decade if the author would have employed exploding bombs or would have resorted to other deadly means to stay away from any political insinuations, but I’m glad the book was published at a time where apparently such a consideration was not relevant.

But my feverish gulping of the pages of this story does not lie in the whodunnit aspect of the police investigation (although it exists but is quite weak as a denouement for the exploding in-store bombs), or in the slice of the working life, or the working mechanism of any modern institution that renders it in need of scapegoats, as the writer makes clear.

No, I was interested in the main character, Malaussène, and his strange surrounding: his family of two brothers and three sisters, his colleagues, his transvestite friend and his language, since he is the narrator as well. It’s a 284-page book with larger than normal typeface (my Folio at least) so it’s quite the fast read, and Pennac manages to create such a microcosm of characters in 5-7 page chapters. I couldn’t wait to read more about (and am looking forward to the consecutive books) sweet Clara and how her obsession with photography will develop, or what kind of quirky things Therese will think and say, what verbal and physical mischief will come out of little Jérémy, and how the relationship between Malaussène and his sister will develop, amidst more up-coming bizarre incidents, I’m quite sure, in a write style of the funniest.

I don’t think I ever quite readily and happily paused my reading to check out the definitions of the French slang dispersed here and there by Pennac and reread the paragraphs for the pure joy of it. And this is my own love affair with literature. This is what I personally “learn” from literature, and this is the pure pleasure it offers me.

I wonder how the book reads in translation, I suppose it will be a hard one to translate. It seems to me that there are two types of book that will never translate well: the seriously highbrow literary works and those of the everyday of slang, those that employ the living language one loves to hear daily (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

Therefore, I conclude this review with a list of French slang I learnt ( and I believe I still know the definitions of most of them) which I post to you in the hope that these words offer you as much a laugh as they gave me:

Papelard, costard, plumard, mastard, mouchard, loufiat, bicher, zieuter, finasser, schlinguer, roter, pieuter, marner, galoche, godasse, chiourme, mezigue

 

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

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Thank God for the Kindle, without it, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book. At the very least, it would have taken me 4 weeks to get it. She is more known for her New Yorker short stories, but Chilly Scenes of Winter is a novel. Her first, published in 1976.

It is the story of Charles whose girlfriend has left him. She left him to go back to her husband leaving Charles completely down. I can’t use any other word than down, because Beattie herself refrains, as much as possible, from employing adjectives or describing the state of her characters. I found that she employs descriptions when referring to the weather. And I loved her writing. After the first two pages (or the first dozen locations since I read it on the Kindle), I noticed how much sentences end with he says, she says, Sam says, Charles says.

 

“Hi,” Sam says to Elise, walking back into the living room.

“Hi,” Elise says. She does not move over on the sofa.

“Move over,” Sam says, sitting down next to her. “How’s school?” He says to Susan.

“I’m sick of it”

“Beats walking the streerts,” Sam says.

Sam, Charles’ only friend, and Elise, the friend of Charles’ sister, Susan, end up spending the night together. But this does not matter. Virtually, nothing outside of Charles’ brooding over Laura leaving him matters in this story, but I found, that because the writing is so stripped-down, and the others characters’ actions so insignificant, that I started to pay attention to their little details, like walking, or sitting down, or turning on the car. It feels like a long-camera shot in a movie, where the viewer cannot avert his/her eyes, and gradually realizes that this is what the movie is about.

Charles and Susan’s mother is suicidal, or so she seems, according to Charles. She tries to kill herself three times throughout this short book, and at every attempt, Charles reacts as calmly as possible, as if news of her attempted suicide have become so commonplace to him, they don’t induce any reaction from him.

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

“If you weren’t there I was going to kill myself, I’ve been in the bathtub, trying to get the pain to go away. The pain won’t go away.”

“What are you talking about? Where’s Pete?”

“Is the appendix on the left or the right side, Charles? I think that must be what it is.”

“Susan,” Charles says. He gives her the phone, walks away, still trying to undo the lid.

The little plot knots are laid out pretty early. When Charles drives his sister to check on their mother, he tells the latter “I despair of your ever acting normal again, but I do want you to be all right.” This sums pretty much how he feels about the people that cross his life, and maybe even about himself. Charles, despite his growing obsession with getting back Laura, acts as a stable rock to people around him

Sam, his friend who could have had a better future, and is instead selling ties and shirts at some store, finds himself suddenly unemployed and unable to afford rent. Charles offers him to stay at his place. His ex-girlfriend who ran away to California following her lover, thinking she is a lesbian, calls him to ask for a place to stay, and he offers her his place for a while. Without any resentment, without demanding anything in return, he is helpful towards others.

That said, Charles spends most of his time wallowing in sorrow over Laura leaving him. I was worried the growing references towards things Laura made or said or even baked might make Charles seem pathetic and the book a bit cheap with sentimentality, but on the contrary I felt that Beattie perfectly captured what it must feel for a guy to be heart-broken, painting pictures of everyday changes in a typically masculine fashion.

She was Laura’s friend. He wants to think that she knows all about the two of them, but Laura said that she never told anybody. He wishes she had; then he wouldn’t doubt, as he sometimes does, that it happened at all.

He rests his head against the foggy side window. He closes his eyes and imagines scenes that never took place: he and Laura went to the beach, and he she got sunburned and he rubbed Solarcaine on her back; Laura cooked a ten-course Chinese dinner for him, have him a surprise birthday party

Laura buys plants that are dying in the supermarkets – ones that have four or five leaves, marked down to nineteen cents, because she feels sorry for them. Couldn’t she feel sorry for him?

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I don’t remember saving so many quotes that reflect the inner state of a heartbroken man, as I did with this book. In a Paris Review interview, Beattie seems offended when the interviewer repeats to her that she was once known as the voice of a generation, and she finds this belittling to a writer. I’m glad she replied this way, because I for one am not an east coast guy who grew up in the late 70s, (Beattie’s generation apparently) and I was drawn to that book and couldn’t put it down. Apparently, she is capable of understanding what Lebanese men who lived through a civil war go through. Of course, this all sounds ridiculous and, in my opinion, applies to second-rate writers who rely on current events and newspaper clippings to produce their innumerable works.

While I was searching for this book, I stumbled on some review that described this book as extremely funny. I’m not sure if this a correct description it. I can understand the bizarrely humorous touches in the conversations between Pete, the husband of Charles’ mother and Charles. But that’s all what they are, to me, touches:

“If you ever want a good car wax, let me recommend Turtle Wax,” Pete says. “That’s really the stuff.”

“I’ll remember that,” Charles says.

“No you won’t” Pete says.

“Turtle Wax,” Charles repeats, not wanting to have to hear again that he doesn’t like Pete.

Yes, this might sound funny, but this is a conversation that was going in the parking of the hospital where Charles’ mother, Clara, is being kept under psychological and medical care following her suicide attempt. The relationship between Pete and Charles reflects the inversion of the roles where Charles seems the steady one, and Pete the drunkard who flies off to Chicago on business trips when his wife’s state is the most fragile, who calls at inappropriate times to tell Charles he bought a car, who refers to Charles’ mother as Mommy and who has no clue about taking care of her, and has to get the support of Charles (even if only a moral support) whenever something strikes Clara.

In conclusion, I loved the book. I will give it a 5-star rating on my Goodreads profile. It feels quite modern, in that the it rests on this question-to-be-answered: What will Charles do now that Laura has left him? It is such a trivial question in comparison to the psychological state of his mother who runs the risk of killing, or badly hurting herself, at any moment. What reassures us that nothing will happen to the mother is, weirdly, a 60-year old inefficient teenager, whose ridiculous presence acts as a safeguard against her destructive nature. The lack of any ornamental language makes the characters stand out for how they truly ought to be, even though we see them through the eyes of Charles.

Best European Fiction 2012

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I hesitated to buy this book because it had this ridiculous superlative “Best”. But then the cover auto-remedied its own deficiency by declaring that this collection is edited by Aleksandar Hemon with a preface by Nicole Krauss, both writers I have previously read and liked in The New Yorker.

I read this book in complete web2.0 seclusion: my smartphone was on airplane mode, I had no access to wifi, no access to any library or bookstore or human being to share my reading with, and so this book proved particularly difficult for me. I wonder if one is “permitted” when reading collections to skip some stories when nothing makes sense anymore…

The idea behind this collection is that Hemon selects one story from each European country, or more precisely from each European ethnicity. This is the reason why Spain, for example has 3 stories translated from Galician, Castilian and Catalan. Surprisingly, Italy has none. The stories are grouped according to 8 themes: love, desire, family, thought, art, home, work, evil. Apparently, special effort was given to translation, as Krauss notes it in the preface: there are writers and translators’ biographies and I appreciated that. When I had access to wifi again, I checked Dalkey Archive, the publishers of this collection, and it seems they specialize in publishing out of print books, writers that few publishers want to work with, and of course works in translation, precisely because American audience, publishers claim, are not too keen on translated works. Their website even has a growing page of interviews with contemporary writers, such as: David Markson, Cortazar, Kundera, etc…

Belgium

Under the category Love, I liked Patricia de Martelaere’s (Belgium: Dutch) My Hand is Exhausted, a story about a pure moment of love between a painter and her model, examining along the way painting, or perhaps the creative process, as impossible to separate from the emotions of the creator. I loved the character of Esther, a woman who endures her monotonous life while being fully conscious of its monotony.

Esther lets them talk and listens. She listens very carefully, but actually she’s not listening. Listening is a form of looking . Watching how a face changes when the lips form words.

She despises them because they come all the same. The only ones she doesn’t despise are the ones who don’t come.

Spain

This Strange Lucidity by Augustin Fernandez Paz (Spain: Galician) tells the story of the beginning and the end of a relationship told from the perspective of the guy’s dog. I had to re-read the first passage because I could not imagine that the main narrator would be a dog.

I’m not blaming him, routines end up sticking to the skin as if they were part of us. When I think about it, everything I do is a routine. If you could see me, you’d realize, after standing by his side for a few minutes, that I always grow impatient and start running up and down the pavement, without ever leaving the area between the corner shop and the greengrocer’s. Sniffing here and there, at tree trunks, lampposts, garbage corners, building walls.

Santiago Pajares’ (Spain: Castilian) Today is a story that I loved because it’s one of the few that I found quite funny. It deals, as its title tells, with the protagonist’s daily life, his one and a half relationship which at the start of the book has ended and the changes that happen with him at work, changes against which he has no saying. I think we all find ourselves in such a situation when we decide, today or tomorrow, that we will be changing something with out daily routine, something to keep the negative vibes away.

It’s not that I haven’t gotten laid in a year and a half, of course that’s not it. I’ve had sex with three women. I met all three in a bar – not in the same bar – and I asked all three if they wanted to get breakfast the next morning, but they all declined. They had to get to work. All three of them worked on Sunday.

I work for a technology company, a midsize company that’s been acquired by large corporation, so that even though I still work in the same office, and the majority of my colleagues are still around, our logo is different now.

Ireland

Desmond Hogan’s (Ireland: Irish) Kennedy left me quite disappointed. I was looking forward to the Irish stories in this collection, but this one felt bland, and talks about difficult neighborhoods, crimes, etc… The opening paragraph made me want to skip it, but I thought it would be unethical to do so: A nineteen-year-old youth is made to dig a shallow grave in waste ground beside railway tracks near Limerick bus station and then shot with an automatic pistol.

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Estonia

One of the stories I loved was Armin Koomagi’s Logisticians Anonymous. It’s funny and smart, and talks about an expert in logistics who is so efficient in his work and in reorganization of businesses that he once fired himself to improve efficiency. It’s quite a different take at the current corporate world obsessed with cost-cuttings and competitiveness and its implications on our own daily lives, us who populate the corporate world.

The order in which I laid down my clothes on my chair before going to bed, the precision with which I portioned out the toothpaste onto my brush each morning, likewise how precisely I could fold toilet paper into the right shape for wiping my bottom, in what order I placed groceries in my refrigerator, and the logical means by which I conjured the last drop our of the ketchup bottle – none of this earned me the faintest esteem in my wife’s eyes.

France & Norway

France was “represented” by Marie Darrieussecq, and this was another disappointment as the editor chose a sort of a preface she wrote for the catalog of photographer Jeurgen Teller’s exhibition. On the other hand, I was completely taken by Bjarte Breiteig’s Down There They Don’t Mourn. In this story a student at a vocational school takes an escape from his swimming class and together with a friend goes on destroying the content of the classrooms along with the students’ projects. The violence that is quite visible in his acts made me wonder why a Norwegian would write about violence and destruction until I read the author’s biography bit in the book, and recalled the massacre that Anders Breivik committed.

He slaps his hand against the kiln door and laughs when he sees me jump. He gropes his way along the far wall, opens the supplies cabinet, and shoves everything aside. The he climbs up onto the shelf. The door creaks shut after him, and for a few seconds I hear him rummage around in there, but then it goes quiet. I figure he’s just sitting there waiting for me to open the cabinet, and when I do, he’s going to let out a roar or throw something at me.

This story is one of the reasons why I liked this collection and even ordered the 2014 one. In a quick glimpse of 10 pages at most, one gets a feeling of a distant society and the issues that people have to deal with. Strangely, this reason is also why I find foreign literature difficult to read, since I sometimes am not familiar, except vaguely, with the socio-political construct of a certain country, or with the personal background of a particular writer.

Switzerland & Serbia

Another disappointment was Noelle Revaz’s (Switzerland: French) The Children. It’s the story of the children of a pension who, one day, are asked to gather in the yard and the headmistress informs them that she and her husband must leave to attend to a certain matter and will be back later during the day. She gives them advice on what to do during her absence, and the extends those advice to matters they might attend to at night in the case of them being late. Over time, the time the headmistress and her husband grows longer and the advice become of a different nature than simple chores. I though the story had amazing potential but towards the end it felt a bit moralizing and too literal for my taste.

Michael Stauffer’s (Switzerland: German) The Woman With The Stocks is another light story that I enjoyed because Lebanon was not affected by the financial crisis that hit the US and Europe and this short story provided another take on the effects of this crisis on normal people than the news did with their grim coverages and the political orientations their stories take.

Marija Knezevic’s Without Fear of Change is a nice, light story about career change, and changes in general in our lives, told from the perspective of an actress in a telenovela whose role in the soap opera goes into a series of changes as a result of the personal changes that go into the love lives of the producer of the show.

Netherlands

Sanneke Van Hassel’s Pearl is one of two disturbing stories in this anthology. It is the story of a woman who becomes pregnant against her wish and the changes this pregnancy brings to her daily life and to her relationship. The story disturbed me because it made me wonder what system of values do we still possess in this day and age? And incidentally what is this moral reference point that keeps but also reinforces our humanity.

I hunt through my old college books for heroic role models from literary history, becoming absorbed in confessions by Anne Sexton and Sylvia PLath. The head in the oven, tea towels under the kitchen door. Poets of dispair, stylizing for all they’re worth. Sometimes I read a story by Colette; She perseveres in love, despite the ragged edges, the insoluble tensions.

Finland

Passiontide by Maritta Lintunen is a story I enjoyed reading, because it was written without any complexities, no confusions with respect to time or characters and it deals with family. It is the story of the 70-year old narrator who opens the story lying on the ground, amidst cake ingredients. We later learn that she slipped on the ground while preparing food and baking desserts for her boy who will be visiting her during Easter. The story is told from this perspective, a helpless old lady, stuck to the ground, listening to the radio programs, and with no food nor liquid available except those that dropped to the floor when she slipped. Such a story would not be deemed credible in Lebanon: it is impossible, no matter where one lives, that one ends up spending 5 days on the floor of his/her own house without somebody calling or passing by or being worried of them not calling or passing by. But this is another contrast between societies, made stark through the power of short stories.

The first thing I saw was round, domed shapes: golden brown and yellow, smeared with egg whites and sprinkled with sanding sugar – dozens of little buns scattered before me. […] I took all of this in without understanding any of it, and then drifted off into a deep sleep once more. I woke up again, after an indeterminate period of time, to the same view.

Germany

The Case of M, by Clemens Meyer is a story inspired by true events of a pedophile. If I got it right, the pedophile’s actions are told by an inmate, a rapist but not a pedophile. What’s disturbing about it is the recounting of the stalking of this little 8-year old girl. It has such a narrow focus that the reader doesn’t have the space to breathe, and it felt quite plausible, before I knew it was a true story, that it made pedophile stories one hears about in the news more real because they could happen anywhere, in the blink of an eye.

You had enough time, mind you, you spent days watching her, imagining over and over what it must be like, how it must feel, but when you’ve done what you’re planning with her, what then? And where do you put her? You didn’t think of convincing her to keep quiet, like some pedophiles do, did you? No, you came straight out with the tape when she’d only been sitting on the sofa for two minutes.

CONCLUSION

All in all, I liked this collection. The stories weren’t all straightforward and easy to digest, but their advantage to me – and this was highlighted in the preface – is that they gave me a different take on the issues that are affecting Europe. By a different take, I mean different from the one I get reading newspapers and magazines and blogs. These stories present characters, they take the time to develop the characters and their surroundings, even though they are short stories, they showed me how ordinary people cope with the changing world. Packing the lives of ordinary people in short stories, offers the reader the much needed advantage of staying away from political colorings that frequently taint the news as reported by the media. Lives change independently of political strategies, partisan calculations or changes in economic orientations. The human being will find methods to cope, some are time-tested, some are unorthodox, some are criminal and some decide to just quit.