L’Ardeur des Pierres, Céline Curiol

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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.

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Le Premier Amour, Véronique Olmi

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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

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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.

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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

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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.