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.

Is Paul Auster worth your time?

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Review of Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies

This is my second Auster, the first was “Travels in the Scriptorium”Both works I have “read” as audiobooks while taking interminable journeys around the country. The journeys themselves were less taxing than the books.
The reason I checked both is because of -and I’m not ashamed to admit it- the publicity this guy gets!

“The Brooklyn Follies”, written in the first person narrative form, is about an ex-insurance salesman, Nathan Wood, well into his 60s, who survives cancer and returns back to his native Brooklyn (Auster’s perpetual home). Does this return symbolize or mean anything? No. Do we get to feel Brooklyn? No.

Serendipity brings him in contact with his nephew; a would-have-been brilliant author / critic, had it not been for… Well we don’t really know. Tom Glass, Nathan Wood’s nephew (and yes, Nathan/Auster does mention this brilliant pun), foregoes his writing ambition for the “safe” job of a cab-driver.
Gradually, characters inhabit the story, effacing any potential interest it might spur, besides it being a family-reunion fiction.

It feels tedious, and possibly boring, to give an account of what happens along, but I can safely say that, in comparison with third-degree storytellers, no other writer I know of uses this “magical wand” so frequently, and liberally, to make things happen and work like Auster does: Love develops, people are reunited, oppressed freed, money distributed to those in-need, people cured… So much, that at the end of the story, I am impatiently waiting for: “And they lived happily ever after”

In all fairness, real life is real life; monotonous, uneventful, duplicate acquaintances tending towards normality… and it is about this ever-flow with its stubborn perturbations, here and there, that Auster writes. But he could have done it with style, with some depth, with something original, something different, than the everyday banter we engage in.

Throughout the book, a couple of stories are told about Poe, Thoreau, and Kafka, though they feel to me as”Did you know?” blurbs.

To the post’s question, my answer is No! This will definitely be my last Auster; there are other contemporary writers out there, some certainly in Brooklyn, who better deserve our time and support.

Habemus Papam

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Habemus Papam, latin for “We have a Pope” is Nanni Moretti’s last work and my first encounter with his.
It opens on an atmosphere of expectation appropriately registered in the grandeur of wide-angles. With this kind of movies the frame of discussion is delicate, not because the subject matter is inaccessible, but because of the context it carries, and all the symbolism it is laden with, tinting each person’s perspective in significantly varying manners.
Having said that, the scene that follows the procession of the marching cardinals admonishing, to a succession of saints’ names, to “pray for us”is quite funny and disturbing to me. I hope the comical part is universally shared, though it is the apparent futility of such recitals, that presages the succeeding events.
This extended scene of the cardinals in procession to the Conclave to elect the Pope is splendidly cinematographic; it is one of those techniques that perfectly befits movies. To assist to this “Saint X, pray for us”for one minute,  and then as an alternating echo fading in and out over a journalist’s commentary for around 4 minutes, is captivating and I hope would not elicit a “fhemna” or “uff” from my fellow compadres. I love such long, focused, sequences (wish I knew the technical term); though they do appear extended, in fact they feel compact, for they carry a lot; those static images compel us to think and ask questions in a matter of minutes, that, in a novel for instance, would require hundreds of pages and digressions, and so, I hope to see more of them in current films.
As anyone who was brought up in the Christian faith or in a Christian environment, at one point, we have certainly asked ourselves the purpose of such repetitions. For the annoyingly inquisitive, I am almost certain, such questions induce some skepticism. There are quite a few esoteric numbers in the Christian faith: 3, for obvious reasons, 5 (on average) the number of times one must repeat “Our Father” and “Ave Maria”after repenting, 7, the number of Churches one must visit on the Thursday of the Holy Week, 9, the Neuvaine, and, last, 10 times reciting “Ave Maria” for one part of the Rosary (imagine that a full one will require 50 “Ave Maria”!).
What adds humor to this scene, though it could pass unnoticed, is when the orator recites: “All the saints and the prophets”and the procession to echo in unison: “pray for us”and then the saints’ names are recited again! This is typical in a Catholic or a Catholic-affiliated mass or ceremony.
This persistence in prayer bothers me; it is a material ritualization of an abstraction. It solidifies a parasitic relation between an earthly institution and its mortal members; and I insist on this term, mortal, for the Church, in turning the faithfuls to parroting machinists, cares only about their mortal facet.
Why would a faithful incessantly, monotonously, and meaninglessly recite to a Creator whom the Church teaches is all ears and love for His creation? Why would a faithful invoke so many mediators, when the faithful has an open line with the Creator?
Should a Christian, or more precisely, a Catholic, go back to the Source, the Scriptures, one need only pray “Our Father”and that is it. It is clearly stated.
This interminable repetitiveness from a mass of people to the cries of an orator confirms a cultural colonialism Christendom is responsible of; it clearly reflects the pagan infiltrations to the Christian prayers, turned rituals, that helped spread the new religion, increase its base, establish a hierarchy, thereby metamorphosing what should have been a metaphysical religion into an earthly institution.  As such, it is not without intent that the opening scenes of the film unfold to a succession of wide-angle shots of the Vatican and the Conclave.
To conclude, I go back to the movie, to which I’m grateful for this digression in thought, without it being restricted to the initiated, “Habemus Papam” has its own twists,  is rich in symbolism (I think of the elected Pope in the train), does not take the cheap turn of parody or irony, and delivers a powerful message, accentuated, in my opinion, before the end credits.