Vengeances by Philippe Djian

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I had the pleasure of reading this one with Emma from Book Around The Corner and the fortune of actually meeting Emma and chatting with her about Vengeances over some (quite) hot beverages.

Vengeances left me with a sense of unease and I had the feeling that the ending was botched up and incidents quickly wrapped up, though the book is fairly short (< 200 pages) and so I suppose that a couple of additional pages wouldn’t have hurt anyone and would have cleared up some of the ambiguities of the book.

Ambiguity is what characterizes this book. The opening paragraph is a first-person narrative told by Marc, the main character of the book, whose son, Alexandre, apparently struck by something, shoots himself in the head in front of his father’s neighbors, days before Christmas. Before proceeding with the content of the book, its ambiguous character is reinforced by the use of the double perspective: first and third person narratives alternate in almost regular succession throughout the book. Of course, one notices the difference in tone between the heartfelt and subjective first-person narrative and the impartial and rather cold (in comparison) third-person narrative. At first, I was irritated by this, especially that neither brings anything additional to the events of the story, and either method could have been dispensed with, but then I realized that the third-person narrative is used to lend credibility to the first; after all, how much can one trust a storyteller who was under such a shock? This comforts me when I came to the last paragraph of the book which is told in the voice of Marc, and so I was able to assume that this is how things rightly ended.

Ambiguity also extends itself to the content of the book. We never know for certain why did Alexandre commit suicide. With such a spectacularly tragic start of the book, one assumes that the elucidation of such an act, or at the very least its effect on the father, the changes that it brings on the father, would take center stage of the book, that is not the case. The explicit alteration in Marc’s life is that his companion Elisabeth leaves him and he “adopts” a drunken young girl, Gloria, who throws up all over him in the metro.

In fact, that is what I like about the book. Few of the plot changes are predictable, yet without them being shocking to my taste. The relationship between Marc and Alexandre is faintly felt throughout the book and for a reason: Marc never really matured to be a father, he never managed to let go of his past’s little cocoon: a tripartite relationship involving Michel, his best friend, agent and promoter of his creations, and Anne, Michel’s wife, whom Marc screwed (Djian’s word) for over a year before she ended up marrying Michel. Anne and Michel offered Marc the sustainable chance of indulging in alcohol and drugs at will, of vacationing together and attending gallery exhibitions and other similar events.

This tripartite relationship is at the heart of the book, and Djian manages to bring in a sweet mix of subtlety and aggression in painting the characters and evoking the transformations in the plot. Starting with such an aggressive act as the suicide of the son, we are, page after page, led through the implicit complicity that ties Anne, Michel and Marc together to the point where Marc’s first wife felt completely left out from it. Gloria herself starts off as an aggressive character yet her destabilizing of the trio’s relationship is done quite imperceptibly, with insinuations rather than explicit words or actions. I loved how a character like her could destabilize their age-long relationship, and it seemed so logical in such a double-faced relationship, on the surface solid, its fibers loose: for the adults of the book, Anne, Michel and Marc, are not really adults. They are characterized by a scarring egoism. Their ethics are meager and can be summed up with “ne se laisser pas aller” (not to let go, not to be dragged into).

Writing this post helped me realize that there is more to this book then when I turned over the last page. Djian’s writing – strangely even the portrayal of adults – reminded me of Ann Beattie’s writing in Chilly Scenes of Winter. That said, Djian’s writing comes off as more colorful, more sarcastic – I would even risk sardonic, and smarter. I very much appreciated when he writes the following, when Marc, unbeknownst  to Gloria, is surprised by her presence in a shady area:

J’avais passé les dernières heures à m’interroger sur ce que j’avais vu, et j’avais très envie de lui en parler, mais j’avais peur de commettre une de ces maladresses qui peuvent à jamais ternir une vie, la flétrir, la ronger, j’avais peur de la faire fuir en la poussant dans ses retranchements et de perdre alors tout espoir de sauver quoi que ce soit

My translation: I had spent the last hours wondering about what I had seen, and I really wanted to tell her, but I was afraid to commit any of these blunders that may forever tarnish a life, make it fade, gnaw at it, I was afraid of scaring her, pushing her to the wall and then lose all hope of saving whatever is there to save

Emma informed me that Djian’s earlier writing was lighter in tone, and when I will read him again – because I will – I suppose I will be considering one of his first books.

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.