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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Les Fruits d’Or by Nathalie Sarraute

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Until February of this year, Les Fruits d’Or felt to me like Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein. Twice did I start with both books, only to find myself quickly dropping them and moving to a more familiar book. This time, though, I came prepared; quite prepared actually.
By chance, I stumbled upon Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Preface A Une Vie d’Ecrivain, freely available on ubu.com. I was vaguely familiar with Robbe-Grillet and his Nouveau Roman phenomenon but until I heard him defending himself and his Nouveau Roman and expounding on his thoughts on literature and writing, the Nouveau Roman and the shift in modern literature would still have remained intangible to me.

In those 21 audio clips, Robbe-Grillet sounds fiercely anti-Balzacien but he justifies himself: Europe was demolished after World War 2, it had to be rebuilt again, therefore, the Europeans had the chance of starting afresh; in literature, this meant a rejection of the classical structure of the novel: plot, characters, environment, but most notably the certitude of the omnipresent narrator, and the truthfulness of the dialogue.
Robbe-Grillet -it felt to me- believed he had a mission to compile and push forward the efforts and works of the Nouveaux Romanciers into a school (ironically, a very structuralist endeavor from someone like him) that should have its legitimate place in Literature and Cinema. I don’t think the other Romanciers (Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) saw the Nouveau Roman as he did; at least Sarraute didn’t but it seemed they all agreed to step out of the dualist form/content of literature, to get rid of perspectives, therefore of characters, to neutralize psychology and to pay a closer attention to the relationship of time/space and to explore non-linear action (if one could label what happens in these books as action)

I anticipated that I would start Les Fruits d’Or once I would be done with those clips, and therefore, I classify the above as my planned literary fortification against what Nathalie Sarraute might throw at me. But there is another aspect of my literary education which I would like to dwell upon; it is not planned -indeed cannot be planned- but it’s an accumulation of experiences and knowledge and I believe other readers will identify with it.

The past 2-3 years have forged in me a somewhat global understanding of modern art, of modern literature, cinema and music. Indeed things have changed a lot, though one could choose to disregard this transformation and maintain an attachment to ancient words or lines or sounds packaged in 21st century form. Much of modern art still eludes me, but I am beginning to appreciate the possibility of experimentation and I feel that, gradually, I’m able to make some sense out of it.

One is struck by the immense change that gradually came over Western Art strolling in a museum from room to room and coming in contact with the shocking, the strange, the objects, the details, the vague, the eerie… The familiarity of human shapes and figures, of landscapes well-defined within a known time and space, the meaning in the painting -if only a recognizable beginning and end- are no longer available to us.
Bit by bit, I no longer rejected discontinuity in a work of art; indeed, if I myself no longer recognize a continuous stream of events in my life, I cannot ask for it from the artist.

I assume that this all started with the death of God which I do not qualify as blasphemous; instead, I consider it liberated imagination, triggered questions, and opened possibilities. It behooves the modern thinker to answer such inquiries in an absence of meaning/structure, though I wonder if one can do more than doubting, or focusing on the fleeting, or finding certainty in repetition – a repetition of events, a mirroring of faces – as if modernity dealt a blow to the linear progression of History as a whole and focused on the micro-event magnified to provide substance to the thinker.

I suppose out of all of this humor emerged; of a different form, no doubt. It’s the humor of the cynics, perhaps, but it’s humor. Liberated from God, independent of a linear progression of time, yet facing the certainty of a linear progression of time, and therefore age, the modern artist revels in the absurdity of the minutiae and dresses juxtaposition in a some comical robe: Kafka, Bunuel, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute…

It is through the gate of modern humor that I decided to tackle Les Fruits d’Or. The first half of it is immensely funny. Because this is Sarraute writing, I don’t know when or where the dialogue is taking place and how many people are there in the book. At times it feels only 1 or 2, at times a gathering of invitees, and at others an infinity of generations…
Still, I assumed that this is a Parisian literary salon where invitees got together for some reason. Eminent among them are two art critics (maybe 3). Because I read it in French, I was able to spot (among the invitees) a man and a woman dialoguing in the opening pages: the woman was surprised at the indifference with which the man handed over a postal card of a Courbet painting of a dog’s head to his female companion, triggering a consternation on the face of the critic.
Because the woman found such an affront too harsh on the critic, she lends him a helping hand and asks him: “And, Les Fruits d’Or, how did you find it?”This last sentence is repeated infinitely throughout the book because [Sarraute’s] Les Fruits d’Or is this question and the implications this question triggers.

The woman is surprised by the reply of the critic: “Les Fruits d’Or, I found it to be good”. This scenario which could have ended in the first two pages, is repeated in various shapes and forms many times, sometimes recounted in its entirety, at others, fragments of it are thrown in paragraphs  where the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or is being defended or ridiculed.
In non-conventional, yet very humorous, dialogues and “actions”, we get a glimpse of the pretentious conformity that people in literary salons slip into in the presence of “eminent critics”.
Personally, this conformity wouldn’t have made much sense to me, had it not been for serendipity and Youtube. Recently, INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) released its video archives on Youtube, and searching for Robbe-Grillet, I found an episode from a Bernard Pivot show. The invitee was Robbe-Grillet against a threesome of conventional critics and I found it to be a gem: the reaction of the critics and their derision against Robbe-Grillet’s book when Pivot gave a a brief synopsis of it to the guest, and asks him: “Did I get it right?” “And Robbe-Grillet replies: “Yes, this is one way of looking at it”.

Of course Sarraute could not have been referring to that, because the book came decades before that episode, but it clearly demonstrates the attacks Les Nouveaux Romanciers were enduring from critics who, apparently (and as Robbe-Grillet fiercely declares it in that show, “They have not even read Joyce or Kafka or Faulkner”) had no idea of what those writers were writing, and who refused to admit of writers who did not maintain the Balzacienne vein.

But back to the book. Within the frame of this affected elegy and praise, there comes a simple-minded reader who challenges the eminent critics and their backup choruses to demonstrate to this ignorant -book in hand- where the genius lies of the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or lies. This unfolds funny episodes where the critic attempts to elude the challenge by ruse rather than reason, such as when the critic makes use of his divine right to confer a literary quality to an otherwise banal work of art by announcing that it was done on purpose, with the express knowledge and planning of the writer.

The book could be read as both: in the first of half of it, it is an attack on the critics of classic literature, which Sarraute refers to as: “this well-built, properly-oiled, old machine, untouchable and well-preserved”. It is also a reflection on the collective hallucination that accompanies the release of a work of art by an established artist and the wave of synchronized chorus from laypeople and critics alike that uplifts that work to the level of glorious masterpieces.
Conscious of but disregarding the classical focus on content, the writing is one of the most captivating in French literature. (And here I go, impersonating any character from Les Fruits d’Or – and I knew I would fall into that trap) She utilizes this classic French writing habit of successive adjectives or descriptive words to make fun of the classical critics themselves.

Sarraute -if I shouldn’t assume that she is intelligent – shows her support to Le Nouveau Roman – even if without adhering to it – through the posing of a very literary question towards the end of the book when the woman asks: “Le sujet… quelle importance? Simple pretexte.” [What is the importance of the subject? it’s only a pretext]
This has always been the position of the Nouveaux Romanciers regarding content and subject, and they take this from Flaubert who considered that Madame Bovary without the writing, without the form, would not be Madame Bovary, or it would be anybody’s Madame Bovary.
The reviewed book joins this stream of thought. In this book where nothing happens, somehow 160 pages are filled on the premise that someone is surprised that another liked a particular book. It’s amazing when I think of it in retrospect. Indeed, the subject completely disappears to reveal the excessiveness of the writer’s imagination, another typical position adopted by the Nouveaux Romanciers. (The films of Robbe-Grillet and Bunuel, thought not an adherent of the Nouveau Roman, reflect this subordination of content to style)

I waited no less than 5 years to read this book -I think I added it to my  Currently Reading list on Goodreads ever since I opened the account- and now I rank it among my favorite books of all time.

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

 

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.