Les Heures Souterraines (Underground Time), Delphine de Vigan



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.


Sept Ans (Seven Years), Peter Stamm



Generally, I’m biased towards reading writers whose books are reviewed in the New York Review of Books. I like the way they analyze books, I like their selection of writers they target and, more often than not, they would review several works by the same writer. This was the case for Stamm, reviewed in 2011. Seven Years was included in this selection along with  On A Day Like This and Unformed Landscape. What I retained from that review is the style of Stamm, distant, minimalist, no frills. I can read that.

August 2014, the New Yorker follows suit and publish a fiction podcast read by Tim Parks of a short Stamm story, Sweet Dreams. I’m hooked: it’s a very modern story of a couple living in a city, each exhibiting, in my opinion, strong individual traits, and the change that happens in their relation towards each other.

Seven Years opens on Sonia standing in the middle of an art gallery, dreamy, elsewhere, looking outside. She is attending the exhibition of her older friend, Antje, who left her home in Marseille to exhibit in Munich. Narrating the story is Alex. I wondered about his relation to Sonia, and I needed quite some pages to have it confirmed that he is her husband, and that, Sophie, present at the exhibition looking at her mother, is their daughter.

As it seems to me common with Stamm, flashbacks intertwine with the present. Alex seizes the opportunity of Antje’s stay at their place to tell her the story of their relationship. Curiously, he starts with the memory of Iwona, a Polish student working illegally in Germany, with whom he hooked up.

Twenty years ago, they were a bunch of architecture students, Alex, Sonia, Ferdi, and Rudiger, each with his own idea of how to design buildings, how to arrange empty spaces, how to make use of light, form follows function or vice versa. Carelessly drifting through their pre-graduation days, the bunch, dares Alex to flirt with an insipid girl, Iwona. Not really accepting the challenge but feeling himself dragged into it, the night ends with Alex cuddling Iwona, but corrected when it comes to the actual act of sex.

Writing this review, I realize that Alex was presented -early on- as such: someone who is dragged into events, activities and decisions, without making them himself. He does try to benefit the most out of them, but until the very end of the book, he keeps on trying to exonerate himself from tangle that life throws at him.

Je m’étais accomodé de la situation (I had accustomed myself to the situation

Following their graduation, and looking for an internship at an architecture studio in Marseille, the ambitious and beautiful Sonia drags Alex with her where she is successful in landing an internship and in making Alex fall for her. Her internship is extended in Marseille and with Alex back to Munich, they decide to maintain their relationship. In Munich, out of boredom, Alex finds himself dragged into the bed of Iwona, who rarely, if ever, speaks, who has no apparent intellect, who cannot maintain conversations with Alex, yet who becomes frequently his resting center when life becomes tough on Alex.

I didn’t like Alex one bit. After he completes the first of his series of flashback to Antje, she looks at him horrified at his behavior with Iwona, and that was before he cheated on Sonia with her, and he tells her, the story isn’t over yet. I suppose I feel the same as Antje felt towards him. Cheating on Sonia is bad by itself, but Alex frequently expresses ideas and morals that are in extreme juxtaposition to his actions: he unreasonably suspects Sonia of cheating on him in Marseille, while he was with Iwona, he accuses Iwona of bigotry while his morals fail everytime he finds himself without Sonia around him, he tells his daughter not to think of men as destructive machines while, hours before, he was trying to deflower a devout Catholic because he felt he didn’t dominate her yet. At a particularly low moment of the book, Alex stops in front of a mirror at a bar where he was getting himself drunk and considers that he is still good-looking; aged, but still the looker. This particular scene forever alienated him from me.

Alex never uses tender words to describe his relationship with Sonia, even after their marriage, even after her forgiveness to his cheating; in fact, the vocabulary he mostly employs towards Sonia is of a sexual nature, whereas he reserves tender words to Iwona; Iwona, who was never able to understand his theories and grand ideas, who kept herself mute, silently waiting for his return, yet it was her who uttered: I love you, when he least expected it.

What I didn’t like about the book was how much it is anchored in the present. The location is Munich, the time is clearly established in relation to world events such as the fall of the Berlin wall or the economic crisis, and the characters are affected by those events. Adding to such clearly defined timeframe the love triangle and the book could have sunk into those cheap sentimental stories. But the book offers more to the reader: complex characters in minimalist writing.

The complexity of Alex is disorienting: even when he fails he genuinely regrets his failure and curses himself when he falls again. His failures are not due to some grand decision requested of him, but simply to commit to one person, to one action, to one idea, and in this he incredibly mirrors the average man, and it makes one pause to take a break from the reading. His desire to dominate Iwona is dependency masked. His oscillation towards the safe and warm, yet stagnant Iwona draws him away from the achiever, mature and adult Sonia; in a way, Iwona offers the security of childhood, which is evidently what Alex is seeking.

I would have liked to include quotes from the book to illustrate the simplicity of Stamm’s writing, but I fear my translation will not be representative of it.

Incidences, by Philippe Djian



This is the original cover of the book, for the paperback edition, which I prefer to the one I got, taken form the movie that was released in 2013.
I’ll start by saying that I wasted too much time waiting to read this book and circling around it, by reading its review and watching the movie based on it. I find myself frequently repeating this same pattern where I’m hastily tasting something and later deciding that I want to patiently savor it. The end result is that too much time is wasted waiting for the ideal situation, time or even setting.
Speaking of setting, I knew that I would be biased (positively) towards Incidences because it is set in the mountains. Because there is snow everywhere. Because it’s cold and the wind roars to fill up the silence of winter.
In such a setting, Marc, the main character of the book, is driving his Fiat 500 back home from a party laden with alcohol, an attractive young girl by his side, his student from the literature class he teaches.
In a sense, the first couple of pages are the story itself, and I’m thoroughly enjoying such a structure (blame Robbe-Grillet) in which my mind does not wander much to “hollywoodian” twists and turns, but enjoys the writing that repeatedly draws out thoughts, feelings and words from the characters. Once the characters are defined within a couple of locations, and interact among each other, it’s a real test for the writer to hold the attention of the reader, to keep him/her motivated to flip the pages.
The intrigue is created when one reads of a professor of literature sneaking into his own house to spend the night with a girl; the intrigue grows when the reader discovers that the professor does not wish to wake up his sister, Marianne, thereby drawing her attention to the remaining of his night. I’m glad Djian did not add surrounding neighbors to Marc and Marianne’s house (as he judiciously did in Oh…), I think this would have diluted the intensity of the story and I fear would have also tinted the events with a comic tone.
At daybreak, Marc wakes up to the realization that the girl sleeping next to him is dead. The solution that would least raise questions by his sister and by the police would be to dump her body in a ditch, up in the mountains. With time, the ditch becomes the focal point of the book, and Marc is drawn there on several occasions, and we the reader understands that Marc is no stranger to climbing up the mountain to find refuge on the edge of that deep fissure.
Having gotten rid of the body, and with no trace to indicate his relation with the girl, Marc proceeds to his work confident in the monotony of the events and people around him: his average students, the head of the literature department who may or may not be in a relation with Marianne, his sister whom he managed to dissuade from asking too many questions…
In this clearly set-up world, enters Miryam, the dead girl’s step-mother, towards whom Marc will let down his guards and will gradually grant her access to his world.
This is my third Djian. I can now safely say that there is a lot of Simenon in him. For starters, the tone adopted by the narrator closely resembles the one in the non-Maigret: though Marc is not the narrator, one feels as if he is the one telling the story; everything that happens is seen through Marc’s eyes. I find this technique to be less patronizing than the first person narrative: without tricking me into taking a side, with or against this “I”, it softens the characters to me, characters I normally wouldn’t sympathize with. I often found myself standing next to Marc; even when he is brooding on some problem he has with his students, for example, he notices his surrounding: the rabbits, the squirrels, the lake, the mountains, the wind, and the reflections varying with the intensity of daylight… Such writing brings him closer to the reader.
There is nothing which is revealed crudely to the reader. Even when the intrigues start to untangle, Djian does them in light touches, at the risk of alienating the reader – might-I-add . The analysis of why Marc is the way he is gradually built up as Marc heads outside of his classroom, into his apartment, as he encounters Marianne’s potential suitor, as he rejects the advances of his students, etc.

A word about the movie, to close this review. I think I was unjust to the movie, L’Amour est un Crime Parfait. It’s a stupid title (why add the word Amour) but I think, in retrospect, that the movie did succeed in emulating the narration itself. I think that this blurring between a narrating voice and Marc was well captured in the movie. Another autocorrection I would like to add is that casting Amalric as Marc seemed to be the right choice. Marc inadvertently becomes a flirt to his female students; it’s not because he is macho nor a heartbreaker. Accordingly, Amalric with his physical appearance and the vocal tone he adopted in the movie seemed to me to best embody the character of Marc .

Les Fruits d’Or by Nathalie Sarraute



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.

Vengeances by Philippe Djian



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.

Connais-moi toi-même


Connais-moi toi-même: Guerres, humour et franbaniaiseries by Samy Khayath


I never thought a Lebanese humorist would write a book, and for sure, I never assumed the book would be that good! The reason is I come from a generation that did not really know the likes of Samy Khayath and am stuck with subpar humorists, people who are so cheap on the stage, I wonder if they ever acquired some form of education or learning.

As it happens these days, the non-traditional book-finding procedure, somebody posted a link to a youtube video of Samy Khayath, and I went through his channel, and found a video of him signing his book in Beirut, two years ago. Luckily, there remained one or two copies in our bookstores and I was lucky to have one on that same afternoon.

Samy Khayath is part of a generation that has probably vanished from Lebanon. Francophile to the last bit, his pre-war representations demonstrated a love and a command of French that was equally appreciated by a large audience of Lebanese theater-goers, as high as around 30,000 spectators during the civil war! These days, one is lucky to stumble upon a play in French in some forgotten something-turned-theater in one of the quarters of Beirut where residents still hopelessly cling to that language.

Samy’s book was a joy to read. Written in a very literary French -some words gave me a hard time with a couple of dictionaries, yet boosted my Scrabble-playing skills- frequently in sentences that seem never to end, therefore, giving the reader the physical sensation of catching his own breath. Probably as a collateral damage, some of these figures of speech when directed towards himself bordered on vanity and self-grandeur, as in when he refers to himself as one invested with some religious mission to make people laugh.

I would understand why someone of his caliber would repeatedly employ such imagery. For one thing, here is a guy who never tired over a career of 40 years to remain faithful to his audience in being present yearly on the stage and making them (intelligently) laugh all throughout the years of war, with no support safe the loyal attendance of his spectators. For another, before the war and even after it, no explicit recognition came from the Lebanese state as a reward for his career, no serious prize of the sort exists in this country, no books or journals or reviews on Lebanese theater. I suppose the only recognition one gets is from the reviews of some newspapers or magazines in the cultural section.

Samy Khayath was famous for his physical energy on the stage, for making pranks on the audience itself whereby the play would halt because of some on-stage quarrel between the actors, or some fake props’ incident, for his special effects and magical tricks which mesmerized the audience at that time, for his parody songs boldly caricaturing Lebanese and world political figures, for his attention to details in designing brochures and advertisements for his plays, and last but not least, for his clever puns, and example of which, I reproduce at the end of this post (unfortunately in French, and I do not dare translate it for fear of massacring it).

I should have imagined that such an acclaim should be everlasting, alas, if things do not come to an end, they radically change. The Lebanese society itself following the hemorrhage of a good portion of the population towards other countries changed, the entertainment scene obeyed other rules, francophone adherence no longer commanded such attraction on the population, and this invariably reflected on the increasingly shorter-run spectacles, and smaller audiences attending Samy’s plays. The decline in the interest showed by the spectators towards his plays is one that is so transparently laid out in the book that I couldn’t but feel sadness towards the book’s main character. Nevertheless, I was much in respect for him, painting himself in such a light in his glorious days yet faithfully able to describe this anti-climax with such clarity.

In the absence of any moral or legal guiding principle, several of his sketches have been plagiarized, or have served as “inspiration” for other comedians or writers, and I could not retain my shock at some of the sketches or puns that I see everyday reproduced quite liberally on Lebanese television, not the least of which being his sketch about our first names that people automatically use to categorize their holder into a religion, religious sect and even a certain locality.

For my part, I was astonished with how much cultural life strived in this country during its darkest hours. That people should drive under shells to attend a 2-hour play is a remarkable will for survival. Similarly, I admire the drive and commitment that the actors and the technical staff displayed in making every written script a reality. I was surprised by our own level of education, which had to be of some respectable level to appreciate the subtle jokes and cultural references Samy always made, in French nonetheless! I also admired the courage and support assumed by Christian orders in offering Samy the theater and the logistics he requested, at a time when, supposedly, the  Christian part of the country suffered under a reputation of isolationism, imperialism and backwards-thinking.

I will be looking over that book again, something I never do for non-fiction books; but the writing, probably because it is autobiographical, has such a literary force that I would recommend it, even to non-Lebanese who delight in experiencing the refined beauty of the French language.

As promised, I faithfully, reproduce the witty pun of the title Samy Khayath chose for his play, “Salam…use”

(note: at the time of the play, a time of great discordance in the country, the Prime Minister of Lebnese was Saeb Salam, Salam meaning peace)

En ce-temps-là, il n’y avait pas de place pour l’analyse lucide et sereine de évènements. Seule l’histoire dira qui avait raison et qui avait tort. En ce temps-là, j’étais toujours habité par mon rôle de témoin de son époque. En ce temps-là, il me tardait de raconter de façon vivante tout ce que mon pays a connu comme rebondissements au cours de cette année. Je me mets de suite à écrire un nouveau spectacle. Inspiré par l’atmosphère politique ambiante, je lui donne pour nom “Salam…use”. D’une part, le président du Conseil, fort de la légitimité populaire et institutionnelle qui l’a consacré, “use” de son autorité pour gérer le pays, d’autre part, il me semble, à moi humoriste, que par sa superbe et son goût accentué du panache, “ça l’amuse”. En fait, j’ai adopté ce titre définitif lorsque je me suis assuré de la situation stable de Saeb Salam. Auparavant, lorsque ce dernier avait entamé la procédure de formation du cabinet et que tout semblait facile pour lui, le titre de mon show était “Salam…beau” avec la permission de Flaubert. Mais lorsqu’il échoua dans cette première tentative, cela devait: “Salam…aigri”. Puis des scandales éclatèrent et je change à nouveau la dénomination en “Salam…aux roses” qui prend sa double signification si on fait la liaison en prononçant ainsi le titre: “Salam morose”. Mais Saeb bey a pu faire taire ses détracteurs et ce fut “Salam…mate”, avec un clin d’oeil au salut oriental “salamâtt” qui peut avoir une connotation péjorative de taquinerie dans le genre “à bon entendeur salut!” Enfin, tout s’est tassé pour le grand manitou de la République et “Salam…use” s’est imposé. Il n’empêche que la hantise d’une chute du cabinet me tracassait. Si une situation aussi grave survenait, j’aurais recours à un accent aigu et le titre sera: “Salam…usé”, un jeu de mot qui conserve toute sa saveur dans les deux sens du terme. Mais tout s’est bien passé et le nom définitif fut adopté. Je l’annonce à mes amis et à la presse en signalant que je me suis tiré d’une situation bien “salambiquée”.

Cover Her Face / Maigret Tend un Piège



I bundled these crime stories together because I did not enjoy either.

I got Cover Her Face by P.D. James for a bargain of 3.99 Euros in Frankfurt on my visit there. It’s a Faber Firsts edition; apparently, they are reissuing the first works of several authors to celebrate Faber’s eightieth birthday. This also was my first P.D. James, and most probably my last.

The book is not boring or anything, but it did not interest me one bit. At the time, I was also listening to an Agatha Christie, The Body in the LIbrary, an audiobook read by Stephanie Cole. Because I have gulped so many Christies in my youth, I have a natural tendency to compare similar works to hers, and more often than not, they usually fall short. Additionally, the audiobook, if read by a professional, opens up a different experience for us, especially us who are not native English speakers, and one gets the opportunity of sensing the subtle variations among characters through the vocal performance of the reader.

I suppose all these factors contributed to my indifference towards Cover Her Face. The story is quite simple: at a fête in St. Cedd’s Church, a yearly event, the new maid of the family who usually organizes the fête, the Martingales, is found murdered. Early in the book, we are told how the new parlour maid has been hired as a nice gesture from Mrs. Martingale, even though with time passing by she proved to be not the smoothest helping hand to deal with… The subtle interactions among the family members and their friends were the interesting part (for me) in the book. What I disliked was Inspector Dalgliesh himself, and his procedures, if he has procedures. I couldn’t frame the guy: was he indifferent? was he someone focused on the police procedures rather on the psychology of the people? Was he a combination of both?

I suppose P.D. James further developed the character of her inspector but for now; I had the same feeling with Wallander when I read another first Mankell. I suppose if I lay my hands on an audiobook rendition of one of her books, I might give her another chance.

In Maigret Tend un Piège (Maigret Sets a Trap), I felt that Simenon decided this time to focus on the working environment of Maigret rather than on his abilities to identify with the victims and the suspects. Having read his biography by Assouline, I discovered that actual detectives found his books rather funny and quite far from the realities of real police work.

Because of that, this story departs from several fixtures of previous Maigret stories. For instance, this is one of the few times where the weather in the story is nice: sunny, no rain, no fog, no overcoat under which Maigret must cover himself… 

Another difference to other Maigrets is that, for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, Maigret finds himself in front of a serial killer. The story has some similarities to Jack The Ripper’s, though of course it is not set in Whitehall but in Montmartre. In the narrow streets and alleys of Montmartre women are either murdered or aggressed with the intention of murder. The trap that Maigret sets takes the form of a policewoman who is supposed to lure the murder into aggressing her right on time for the police to capture him. His scheme fails, yet sets him on another hypothesis that he explores to its limits. One of the few times where Maigret actually employs the police in his investigations to something more substantial than stakeouts and information gathering

Consequently, we find ourselves in front of a SuperMaigret: he barely sleeps, turns the circle of action where the crimes are happening or might happen into an artificial enclosure, turns himself into a one-man-show central command, is quite aware of the press and manipulates it to his own advantage, all the while managing to evade the inquisitive questions of the Juge Coméliau who is taking heat from his superior.

The police procedures of Maigret’s investigations have never been Simenon’s forte, and because Maigret has an indifference towards his superiors, one usually takes them more in humor than in seriousness. The real interest comes to us when the suspect is apprehended thereby revealing his psychology, his past, and his working environment; I was more looking forward to when Maigret returns to the atelier of the suspect than to when he returns home or to his office.

Because the book has an air of solving a serial killer mystery, it takes the form of a whodunnit, and here too I found myself waiting for the page before the last to have the identity of the murderer revealed. The book was made into a movie starring Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot. Unfortunately, the movie has nothing to do with the book. I never liked Jean Gabin as Maigret: I found him too loquacious to be a Maigret. The movie also introduced a relationship between two characters, probably to throw us off, that was not even in the book. One final detail I like to mention about the movie, because I suppose this must have irritated Simenon: it rains over Jean Gabin in the ending scene when he walks out to the streets, having solved the mystery. Simenon was, at a moment in his life, attempting to react against his publishers and the press who were requesting the typically Simonian “atmosphere” of rain and fog and cold, and I was very much surprised to find it there at the last scene of the movie.